Creative Writing as Part of An Online College Composition Class for Nurses: Creating Healthy Pathways

Concurrent Session 7

Brief Abstract

Bringing creative writing into a fully online, traditional general education curriculum at a single-purpose institutiuon was a challenge and a risk, but the benefits have been great. Getting students to understand that writing can take many formats and exist for many reasons has been a rewarding undertaking, despite the challenges. Students have reported greater engagement and satisfaction, and though we can't measure health, wellness,. and connection down the road when they are practicing nurses, it is hoped that they take the skills and habits learened in the course and the unit, and the excitement creative writing can generate, and go forth as healthier, happier, more connected individuals in their careers and personal lives.


I am a dedicated professor of English, currently teaching full time online to largely non traditional nursing college students. I have taught for twenty years total: I started out as a high school English teacher for grades 9-12 at a large, urban school, then went to teaching part time college classes when my sons were born. I love where I am now, at a wonderful, caring, high-quality institution of higher learning, fostering growth in students' writing and reading selves in an online environment.

Extended Abstract

In this session, I'd like to present the efforts and results of our most recent labor of love: revising our English curriculum to include creative writing. We are a small, independent, Ohio-based nursing college serving diverse populations. Because we are a single-purpose institution, we were able to undertake our curriculum revision with greater focus and clarity. After all, if all of our students are studying to be in the health care profession, many of our assignments could center around interests common to all students: health, the healthcare field, and wellness. 

Luckily, our accrediting body, ABHES, doesn't have general education guidelines or requirements that are too limiting; rather, they are largely open and accommodating to the needs of the institution. When I traced our curriculum design back to that open end, I felt a great sense of excitement. Prior to the curriculum overhaul, the 10-week quarterly course was comprised of mostly research-based writing. While APA-style research-based writing is indeed a skill we felt necessary to keep teaching, I wanted our students to understand some of writing's other and very valuable uses.

To that end, I designed the course with the health and wellness of the students in mind. First, I broke down the first composition course down into a four-week “Basics Bootcamp” where they learned or re-learned a strong foundation of sentence- and paragraph-level skills. Next, I kept an exisiting Narrative Essay, where students could exercise the important skill of writing and telling a well-told story, focusing on a moment in time where they knew the health care profession was “for” them. Next, I revised the Research Essay assignment to be smaller, and really reinforced basic skills.

Finally, I created from scratch a Creative Reflection unit with which to end the course. The drive behind this was one of concern for nurses’ health and wellness in the face of common burnout. It’s no secret: the healthcare profession is undoubtedly one of the most demanding professions, in all facets: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. In order to keep providing excellent care for your patients, I wanted students to understand that they must care for themselves. The saying “You can’t pour from an empty bucket” is an apt one, especially for those in caregiving positions. In caring for and healing one’s, we can better care for and heal others. In addition to taking breaks, drinking plenty of fluids, eating well, making sleep a priority, and exercising, I wanted them to know that writing can be a wonderful self-healing tool.

The acclaimed writing/composition professor Peter Elbow teaches us that writing to process life and its many twists and turns can be cathartic and healing. He says, “Producing writing is not so much like filling a basin or pool once, but rather getting water to keep flowing through till it finally runs clear,” and also “meaning is not what you start with, but what you end up with.”

Processing life’s experiences by reflecting on them through writing can be a way of examining what you went through/are going through, and also giving the experience and your emotions/reactions a voice - testifying, if you will - saying, “I lived that, and I survived to tell about it, and I will go on becoming stronger and richer because of these experiences.”

Having “written out” what is bubbling up, people can identify and examine stressors, see things for what they were, and better assimilate experiences into the past, letting go of them, to better focus on the present and to take care of one’s self. Another purpose of creative writing for nurses is for connection to others in their professional communities (beyond peer-reviewed medical and nursing journals).  Our students will undoubtedly be asked to share with fellow students and colleagues by means of research-based writing. However, there is another burgeoning field of writing out there that they have a chance to get in on: creative, reflective writing by healthcare professionals.

Nurses, doctors, and other healthcare professionals have been building this wonderful canon, or category of literature, for many years now, from the likes of Florence Nightingale and Walt Whitman years ago, all the way up to Atul Gawande and Sheryl Buckley today. Though they are relatively new, blogs authored by healthcare professionals continue to grow in popularity; we examine several for inspiration in this increasingly popular genre, as well.

There is so much wonderful literature out there by healthcare professionals, and we hope that this unit introduces students to just a few examples. Better yet, we hope they become inspired to join in and consider this a viable, creative outlet for themselves - a way to have their voices heard in their profession, and in society at large. Anne Devine, BA, BSN (2017) helps us understand how writing to share with others can really be beneficial for ourselves, as well as others: “Nurses may think ‘I’m not a writer,’ or ‘I don’t have time to write!’ [However] If a nursing experience stays with you, it may be a sign that it’s good fodder for a story - a pearl of wisdom or life lesson to be shared. Writing may seem painful at first. But as nurses we are curators of sorts, collecting stories but not always sharing them. Give it a try. Once you pick up [a pen or] most likely a keyboard, you may be amazed at what happens when the words start to flow.”

Beyond the Creative Reflection assignment which caps off this unit, my colleague and I also created an online Creative Writing publication for students called The Pulse of Creativity. Students may volunteer to have their writing showcased in this exciting publication, which will come out quarterly .

The risks of branching out to include creative writing have been far outweighed by the benefits of it. Students are more engaged and happy, and the submissions to the publication have been really rich and deep. Most of all, it is hoped that students become lifelong writers, and healthier, happier, and more connected, from their brief introduction to this important facet of writing.