What's a Writer in Residence with Nursing Studies?

Detail from Train to be a Nurse poster - Imperial War Museums website
Category: Writing

Since March I’ve had the pleasure to be residing at Edinburgh University, specifically as Leverhulme Writer in Residence with Nursing Studies. Edinburgh’s medical school has a distinguished history, but less well known is the fact that the university was the first in the UK to offer a nursing degree. As far as we can tell, it’s also the first institution to host an artist in residence whose specific focus is nursing.

There are residencies where the writer is free to just get on with whatever they were getting on with, only without the hellish encumbrances of their normal lives, and then there are residencies like mine that take the form of an unlikely blind date. Watercolourist in a steelworks. Choreographer in a post office. This time it’s me and 57,000 potential Scottish nurses getting together to see what we have in common.

What we should have in common is empathy – crucial to good writing and to good nursing. I’ve discovered that nurses also have a deep-dyed interest in the narratives and histories of their charges’ illnesses, the ‘what happened next’ of patient care. And they, unlike me, have a front row seat on some of the most powerful moments human life has to offer. Moments I’m busy wheedling out of them because we writers are shameless like that.

What I haven’t managed to work out is why nurses are not known as writers in the way that doctors are, with names as varied as Chekhov, Michael Crichton and Khaled Husseini having combined ministering to human bodies with writing about human lives. Are nurses too self-effacing? Too busy? Is it because of the traditional gender divide? I’m not sure. But with the exception of Christie Watson, who won last year’s Costa award for her first novel, nurses confine their published words to the occasional memoir, usually with nostalgic overtones of the Call the Midwife kind.

On the blog I set up to reflect the course of the residency, I put out a call for any nurses who were already writing or interested in starting to contact me. But answers had I none. So if you’re reading this and either are a nurse or know someone who might be interested in writing about their experiences, get in touch with me through the blog, because I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

In America things are different in that several anthologies of writings by nurses have been published, providing new perspectives on a profession buried in tired stereotypes. Like this from Cortney Davis’s poem What the Nurse Likes:

I like looking into patients’ ears

and seeing what they can never see.

It's like owning them.


I like patients’ honesty--they trust me with simple things:

They wake at night and count heartbeats.

They search for lumps.


I am also afraid.


Yes, I thought when I first read it, that feels true and human and fresh.  

The persistence of certain images of nursing in popular culture interests me, along with that binary division of fictional nurses into angels or uncaring she-devils. I’ll be giving a public talk called ‘Good Nurse, Bad Nurse’ on October 2nd on this theme – looking at how they have been portrayed in novels and on screen up to the present day and asking what part nurses might play in their own stereotyping. Come along. You don’t have to be a nurse.

Nicola White received a 2008/9 New Writers Award.

‘Good Nurse, Bad Nurse’ public talk at the Teviot Lecture Theatre, Doorway 5, Medical School, Teviot Place, Edinburgh. Tuesday October 2nd 2012 at 7pm. Read the Nurse Stories Blog at Nursing Writer