A companion blog to my memoir, "Sting of the Heat Bug"
I first met Cortney Davis in 1988, when she and her soon-to-be-husband, Jon Gordon, visited me and my soon-to-be-wife, Jean Sands, in Harwinton, Connecticut. Cortney immediately impressed me with her intellect and compassion, two qualities that combine mind and heart to form a creative genius. Cortney, a nurse practitioner, had by then already published several poems and articles in highly respected journals, but the best was yet to come. Please welcome Cortney Davis to my blog!
Hi Jack! Good to be here. Thank you for inviting me. I’ve been a fan of your writing since, oh about 1988!
You’re too kind. Cortney, I’d like to start with the present and then backtrack. Two summers ago, you went through an ordeal that left you feeling that you would never again be creative; and yet, I understand a new book of yours has just been released, one that draws on two creative aspects, writing and art. Tell me something about When the Nurse Becomes a Patient: A Story in Words and Images. How did that come to be?
The morning of June 14, 2013, I was admitted to the hospital for routine one-day surgery expecting to be home that very evening. But, due to a surgical mishap, I ended up requiring a second surgery and a 26-day hospital stay. During my hospitalization, a series of complications―infections, pulmonary and cardiac issues―created what seemed to be a never-ending, life-threatening saga. Once I was home again, during a several-month recovery, I wanted to respond to my experience creatively, to help me make sense of what had happened. I’ve often written about my work with patients, about their suffering and experiences and about my interactions with them as a caregiver―but when faced with my own illness, words refused to come. It was as if that creative part of me had died in the hospital. That was a very dark and empty feeling.
Then, perhaps a month and a half into my recovery, I felt compelled―that’s the only word I can find for this―to paint images of my illness experience, the events that wouldn’t leave me in peace. This was a surprising compulsion, since I’m not a trained artist. I was an art major my first year in college, but I never got beyond Drawing 101 and so never received instruction in painting. Through the years, I’d dabbled in watercolor and tried oil painting, but I’d never thought of myself as an artist nor was I much interested in becoming one! But there was something about the immediacy of painting, of the swift connection between heart and hand, and of the ability of the paint itself to assume unexpected shapes and patterns in response to my brush, which seemed to move in response to my emotions. And, since I was a novice, I didn’t worry about technique or getting things “right.” I could paint without the “internal editor” who appears whenever I write. Looking back, I truly can’t remember exactly how all 12 paintings “happened.” It was as if some force overtook me, some creative energy that I didn’t know lurked within. I think maybe when one creative outlet is blocked, another one, previously unknown, must come to the fore.
Poet Jeanne Bryner says in the introduction to this book, “She was captured in the country of illness.” This is a striking image. Tell me what you think she means by it.
Jeanne is an ER nurse and a wonderful poet. We’ve both seen patients in desperate and horrendous circumstances. When anyone is suddenly thrust into the role of “patient,” no matter for a day or a month, everything changes. It is as if you are going about your normal life, and then wham, you step thought a door or you turn a corner and suddenly you are “captured,” taken over by illness or injury. It feels, emotionally, as if you have been transported to a foreign land and there you are, without friends, money, luggage, or a phone. You are totally and profoundly alone. I think anyone who has been seriously ill knows this feeling. No matter how many friends sit with you in your room, no matter the support of your family, no matter the skills of your caregivers, you are, in the most elemental way, on your own. You are captured in the country of illness.
Do you think that you have recovered sufficiently from that ordeal to continue writing well into the future? And what about your artwork? Will that be secondary, or at least on a par with your writing?
Right now, responding to your question, I feel about 98% recovered. I have a few left over problems that will be with me forever, but they are slight and tolerable. They remind me that I am human. Most of all, they remind me that the line between being sick and being well is very thin. I have a new and different understanding of what it means to be a patient and, as well, what it means to be a caregiver. I thought, whenever I wrote about my patients, that I had developed a vocabulary with which to express suffering. When I was a patient, I realized that my dictionary was quite incomplete. I had to learn a new and different vocabulary, one that originated not from my witnessing of another’s pain, or my empathic response to patients, but from my very core, my soul, my viscera, my fear. I hope this new vocabulary will enhance any future writing, or at least lead me in new directions. Right now I’m working on assembling a poetry manuscript, and I have an idea for another non-fiction book that is just beginning to emerge.
As for painting? Oddly enough, although I still think about painting again, that is an impetus far removed from and quite unlike my attraction to writing. I will forever be a dabbler in art, and I do hope to dabble again. But my connection to writing is inborn, a forever part of me, something that will never, I hope, ever walk away from me again.
