Madeleine Mysko, MA, RN, coordinator of AJN’s monthly Reflections column, is a poet, novelist, and graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars who has taught creative writing in Baltimore for many years.
Whenever I meet someone new who happens to be a nurse—in both clinical and social settings—I wait for the right moment to mention my work at AJN on the Reflections column. It’s not only that I’m proud of the column. It’s also that I’m forever on the lookout for that next submission—for a fresh, compelling story I just know is destined to shine (accompanied by a fabulous professional illustration) on the inside back page of AJN.
“I imagine you have a story or two to tell,” I’ll say to a nurse I’ve just met—which is the same thing I say, whenever I have the chance, to nurses I’ve known for years. I mean it sincerely; given the vantage point on humanity that our profession affords, I actually do believe that every nurse is carrying around material for a terrific story.
The response I usually get (along with a wry smile, the raising of eyebrows, or a short laugh) is, “Oh yes. I have stories.”
But then—even as I’m mentioning the Reflections author guidelines, even as I say warmly that we’re eager to read—I can sense the backing away.
“Sure,” the nurse will say. “I’ll check it out . . . but the thing is, I’m not exactly a writer.”
How to explain it?—how to explain that we aren’t so much looking for nurses who are good writers as we’re looking for essays well written by good nurses.
If you’re still with me in this scenario (and especially if you’re someone not exactly inclined to sit down before breakfast on your day off and pen a gem of an essay) maybe you could let me know what you think of this pitch:
I want to encourage more nurses (and, sometimes, former patients, or family members of nurses, or other health care workers who are not nurses, since many, but not all, Reflections essays are by nurses) to do what I know to be hard work—to sit down and actually reflect, to put into words that unforgettable encounter with an otherwise ordinary patient, or that conflict with a coworker that had a surprising resolution, or that lingering ambivalence about a nursing decision made months ago that keeps coming to mind.
I won’t pretend that our standards at AJN aren’t high, as we make plain in our guidelines (“Good writing is the main requirement”). But what does that really mean—“good writing”? For our purposes in this column, I’d say the writing is good if
- it isn’t satisfied to merely tell “about” an experience but rather, tries to reenter that experience.
- it describes a real place and the real people in it, letting these people talk to each other a bit, so the reader can overhear who they are and what they’re about.
- it isn’t intent on expressing an opinion or teaching a lesson, but rather allows a reader to watch things happen and draw her or his own conclusions.
- it’s clear, by the end, why the author has taken the time to write it all down.
Most good submissions aren’t immediately ready for publication. There may be problems with structure or focus. Sentences may need trimming and polishing. Sometimes there’s something one feels is missing from the story, something an editorial query might help the author put into words. Fortunately, at AJN we have excellent editors who can help with that.
If you have a Reflections you think you might like to write and submit, please read the short author guidelines, where you will also find links to essays we’ve published in the past and instructions on how to submit an essay for consideration. (Here’s the somewhat whimsical Reflections essay, “Swabbing Tubby,” in our current issue.)
You can also email your questions to me directly (about your ideas for an essay—but please don’t send the manuscript) and I’ll get back to you: email@example.com.
(Editor’s note: at the time this post was published, Reflections columns were all free; under current policy, they are usually no longer free, except for the two weeks or so after we write about them on this blog or elsewhere on social media. We’re sorry if you’ve clicked a link in an older post and found that purchase or subscription is required.)