GET THE FACTS RIGHT

English: Looking west from Staten Island Ferry...
English: Looking west from Staten Island Ferry at the former Jersey City Medical Center, now Beacon, Jersey City on a hazy afternoon during 5BBT. See also File:JCMC fr hblr Liberty Park jeh.jpg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My first job as a nurse was at the Jersey City Medical Center. I had just graduated from nursing school and had taken the NJ State Board of Nursing exam. Since I hadn’t heard the results as yet (snail mail in 1962) I signed my name with a GN meaning  “graduate nurse” rather than RN.

When the mailman delivered results, Gloria, my ol’ nursing school roommate, would be home to open her notification. She called my house and got my dad to open my letter. We had both passed! We could call ourselves registered nurses and put a black band on our white winged caps.

Gloria showed up on the fifteenth floor of the Jersey City Medical Center to tell me in person. We both screeched in joy. What did the patients and staff think? I don’t remember. And I don’t remember how many beds the JCMC had in the early ‘60s. And why would I need to know? Well, because it figures in the book I’m writing.

Judith Barrington, Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, cautions that “(I)t can be very embarrassing to get some very public fact wrong: the date Kennedy was shot; who played in the final at Wimbledon that year——. If these matters of public record figure in your story and you get them wrong, you will get dozens of letters telling you how sloppy your work is.” Well I would love dozens of letters or maybe in today’s communication world, dozens of emails but what I don’t want is so much negative criticism. Or to be accused of being a sloppy writer.

I recently bought a book, Jersey City Medical Center, which came out in 2004 and chronicles the conception, birth and life of the JCMC. For me, it brought back memories since I not only worked there but also lived three blocks away. After school, my best friend, Carol, and I used to roll down the grassy knoll outside the hospital. When we grew older and braver, maybe we were ten or eleven years old, we would sneak into the building, wandering up the staircases and peaking into the various patient floors watching the nurses go about their duties.

It was a magnificent hospital with elaborate decorations in the then popular Art Deco style. There were ten major high-rise buildings and I believe over 1,000 beds. But I may be wrong. So thanks to Google searches I was able to email the author, Leonard Vernon, who so graciously said he “would get back to me.”

I have to get my facts right.

BE GOOD TO YOUR READER

jumpy things

I took Stein with me to Monkey Joe’s and settled into a black leather vibrating chair in an area devoted to parents, grandparents and other responsible adults while the men’s semi-finals at Wimbledon played on one TV screen and some guys tossed a basketball on the other. My three grandsons scampered towards the inflated jumpy things and I focused on Stein.

Stein on Writing is another book I go to for a creative transfusion or craft update. I wouldn’t have known about Sol Stein if Marilyn, my writing friend, hadn’t warned me one day to be good to my reader. Keeping the reader curious, aroused, entertained, satisfied is the goal of good writing. Hmm, sounds like good advice for lovers as well. But hey we’re talking about writing here—as does Stein, including both fiction and non-fiction. His book is not about writing theory but “usable solutions—how to fix writing that is flawed, how to improve writing that is good, how to create interesting writing in the first place.” I can vouch that he delivers on those promises.

I was getting Stein’s take on editing, which is what I’m doing now with my own book when I’m not at Monkey Joe’s. In spite of the din around me, I devoured both chapters on revisions of fiction and non-fiction plus reread several of my favorite sections of Stein on Writing before I led three sweaty boys out of Monkey Joe’s.

Some advice on editing from Stein:

  • Is the opening scene sufficiently visual to be seen by the reader and provoke curiosity?
  • Do summarized areas lose the reader’s attention? If so, convert summarized material to scenes or shorten.
  • Is there occasional tension or suspenseful interest created by withholding information or asking a question?
  • Eliminate most adverbs and adjectives.
  • Cut clichés.
  • Replace or cut similes and metaphors that don’t work.
  • Vary the length of sentences.
  • Make every word count.
  • Fix major problems before beginning a front to back, page-by-page revision. (worth reading this section of his book for an explanation)

What else would you add to the list?

MY FAVORITE BOOKS ON WRITING

I go back every once in a while and reread the books that have always rewarded me with inspiration and encouragement. Especially now as I’m completing my book and can almost see a glimmer of light flickering at the end of the tunnel, I find I need that boost, the reassurance my work is not crap and I’m not totally delusional to think I can write.

Here are three books that jump-started my writing life and have a prominent place in my bookcase. Each time I revisit them I discover surprises I had missed before, remember old truisms now imbedded in my writing DNA and realize again the warm support as if each author is an old friend who knows me well, warts and all, and still believes I can succeed.

Natalie Goldberg. Wild Mind: Living the Writer’s Life was the first book I read about actually being a writer. I remember learning about the book in a short article in a woman’s magazine back in the ‘80’s. I went to Barbara’s Bookstore in Oak Park, Illinois, bought the book and immediately devoured it. Later I also bought Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg’s first book. But Wild Mind remains my first love. Goldberg tells the novice to lose control while writing, letting the wild mind take over, ignoring the “critic” or “editor” in one’s head. She details the life of a writer, gives permission to indulge in one’s passions for writing and gives exercises at the end of the chapters to prime the pump.

Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life showcases Lamott’s irreverent and awesome writing style while bringing the craft of writing into a comfort zone that anyone can attain. It’s one of the few books on writing that chokes me when I read some parts. And then she coins the phase, “shitty first draft,” which I have written plenty.  

Julia Cameron. The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity was my bible in the ‘90’s although I never could complete all the exercises she recommends doing to free oneself to be more creative. Although not a book centered on the writing process per se, it gave me permission to spend less time on housework and more time chasing after my muse. Cameron had a book signing in Borders Book store in White Flint Mall in Rockville, MD where a woman in the audience raised her hand. I was sure she was not a plant since she had a toddler by her side and a newborn in a carriage. She said Cameron’s book helped her get an article published. I went home and reread the book probably for the forth time but, alas, I still could not complete all those exercises.

Learning to write is an ongoing process. In future posts I will share other books that have taught and inspired me over the years.

On another note:

I was so happy to read on the AJN blog about two writing workshops for nurses.

Lastly, a plug to nurses who might live in or near New York City and who want to do more writing about their experiences, to develop a more sustainable writing practice. There’s a writing weekend for nurses cosponsored by the Center for Health Media and Policy at Hunter College and the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing coming up July 20–22, and it’s taught by some fantastic people. Also, we’d be remiss not to mention an upcoming weekend writing workshop (August 11–12) taught by AJN‘s clinical managing editor (and a marvelous scholar and poet) Karen Roush in Briarcliff, NY.

 

I hope more writing workshops open in the future for nurses in other locations around the country. But, in the meantime, check out the books I mentioned above and just start writing.

What are your favorite books on writing?

DEMISE OF THE PHYSICAL

Back in the early ‘80s when I ran a not-for-profit clinic on the west side of Chicago for older people before annual physicals were considered “nonspecific” or “inefficient” or “potentially harmful” [“Let’s (Not) Get Physicals” (Elisabeth Rosenthal, The New York Times, June 3, 2012)] I did a complete head to toe exam on each patient who registered, including vaginal exams on the women and rectal exams on the men.

I enjoyed the mechanization of the whole process. Take out your reflex hammer. Tap elbows, wrists, knees, and heels. Put it away. Take out your stethoscope. Listen to lungs, heart and bowel sounds. Put it away. Methodical and expedient. A whole hour was allotted to this first visit. Hard to believe in light of today’s harried health care system.

I remember telling myself to keep my facial expression bland. The slightest furrow on my brow shot a message to my patient—she found cancer or something equally horrible. As if the physical exam was an accurate barometer of health and well-being. As if I, the nurse practitioner, a.k.a health professional or primary care provider, had some secret connection to the Almighty and not only could find abnormalities but could predict life expectancy.

The physical seemed like a test or maybe a comparison of one older person to his/her peers. I can see Mr. Brown sitting at the edge of the exam table as I auscultated and percussed and said such things as “great lungs sounds” or “your heart beat is strong.” And after the exam I pronounced “you’re in great shape.” His smile radiating as he stepped down from the exam table probably thinking of himself in better shape than others his age. Then the common compliment: “That was the best exam I ever did get!”

Although I no longer practice as a nurse practitioner, I mourn the demise of the complete physical. Back thirty years ago when nurse practitioners were attempting to secure our identity as primary health care providers, the physical exam was a powerful tool signifying we could do what doctors did. And Medicare reimbursed this service. It was a vehicle to get us where we wanted to go—to become legitimate in the eyes of our clients and employers.

The physical, like my first car the gold Studebaker convertible my dad bought me that already was 12 years old, was serviceable but became too expensive and unreliable to keep forever.

But what a great ride.

My car was gold and in better shape.

WET YOUR LIPS

Linda Jay, Michele Murdock and I are all writers. We are all of a certain age. And we all want to have a professional photo for our future book jackets.

Enter Layne Sizemore, an accomplished photographer with patience, humor and appreciation of the older woman.

Linda’s post tells the story of the photo shoot session and the how she, a “natural comic,” made us laugh. All true.

Great post, Linda. Keep them coming!

Read Linda Jay’s “Headshots” post here.

24-Hour Woman

“What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.”

—Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I remember Sadie Rooney handing me a brown paper bag on my visit that autumn day in the early 90s. Her husband, Jim, a self-taught preacher, had died the month before. At first it seemed she wouldn’t have the strength to honor his wish to die at home. But on that day, Sadie was pleased with herself because she had cared for Jim up to the end. So when I reached into the bag and pulled out a mug and read the inscription out loud—24-Hour Woman—I figured Sadie was thanking me for being there for her. I was the 24-Hour Woman: the nurse practitioner orchestrating the journey towards the final curtain for Jim. And buoying up Sadie to face, head on, the whole dying business.

All these years I kept the mug. It came with me when we moved out of state—twice. Sat on my desk at each new job. A reminder of my nursing success. Or so I thought.