As I mentioned, your credentials are impressive, including poetry and prose in such journals as Calyx, Hudson Review, Ms., New York Times, Poetry Daily, Prairie Schooner, Sojourner, The Sun, The Writer’s Almanac, Yankee and many other print and online publications. You’ve been widely anthologized and well represented in nursing and medical journals. You’ve received an NEA poetry fellowship, three Connecticut Commission on the Arts poetry grants, a Center for the Book Non-Fiction Prize (for I Knew a Woman), a Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry (for Leopold’s Maneuvers) and many more. What is the most meaningful award you have received, and why?
What an intriguing question! I’ve been surprised by, and grateful for, every award and every publication. I suppose that one of my most meaningful awards was the first one, the Connecticut Commission on the Arts Poetry Grant in 1990. This award confirmed that I was legitimate, that I really was writing and that my poems were appreciated by others. That little push of acceptance enabled me, emotionally, to keep writing and to tolerate all the rejections that were also coming my way! Another meaningful award was the Prairie Schooner Poetry Award for Leopold’s Maneuvers. Because I most often write about my work in nursing, I feel that I am most comfortable and most accepted within the “niche” of medical and nursing humanities. Winning the Prairie Schooner Award made me realize that others who were not in medicine or nursing might also be fascinated by that unique and mysterious world and so interested in poems that provide not only a peak behind the exam room curtain but also into all that lurks behind illness and suffering―hope, transcendence, love.
Your books now number about 10, by my count. One of my favorites is one of your earliest, I Knew a Woman: Four Women Patients and Their Female Caregiver. Tell me something about how this came to be.
I worked for many years in a women’s outpatient OB-GYN clinic that served undocumented and uninsured women. What a wonderful and deeply moving experience that was! I was so close to the miracle of birth and, at the same time, so close to the ravages of poverty, drug abuse, physical abuse, poor self image, and the sufferings of those who come to our country as aliens. Over the years I’d developed close clinical relationships with a number of women, and over the years I’d written essays about my experiences as their nurse practitioner. Some of the essays saw publication and, miracle of miracles, one day an agent contacted me and asked if I had more of those essays lying around. I did, and the idea of telling the story of four patients over the course of a year was born. In the book, I wanted not only to tell these stories but also to teach women something about their bodies. It was my experience, in the clinic, that women, no matter their educational level, were woefully uninformed about how their female bodies functioned. The book was originally titled I Knew a Woman: The Experience of the Female Body. Unfortunately, the title was changed in the soft cover edition. Also unfortunately, the book was released only a few weeks before 9/11. That horrendous event changed so many lives. It made the publication of a book seem very slight and very unimportant indeed. I also like that book, as you do, but for me it is forever associated with the attack on the Twin Towers.
Most of your writing centers around nursing and health care in general. For some in the health “industry,” nursing and medicine are highly technical, scientific pursuits. You bring it back to basic human love. How important is it to get readers to understand that caregiving is more than a job?
All of my writing efforts and all of my nursing efforts have been, and are, directed not simply to the technical but also to the emotional truths that lurk beneath any clinical situation. In my writing, I use nursing as a metaphor for how we all care for, or fail to care for, others. There are, in all life events, the mysterious currents of the subconscious. Too often in medicine it seems that we concentrate on only the surface event―the illness, the lab values, the medication, the x-ray or the CT scan results. But for the patient, and for caregivers too, there is so much more going on beneath those surface events. You know how wine is a combination of flavors, or how they talk about perfume having various “notes”? Our lived experiences are like that too. Because we are unique individuals, every one of us has specific memories and sensations that accumulate over time. These memories, hidden or revealed, influence our response to illness and suffering. I want my poems and prose to reach under the surface event to touch a reader’s subconscious, the underbelly of his or her life. Acknowledging both the surface and this underbelly does something wonderful. It can enrich and expand our lives, and it can provide a “fullness of caring”―and that’s when caregiving becomes more than just a job. When anyone, a patient or a caregiver, is aware that he or she is being heard, deeply heard, it is a form of love. When we doctors and nurses look beyond the patient’s illness, to hear and acknowledge the stories behind their chief complaints―when we sense the underbelly of a patient’s life―then we might heal not only the body but also the heart and soul.
What do you like best about writing? What do you like least?
Great question! What I love most about writing is when I’m into the process, really into it, and time seems to stand still and words seem to arrive through me, not from me. I suppose some would refer to this as being “in the zone,” but to me it feels more like being suspended in a lovely, quiet and holy place. It’s quite wonderful.
