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Member Spotlights

Member Spotlight: Donna A. Gaffney

author Donna Gaffney and an image of her book Courageous Well-Being for Nurses

Why is writing important to you and why do you think it’s an important medium for the world? As a psychotherapist and advanced practice psychiatric mental health nurse, I incorporate writing into my practice with teens, adults, and healthcare professionals. Writing has many benefits, all confirmed by a substantial body of research supporting its therapeutic effects. At the very least, writing takes those unrelenting thoughts and worries out of your head and puts them onto the page. You can revisit that page, edit it, and rewrite the ending (kids especially love this). In my new book, Courageous Well-Being for Nurses, I interviewed nurses worldwide. They talked about their work before and during the pandemic. Their words were powerful and inspiring, but their stories were not mine to tell. I asked them to write an essay for the book. Each chapter is anchored by a nurse’s story under the heading “In Their Own Words.” At first, they chose to remain anonymous, but as the publication date grew closer, they wanted to have their names included in the book. If ever there was reason to believe writing is an essential medium for the world, these professionals said it best: “I have only made it a few pages into the book, as my emotions get the best of me— but I can tell how powerful this book will be for a lot of nurses and others as well,” I can’t believe I am the prologue, what an honor,” and “I never knew seeing yourself in print could feel so good.” I am humbled by their words.

What are your tried and tested remedies to cure writer’s block? I believe that mindfulness is the key to writing. I go to mindfulness and meditation exercises when I’m stuck and can’t find the right (or any) words or ideas to spark my writing. I rotate through several of my favorites and choose from Jon Kabat Zinn, Tara Brach, or Kristin Neff. I couple these practices with breathwork. When I need a bigger push, I try to go outside for a walk or simply sit in a place where I can feel or see blue or green spaces around me. Exercise and movement can also help. Sometimes, I will try a few writing prompts that are usually unrelated to my topic. I love Suleika Jaouad’s Isolation Journals. Next, I call a friend. Fortunately, I have a supportive colleague who is a seasoned facilitator in narrative medicine. Sometimes, I just need to be open to the passage of time, take a break, and do something completely different. I remember the painful process of writing my dissertation; I had the cleanest kitchen then. There is something very therapeutic when you take on a task with a beginning, middle, and end. Cleaning did it for me! And I always have my phone notes app ready for ideas that occur away from my desk. Ultimately, I try to be self-compassionate (back to Kristin Neff). I’m human, not the only one who has struggled with writer’s block, and above all, be kind to myself!

What is your favorite time to write? My favorite and probably most productive writing time is early in the morning. My body clock wakes me at 5 a.m. when I have a deadline. After a quick shower, I make my first cup of tea and settle in. I rotate writing spots—at my desk, the dining room table, or sitting in a chair. I’ve also tried writing late at night. In graduate school, I had three little kids at home and wrote my dissertation between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. I’ve since learned that night writing doesn’t work for me. My favorite professor in journalism school edited my articles in red and topped off her comments with the truthful words, “I can tell you were up late!” If I do write at night, I’ll look at the draft the following day and ask myself, “What were you thinking?” Lesson learned.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received and would like to impart to other writers? I am open to any and all writing suggestions from my friends and colleagues. The best advice came early in my career. After defending my dissertation proposal, my advisor looked at me and said, “If you could only write like you speak!” Gulp. I started to listen to myself, and it helped; it was a wake-up call. When the publisher sent the copyedited version of my first book, The Seasons of Grief, Helping Children Grow Through Loss, I was devastated by the sheer number of edits. I had more work to do. Journalism school was filled with new opportunities to refine my writing. Over the past year, my friend and copyeditor extraordinaire was by my side; we talked through edits, meaning, and purpose. It was a collaborative process and very rewarding. My best advice to other writers—don’t be defensive; learn from those edits!

What excites you most about being a writer in today’s age? Writers, writing, books, and stories all excite me! My new book taught me so much about writing for an academic press. The Authors Guild has been a great resource, and I am incredibly grateful for the support and assistance of the legal department and Milton Trachtenburg. I recommend AG to everyone who writes or wants to write. I also enjoy reading about and listening to other writers’ experiences, what they have learned about their craft, and what I can learn from them. I can’t resist visiting bookstores and buying books about writers and writing. Anne Lamott and Steven King have been on my bookshelf for years. We face precarious times as we determine how AI will affect our work and the world. But it is also an exciting time; we will experiment and learn a great deal. Understanding AI is important, so I listen to Pivot and Your Undivided Attention podcasts. Sometimes, I worry I am getting too old. But my friend and noted children’s author Joan Bauer puts these worries in perspective, “I think I’m finally old enough.” So, it’s on to the next project!

Donna A. Gaffney’s Courageous Well-Being for Nurses: Strategies for Renewal, co-written with Nicole C. Foster, is out now with ‎ Johns Hopkins University Press.