Today we are pleased to feature author Elizabeth Naranjo as our Authors Talk series contributor. In her podcast, Elizabeth discusses “The Woman in Room 248” and reveals how some of Mary’s experiences are loosely based on her own nursing experiences. She also expands upon the characterizations of Mary and Shirley and shares how she can relate to both characters.
Elizabeth also discusses empathy in the piece and explains how she “wanted to explore how we often misjudge others.” She reveals, “I think the best fiction challenges our assumptions about people. It…should make us consider the motivations and the feelings of others who we wouldn’t normally look at twice or think about in a more compassionate way.” Finally, Elizabeth briefly discusses the piece’s evolution and submission history.
Now’s as good a time as any to announce it: at the ripe old age of thirty, I’m retiring. Well, I’m preparing to change careers. In 19 months, I’ll have my BSN, and hopefully, a nursing job. There are many reasons why. I found it nearly impossible to write while teaching Comp; the adjunct scenario is a racket; and when I wasn’t grading a stack of 78 disastrous essays on Flannery O’Conner [sic], I was dreading the next stack of 78 disastrous essays on Flannery O’Conner. I love helping people. I love science.
That’s not to say there aren’t things I have loved about teaching. I have learned from my students. Just this semester, a girl who studies Victorian floriagraphy taught me something new about a poem I’d have sworn I understood inside out. Sometimes I was fortunate enough to have students—usually a handful each semester—who made me intensely happy with their smart contributions to discussions about literature, and especially their ability to follow essay guidelines. I’d strategically place those students’ papers in the pile, a reward for the halfway mark, a reset button in the seemingly everlasting hell of circling comma splices.
And sometimes a poem would do it—after days watching dozens of eyes, glazed and confused, stare into the distance while I explained again that “so many good times” is not a concrete image, so please try again (some students took more than SEVEN attempts to come up with one single image until I finally yelled, “Brass lamp! Accordion! Cowbell!” and the room went silent like in one of those movies where the crazy person finally loses their shit and I stood there breathing hard, regretting most of my life choices)—finally we’d read Allison Funk’s “The Lake” and I’d see the lightbulbs switching on and I’d hear them talking about poems in the hall, and I would know that this, this feeling of showing them something they might never otherwise see, this was why I signed up for this gig.
Nevertheless, I’m moving on. But not before I take a look back on some of the craziest things to ever come out of my students’ mouths. Those who are teachers will probably not be surprised by anything they find on this list. College students are notoriously lazy and shameless, and since I taught mostly dual enrollment high school seniors, I dealt with my fair share of both. They are, in many of their ideas about writing, the polar opposite of me, and so listening to this stuff for days on end can be maddening, but I have to admit there’s a kind of ridiculous charm in their words as well. Behold:
“Writing poems is so easy for me. They use hardly any words.”
“The next line says that he died before she had time. She is talking about killing her father. This could mean that he died before she had time.” Meanwhile, Plath is rolling over in her grave.
“I am writing about the Galway Kinnell poem, because it’s got a really long title. If I mention it a few times, I’ll hit the word count sooner.”
“Can you type up everything you said in class today and email it to me? My alarm didn’t go off, but I want to pass the midterm.”
“At first, I thought I hated poetry. Then I discovered the secret to writing the perfect poem: listen to music. But not just any music. Something really deep, like jazz. As you can see, the results are amazing.”
“Can you read my 6 page rough draft, fix my errors, and tell me exactly what grade it would get before and after I fix each thing?”
“The fact that the paperhanger accomplished his goal inspires me to believe that no matter what people think you can or cannot do, you can do anything you set your mind to.” I won’t spoil William Gay’s tale for those who haven’t read it, but the paperhanger is maybe not the best role model.
“I didn’t do my homework because the guideline sheet you gave me blew away in the wind.”
“I never thought I could like poetry. Then your class changed my life.”
“I haven’t been in your class for the past 6 weeks because my fiancé faked his own death to get out of having to marry me.” What else is there to say?
As a nurse practitioner who has worked in Intensive Care, on the Oncology Ward, and in Women’s Health, I’ve never had to search for “ideas” for poems—observed moments of grief, the joys of healing, the mysteries of birth and death. As a proponent of the genre variously titled Literature and Medicine, or Medical Humanities, or Narrative Medicine, I’ve written about what it’s like to be a caregiver and I’ve written about my patients.
For me, nursing and literature long ago merged: The mysteries of existence are revealed in writing that is grounded in the sensual reality of the human body.
