“Once upon a time…”
Those three simple words probably conjure childhood memories of listening to your parents tell a tale of wonder or reading magical adventures in your favorite storybook. Beneath the enjoyment you derived from the stories, you likely learned valuable life lessons.
Storytelling doesn’t have to end in childhood. It’s now recognized as a powerful tool for driving home key points and connecting with others. As part of the COVID-19 pandemic, nurses have extraordinary stories that deserve to be told. By sharing their experiences, nurses can help process the emotions of these trying times, pass along lessons learned, and provide guidance as to how to anticipate (or at least mitigate) future crises.
Storytelling as tool
In nursing, stories in the form of “narratives” are being used in practical and more esoteric ways. For example, some organizations require nurses to submit narratives as part of a professional development program. These stories of how a nurse helped a patient or family give visibility to the work that the nurse does.
Narratives also can help nurses reflect. For example, the pandemic has led to a wide range of emotions, from fear, anger, and desperation to hope, relief, and even joy. These emotions can create psychological distress that might not be fully evident until the pandemic is over. Writing about the experiences may help nurses manage that distress.
Types of narratives
The work of Patricia Benner, PhD, RN, helped illustrate the importance of the personal narrative. Ditomassi and Smith have outlined the types of narratives that nurses might write, including the following:
Advocacy. These narratives showcase how you took action to improve care and protect patients.
Interdisciplinary teamwork. These can illustrate what to do when the team disagrees or show how the team can work together effectively.
Reflection. Narratives can help you make sense of a challenging situation by helping you to reflect on what you did and why you did it.
Error. Ditomassi and Smith say these frequently are the most challenging types of narratives a nurse might write, but can help you process an event and help avoid the same error occurring in the future.
What types of experiences are you having that might fit with these or other types of narratives?
Writing your story
Depending on your situation, you may not be able to write the narrative during this time of crisis. However, if you can jot down notes or record yourself talking about your experiences, you’ll have what you need for when you’re ready to write.
So how can you get started when you’re ready to write? Ditomassi and Smith say that the following questions can help:
• Why is this important to me?
• What were my concerns at the time?
• What was I thinking about when the event took place?
• What did I feel during and after the situation?
• What were key conversations I had with others?
You might want to keep in mind three key pieces of advice that Morgan gives for preparing a TED-like talk. Since most TED talks tell a story, the advice is applicable for an effective narrative:
1. Choose one idea. Try to pick something that has universal interest. Narrow the idea so that you can sum it up in a sentence.
2. Pick on story to go with the idea. You may have had several experiences related to your idea, but picking one helps streamline the story, making it easier for the reader to understand your point.
3. Ask one question. The narrative should answer a question of interest to the reader. For example, “How can we help families who can’t be with their loved ones who are seriously ill?”
Probably the most important task at hand is to write from your heart.
Sharing your story
You may be sharing your story as part of professional development requirements, but consider going further afield. You may choose to share your narrative with colleagues, families, or friends or on social media (be sure nothing in the narrative can identify patients or colleagues). You could also submit the narrative to be considered for the Nurse Viewpoints section of American Nurse Journal’s COVID-19 Resource Guide or submit it for publication. But whether you choose to share your story or not, you’ll likely benefit from having written it.
Benner P. From Novice to Expert: Excellence and Power in Clinical Nursing Practice, Commemorative Edition. Pearson; 2000.
Ditomassi M, Smith ME. Writing the nursing narrative. In: Saver C. Anatomy of Writing for Publication for Nurses, 3rd ed. Indianapolis: Sigma; 2017. 343-61.
Morgan N. How to prepare a 20-minute TED-like talk. Public Words. 2013.