Godess of Memory

I had made notes of my visits to Jim and Sadie. Now as I write their story for my upcoming book, I am re-thinking Sadie. How resilient she turned out to be. She was there for her husband—night and day—quelling her own fears and insecurities. And at our last meeting, she told me of her plans to become a preacher.

Now with the passage of time, I see Sadie as the 24-Hour Woman. Thinking of her gave me the encouragement to take on new challenges as she had done. I had it all wrong.

MEETING GOALS

I’ve written about getting this book done so a draft will be finished by September first. (Post: Time To Get Serious). I’ve listed goals to be accomplished by the end of each month. I only have to tweak one story to meet my target for April and since there is one more day in April, I will get it done.

It’s difficult for me to do even a little bit of tweaking and not go back and revise over and over again. There will be time for editing when all the stories are written.

Another hard part for me is to follow my outline. I still find it surprising I was able to write an outline in the first place.

I remember reading Robin Hemley for the first time and laughing out loud. Was he writing about me?

“I am not one to write outlines. I hate outlines. I hate the idea of outlines. I’m one of these artsy types, who, if not relying solely on inspiration, at least tries to allow a book to proceed organically—– It basically means we don’t know what the hell we’re doing and it wouldn’t take us so long to finish a book if we wrote a simple outline.”*

Well I’ve spent five or seven years, depending how you count, avoiding outlines. Even though this is my first book and I don’t consider myself “artsy,” I say amen to Robin Hemley’s words.

I continue to plug away.

Two months down. Four to go.

*Hemley, Robin. “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer.” In Carolyn Forche & Philip Gerard., eds., Writing Creative Nonfiction. (Cincinnati: Story Press  2001), 57.

BEST TIME TO BE A WRITER

Seems that this is a great time to be a writer. At least that’s what I heard at the fifth annual Triangle Area Freelancers Nonfiction Writers Conference yesterday. I had attended the last three. Each year only gets better.

What I liked most was the conference was small enough to feel part of a friendly, local group and yet large enough to offer diversification of attendees and interests.

What I thought was important follows, in no special order:

Writing your creative nonfiction book:

  • Write the best book you can (although we all know this, it was repeated over and over)
  • Make sure facts are accurate
  • Spend money on a copy editor
  • Be able to concisely describe your book
  • Be able to concisely describe what makes you the right person to write this book

Networking and self-promotion:

  • Besides developing a platform by getting a blog and joining Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, use local media such as newspapers and magazines
  • Get interviews on local television and radio programs
  • “Blog rolls” now take the place of bookstore signings
  • It’s not all about you, plug other writers

I’m not sure I can accurately explain all the details and advances made in the self-publishing arena so I’m not even going to try. However, Writers’ Digest magazine devotes the May/June issue to e-publishing and ways traditional publishing is changing.

I intend to buy my copy tomorrow.

Write What You Are Afraid Of

I didn’t attend the 2011 Fall Conference in Asheville sponsored by the North Carolina Writers Network but I kept this description of one of the master classes: “If You’re Afraid to Write About It, You Probably Should Write About It”   

Often a writer’s breakthrough comes when he finally faces up to material he’s been avoiding. Maybe it’s too personal or too painful or maybe he assumes it just wouldn’t interest anyone else. Whatever the reason, we writers often overlook our own obvious strengths, dismissing the very things that are central to us. Consequently, we write around the edges of our lives or our characters’ lives, so that our stories are pale imitations of what they could be. They may be well-written, they may even be entertaining, but they lack heart. As a writing teacher, I spend a good bit of time helping students recognize and appreciate their own writerly landscapes. When a writer makes the shift to writing about a world he knows, embodied with places and characters that matter to him, the writing almost always comes alive.

Tommy Hays

I’m currently writing about making home visits to three men that shared the same life situation. They all had terminal cancer. I visited the men on the same day because of their geographical proximity. With little experience in working with dying patients at the time, I found the visits depressing. While there are many completed chapters in my book, I had ignored this trio up to now. What is it about these men that disturb me?

time to write
time to write

What do you avoid writing about?

Time To Get Serious

the time is nowI woke up one morning this past January and decided it was time to get serious about losing weight and finishing the book.

First of all, I have been carrying around ten extra pounds for years until they magically morphed into twenty extra pounds.

Second, over the past seven years I have written and rewritten my book of nursing stories. And I have written and rewritten the first chapter at least five times, not counting changing from past tense to present tense and back again. Furthermore, I hadn’t followed any of the many outlines I generated because I was constantly changing the structure of the book.

Why I decided that particular morning to stop procrastinating baffles me. However, I don’t intend to waste precious time analyzing why as long as I continue to make advancements.

What I have accomplished so far:

  • Engaged my friend and mentor, Carol Henderson, to monitor my progress and coach me to succeed. There is nothing like having to be accountable to someone.
  • Met my first month’s goal by writing three new stories.
  • Developed a working outline of the complete book, which I intend to follow.
  • Set a date for completing the draft: September 1, 2012.

By the way, I have lost ten pounds.

What is it you have been putting off?

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