I’ve believed that my poems about what I do as a nurse are authentic; they are written from my experience, from inside the moment. I’ve also hoped that my poems about patients are authentic—I share incredibly intimate moments with them. But lately I’ve been wondering: How successful can I be—can we be—when we write as if we know what someone else is experiencing? I’m not talking about persona poems, fictional characters, composite characters, or bits and pieces taken from our imaginations. I mean what happens when we write about someone else, a real someone else, as if we, for the space of the poem, are qualified to speak for them?
This “dual vision”—writing about our lives yet also claiming to know another’s—may be a problem particularly for nurses and doctors who write about their work; yet it’s something we all might consider. I’ll begin by sharing two poems, examples of my particular dual vision. In this first poem I write about my experience of being a caregiver; in the second, I speak as if I am the patient.
Examining the Abused Woman
Her face, when she turns, is like a peach
left in the refrigerator drawer too long,
nose and cheek caved in, as if underneath
the fleshy matrix has been chewed away.
When I ask past medical history, she lists
the broken bones:
I palpate her face, dip my fingers
into the little valley of her clavicle, scared
to press too hard. I see her bare.
She breathes, I listen with a stethoscope,
her breath like wind drawn down a New York alleyway.
All the time we talk.
I memorize her puffy feet, her pubic hair,
the scars that rise like topographic maps
across her abdomen. Hand slicked
with lubricant, I probe to touch her ovaries,
hold her uterus between my open palms.
She says she lives in Westchester, a home of sorts.
I finish the exam. She dresses and, not looking up,
thanks me for being kind. How could I say
It’s no use to hate or I bless you with my fingertips?
It’s me who is afraid.
—from Leopold’s Maneuvers (University of Nebraska Press)
In “Examining the Abused Woman,” the reader sees through my eyes and shares my thoughts. Certainly we often write this way: first person, I was there, you can believe that this is accurate information about what happened! And I’ve found that readers often want to believe that when we write “I,” unless otherwise indicated, we are telling the truth, at least the metaphoric truth.
In the following poem, I am a patient, content in her illness, easing into a gentle death, even a welcomed one.
The Patient Speaks
I am in love
with my bed, my radio
and the gilly-flowers
wilting on the cold sill.
I love this room.
It is mine
my whole life.
The nurse knows
my name; my name
is on the door.
She knows I am ticklish
and like my feet soaked.
I am riding
the big wave.
I wait for my doctor;
he is not afraid
of my bony hand.
are so quiet.
I will sleep,
my body deepening
most beautiful bed
I’ve ever known—
my sheets, my love,
Although this patient is un-named, I assumed, observing her, that these were her correct emotions; I wrote of her calm in the face of impending death. But what if I was wrong?
Just as I was considering how and when a poet might be justified in taking liberties with interpreting another’s experience, and how and when the resulting poem might take on its own life, rendering a correct or incorrect interpretation meaningless, various tragedies began to devastate both the world and my own neighborhood. I have good friends in Newtown whose kids go to school in Sandy Hook, friends whose lives were forever changed. I watched as they struggled to heal. I witnessed how Newtown quickly developed a culture of its own, in a way similar to the unique culture that develops within an ICU or a cancer ward, where patients, like a town’s residents, suffer not only individually but also collectively. While many writers rushed to publish their interpretations of this tragedy, I realized that I, on the outside, couldn’t truly enter or understand the culture—the narrative—of Sandy Hook. Such understanding, I thought, might be possible only when one’s own town was suddenly struck with disaster.
And perhaps a nurse could not truly understand another’s illness narrative, could not authentically plumb another’s suffering for poems or essays, unless the nurse’s body suddenly fell prey to its own disaster.
In the summer of 2013, I was admitted for a routine, one-day surgery. Everything went wrong, and I was hospitalized for 26 days. No longer interpreting another’s illness, I stepped right into my own tragedy; the nurse became a patient, and I became my poems. Although I write about the world of illness and healing, who among us has not stepped into his or her own poems—into the narrative of divorce, war, depression, poverty, abuse, disability, the suffering of loved ones, disappointment, loss, indecision and fear?
At home, recovering, I could not write about my illness, which had been both life altering and life threatening. So this is what it’s like to be inside a patient’s narrative! So this is what it’s like to have those around you think that they correctly hear you and understand your words and actions! How clearly I saw that if the doctors and nurses who cared for me tried to write my story, they would get it wrong.
Although I couldn’t respond to my hospitalization in poems, I found comfort and release in painting. In a rush, I painted twelve “poems” on canvas, individual moments that called out for contemplation. Maybe someday I will write about those 26 days; maybe I will write about the other patients I met there. When I do, I will write with new caution, new respect for how, while I may know my own narrative, I can only intuit another’s. I might just show my poem to that patient and ask, did I get it right? Can you help me be a better poet?
The Second Painting: The Experience of Pain: “On a Scale of One to Ten”