What I like least about writing, well, two things. One is beginning to write. There it is, the white, blank, empty page. I can think of all sorts of things―laundry to be done and the dust on the table and the groceries that must be purchased―but darned if I can think of anything intelligent to write. (Until, if I’m lucky, an idea comes, a word or a phrase, and I enter that lovely space.) The other thing I dislike is when I realize that I’m writing not from my heart but to gain recognition from the publisher or the critic. I think this happens to all writers, maybe especially to beginning writers. When I find myself drawing back, softening my work, failing to acknowledge that caregiving involves pain as well as comfort, or when I find myself shying away from the reality of the body, then I have to bring myself back to what is most elemental about writing. We must write our stories. We should not hurt others. But we must tell the emotional truth that is revealed to us rather than try to please critics.
Do you have a set schedule for your writing? Mornings? Evenings? How do you make it happen?
I write most readily in the late morning and early afternoon. I revise best early in the morning. But I have no real set schedule anymore. When I was working full time I wrote one day a week, reading poetry in the morning, and then writing after lunch for about four hours. If I’m working on a special project, like right now I’m working on a new poetry collection, I might work all day, early morning to early evening, almost non-stop.
I’ve come to realize that if an idea strikes and if I don’t attend to that idea at once, it slips away. My desk is littered with notes, scraps, ideas, sentences. Sometimes when I re-read them, I can take off writing at once. Other times, I can’t figure out what in the world I was thinking. But, in reality, we can’t always run to our writing desks whenever the light of inspiration flashes on. Sometimes we just have to finish grocery shopping and hope that once we are home, we might steal a moment to write.
What do you do to promote your writings?
Promotion is, to me, most odious. I should have stated that above in your question about what I like or dislike about writing. Self-promotion is difficult. I don’t like saying “I’m a writer” when someone asks what I do. Unless someone is truly interested, getting into the whys and wherefores of writing can cause a listener’s eyes to glaze over. People are much more interested in my being a nurse! They want to hear the gory stories!
I’m not into social media. I’m not on Facebook, I tried LinkedIn and Twitter, but truly, I’m not sure that I want such superficial connections even if that might be a way to publicize my writing. I think probably the most effective way I can promote my work is through publication in a variety of venues, print and online. (That said, I could be better about sending work out!) I do give workshops and talks, but rarely, and only when asked. Usually such invitations come by word of mouth, because I don’t advertise. I have a feeling that my best promotional tools may be my books. I enjoy working on shaping books over months and years, hoping that any books that result might carry my work to others, especially to that one reader whose life might be touched or even enhanced by one of my poems or essays.
I know I must have forgotten to ask you something important. Is there something we missed?
Well, there is something I mentioned in passing before, that we shouldn’t hurt anyone with our writing. As a nurse-writer, I have to be very careful that I don’t expose any patient’s private information. I must be very aware of what might be hurtful and what should not be revealed. I do this mostly by avoiding writing about a specific patient or, if I do, by changing details in order that the individual’s clinical history is not recognizable, and yet his or her story still reveals certain truths and so becomes universal. I’ve also learned that care must be taken as well when I write about my personal life and my own family. Although I’d written since childhood, I fully embraced writing and began to publish during the late ’70s and early ’80s, a time when feminist writing was flourishing. Like many women, I was told that we’d not been permitted to write our stories for years (oh, those white male poets who’d held us down!) but now we could! We could write like Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath about our families, our bodies, our most private thoughts. Like many others, I wrote thinking only of myself, my own need to reveal and to work out past experiences, never imagining how my poems might affect my loved ones. Many of these intense feminist poems were published, and many appeared in my early books. I remember with great pain my father’s response to one particular poem. Should I not have written it? Yes, I should have written it. But I should have placed it in my drawer, not in my book. Therefore, my advice to beginning writers: Don’t deny any poems that come urgently to your door. But once they are written, be wise and kind and know that not all you write must be read by others.
How can we purchase your books, including your latest, When the Nurse Becomes a Patient?
My books are available on Amazon.com, from other online book sellers, by order from your local bookstores, and also from the individual publishers. I Knew a Woman is out of print, alas, although there may be some used copies on amazon.com or elsewhere. My forthcoming book, When the Nurse Becomes a Patient, is on Amazon.com and available from Kent State University Press. Some of my limited edition poetry chapbooks are also out of print, but the anthologies I co-edited (Between the Heartbeats: Poetry and Prose by Nurses and Intensive Care: More Poetry and Prose by Nurses),
and my essay collection (The Heart’s Truth: Essays on the Art of Nursing)
and my poetry collections (Details of Flesh
and Leopold’s Maneuvers)
Cortney, thank you for your thoughtful responses! I’m looking forward to reading your latest, When the Nurse Becomes a Patient.
Thank you, Jack. It was great chatting with you!