Last Friday I did the keynote address for Telling Nurses’ Stories, a narrative writing workshop for nurses through the Center for Health Media and Policy at Hunter College. Preparing for my “address” I spent time thinking about nursing and writing, particularly about the place of creative writing, all forms, in nursing and what it offers scholarly writers.
As a poet I have a deep respect for words, for how they are arranged on the page, for how a phrase, or sometimes just one word, can take our breath, spin our perspective around, or connect us to something deep and never spoken. I carry some of those phrases with me: Sylvia Plath in Elm – I have suffered the atrocity of sunsets, Mary Oliver in The Summer Day – Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life? and Spencer Reese in Portofino – you will know what I told you is true/when I said abandonment is beautiful.
As a scholarly writer I also have great respect and admiration for writing that communicates complex information in a clear and engaging way. And you can’t do that unless you’re able to work with words – like any skilled craftsperson becomes comfortable with their tools so a writer must be with words; the best ones to very specifically and accurately convey what you mean, how they fit in a sentence, how the sentence fits in the paragraph, how it all fits together to move the reader through an article.
So what does this have to do with creative writing? Because when you write creatively you play with words. You play with form and substance, you dismiss formulaic presentations and cliches and in so doing you begin to get a feel for how words work. You wrestle with the limitations of words and you discover their capacity to surprise us and open up unplanned possibilities for expression. You hear the rhythms created when words combine in phrases and sentences and paragraphs. You sense the flow when paragraphs move seamlessly from page to page.
And all of that carries over into your scholarly work – so you can create a research report or a literature review that keeps the reader engaged, that takes them gracefully from introduction to conclusion. The reader may not even be aware of how well written a piece is, in fact, when done well they won’t be aware of it – they will just leave the page with a sense of intellectual satisfaction. They will have a new awareness and curiosity about something that before they read your article, they may not have even known they were curious about. And that, fellow writer, is what scholars and poets alike strive for.