Writer or Nurse? The Costs of an Untold Story

Amanda Anderson, BSN, RN, CCRN, works in critical care in New York City and is enrolled in the Hunter-Bellevue School of Nursing/Baruch College of Public Affairs dual master’s degree program in nursing administration and public administration. Her blog is called This Nurse Wonders.

via Wikimedia Commons

via Wikimedia Commons

I found myself getting annoyed with a dying cancer patient today. I don’t think this is an occurrence any honest nurse would deny, but when I could feel my blood pressure rise every time she dry-heaved, I knew it’d been a mistake to come to work this morning.

Not my proudest moment.

You see, I’ve felt my nursing self change of late, with an urge growing within me to slowly step back from the bedside, at least for a bit. Perhaps it’s school and the clarification of future goals forming in my mind, but clinical work has felt more like job-work, and this other work, this future work that largely centers on telling my nursing story, is becoming what I think of as calling-work.

Staring down at my poor patient, I realized I’d swung the balance of bedside work and calling-work too much to one side lately. I’ve been working—as a nurse—too much, and working—as a writer and a student—too little. After seven years of bedside nursing, and the joys and trials of per diem work, you’d think I’d know better and respect my limit on 12-hour work.

But my wallet calls out to me in a loud voice of alarm, drowning out the subtle, more compelling but also riskier voice of my story. I knew this morning, when I responded to a call for work, that I should stay home and pick up the pen that I’d left lying motionless since finals began two weeks ago. I knew I needed a solitary day to sit and reflect, write and muse. And I knew that the unpaid hours of writing would pay off far more than the hourly rate I’d receive for my shift in the hospital. Maybe not in money just yet, but definitely in peace . . .

I followed the voice of my bills, though, and clocked in at 7 am. It wasn’t even 11 by the time I was biting my tongue and taking deep breaths in the presence of my poor patient’s agony. How could I be so incredibly insensitive to such pain? Or, to reframe my own inner query: how could I neglect my own needs, and thus compromise my ability to compassionately tend to hers?

A few hours later, I found out that Maya Angelou had died. My social media feeds filled up with beautiful photos and eloquent quotes from her fully lived life. Her death didn’t pain me as that of Gabriel Garcia Marquez did last month, but I welcomed the window into her thoughts as a distraction from my own. It wasn’t until I ran across this quote of hers that I realized what was bothering me so much, what was making my shift so trying:

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Weeks of finals, thoughts and conversations, a busy social life, mounds of books and papers to read and grade—I had left my story, my calling-work cramped and unattended. Although I had felt it growing within me, even as my blog lay dormant, my Twitter silent, I kept stifling it with the busyness of the season. By ignoring it, I ended up suffocating the joy from my bedside work, my ability to process the pain around me, and my quest to care.

Bedside work is often easier than this work of the story. It is secure, known, directly profitable. It also doesn’t require much personal reflection, which days of writing certainly do. But as difficult as it is, it seems to make the most sense these days. James Pennebaker has been talking about the healing power of writing for decades. His research shows that people who write for just 15 minutes a day about traumatic or painful events in their lives have lower rates of depression and PTSD, coupled with higher rates of emotional recovery. Those participating in his studies, and in similar research, show better success in gaining employment after long periods of unemployment, healthier vital signs and lab results, and a greater general sense of peace.

I can attest to the truth of his findings. Days when I come home and stamp my stories into the mind of my writing self, I sleep easy and am ready for the next day of work—whichever the kind. Almost like the stretching of my legs on a long run, writing my stories hurts and heals simultaneously, keeping me at the center of my nursing self. Days when I respect my desire to move forward in the work of my story, exhausting its voice within me, are ones that bring a far greater sense of accomplishment than any paycheck thus received.

Left bottled up and unspoken, the stories writhe around inside me, much like a patient in pain. Without an avenue of escape, or a path to exposure, they aggravate. When I don’t let them shine in their uniqueness, I feel the truth of Angelou’s quote—agony that they may be lost to my memory, fallen into the gap between their occurrence and my penning along with the many others I’ve let go.

This afternoon, I ended up taking a much-needed lunch break, more for my mind than my stomach. I wrote a poem, and returned to my patient with a fresh set of eyes, ending my shift with care I was proud of. But next time my wallet pushes me, I’ll pause and think of her—while listening for the voice of my story, quietly calling me to stay home and work.
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About the Author:

I'm a nurse with a critical care background who works in administration in Manhattan. My blog is This Nurse Wonders. I also blog for Off the Charts and Healthcetera, and tweet as @ajandersonrn.


  1. Michele Wood RN February 14, 2015 at 11:38 am

    Stand in and speak your truth. This is the kind of caregiver I want. Aware, creative, processing her own humanness. Writing or any of the creative arts feed our spirits. I laud them as essential to radical self care. We needn’t be either or, but both.

    Offering writing circles or short prompted writes at nurses day inspired, challenged and informed participants. Enlist a local writer, someone on staff, a creative writing teacher form a local high school of college. Heal yourself and the caregivers at your place of work.

  2. Cilla Mitchell February 9, 2015 at 3:39 pm

    Clearly she does not have the calling. Time for a career change. The patient’s needs should always be held above the personal needs of the nurse. If the patient is taking second place, time to move on. The nurse is either burned out, dissatisfied, or has her priorities in the wrong place.

  3. Christine June 10, 2014 at 7:27 pm

    In all the noise about how nurses are supposed to be all of the time it is refreshing to read some honesty that other nurses recognise. I had many wonderful days at the bedside but also those days where I too found myself getting annoyed and irritable. As you mention it had little to do with the patient themselves but other issues in life. Last year I took a new nursing job that took me away from the bedside completely as I found the annoyances were starting to outweight the good. We must nurture ourselves in order to nurture others. Good for you and keep writing.

  4. Lois Gerber June 6, 2014 at 6:33 pm

    Nurses stories have universal themes that can be teaching tools for both health professionals and the general population. Honoring one’s self is one of them.

  5. Marianna Crane June 4, 2014 at 5:22 pm

    You have written a brave and honest essay about the conflict between working as a nurse and working as a writer. I believe we nurses need to write more about ourselves and what we do.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

    When I worked full time (before I retired and now enjoy the luxury of writing whenever I wish) I kept a journal. That journal had served and still does serve as a jump start to my stories–some I have published–and for a foundation for my memoir. This helped to ease, for me, that conflict of making time to “write.”

    Good luck to you in finding time to do what you love.

  6. Priscille Sibley June 4, 2014 at 9:12 am

    I’m a NICU nurse and a writer. (My first novel was published last year by HarperCollins.) Thank you for this piece. I feel blessed to be able to work as a nurse, but I am often conflicted about the time and emotional energy nursing takes away from my work as a writer.

  7. Terri Schmitt (@onlinenursing) June 4, 2014 at 9:05 am

    Beautifully written, honest, and a great example of the importance of caring for self. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Colleen Berding (@ColleenBerding) June 4, 2014 at 8:45 am

    I find the same release in poetry: a condensed version of multiple layers. I also find inspiration by rereading those intense bouts of writing.

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