First Person … Singular and Plural

I have been listening in awe to Brenda Walker on Radio National’s First Person program.
First Person is a:

… serialised reading of a published autobiography, broadcast every weekday. We aim to broadcast the best of current and classic personal narratives – including memoirs, travel writing, diaries and letters. We choose books for fine writing that communicates the author’s individual life experience, and for their personal voice – the “I” or first person pronoun.

Brenda has been reading her Reading by Moonlight: How Books Saved a Life (2010). Penguin Books note that:

The first time Brenda Walker packed her bag to go into hospital, she wondered which book to take with her. As a novelist and professor of literature, her life had been built around reading and writing. Now she was also a patient, being treated for breast cancer, fighting for her life and afraid for herself and her family. But turning to medicine didn’t mean she turned away from fiction. Books had always been her solace and sustenance, and now choosing the right one was the most important thing she could do for herself.

In Reading by Moonlight, Brenda describes the five stages of her treatment and how different books and authors helped her through the tumultuous process of recovery. As well as offering wonderful introductions and insights into the work of writers like Dante, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Beckett and Dickens, Brenda shows how the very process of reading – surrendering and then regathering yourself – echoes the process of healing.

Reading by Moonlight guides, reassures,throws light on dark places, and finds beauty in the stories that come to us in times of jeopardy. It affirms that reading can be essential to life itself.

There have been seven episodes of the book thus far. I have found them all compelling listening.

I listened particularly closely to the episode on 5 May when Brenda was discussing “the ways that narrative helps us make sense of the unfamiliar: how storytelling gives structure and meaning to the challenges we face in life”.  In that episode she talks about crafting “a  living story of light and warmth to set it down so that it might hold together”.  I think her book does that wonderfully.
On that day I thought the first person of her story moved from a singular to a plural. The warmth of the story invited me in and ‘I’ became ‘we’.
I wonder if my presence in a Faculty of Health at the University of Canberra has enabled me to accept this warmth in a different kind of way. One of my colleagues, Jo Gibson, has been helping me explore narrative in the nursing literature. She has found all sorts of new readings for me and the day before Brenda’s discussion of narrative I had been reading Rosemary Anne McEldowney‘s PhD, Shape-shifting: Stories of teaching for social change in nursing (2002) on Jo’s recommendation.
Rosemary’s PhD discusses:

Six women Pakeha/Tauiwi nurse educators from throughout New Zealand volunteered to participate in this research and share their lived experiences of teaching for social change. In-depth conversations over two years unfolded new and rich material about how and why these six women continue to teach the evaded subjects, like mental health, women’s health, community development and cultural safety. All teach in counter-hegemonic ways, opening students’ eyes to the unseen and unspoken.

Just after Brenda’s 5 May episode I was exchanging emails with another colleague, Kasia Bail, about continuing professional development for nurse practitioners in the ACT. Kasia’s emails have the delightful end note “No one runs hospitals. Nurses hold the system together but don’t have any authority”, John Menadue (2007). Kasia was drawing my attention to two talks on 17 May. I am not able to attend these and wondered if the talks were recorded somewhere so that I could learn more about the occupational culture of nurse practitioners.
As part of our exchange (and my own professional development), Kasia shared with me a 2009 paper Writing ourselves into a web of obedience: A nursing policy analysis she had written with Robert Cook, Anne Gardner, and Laurie Grealish. The paper concludes:

The discourse of hospital procedural policy situates the nurse as obedient to organisational requirements by limiting practice to a performance of actions without explicit recognition of professional autonomy. This sets up a puzzling contradiction between performance expectations from the employing organisation and the nursing profession. Writing hospital policy in the discourse of procedural directives reduces nurses’ ability to act as autonomous, critically thinking professionals, with implications for patient safety, nurse autonomy and the professional status of nursing.

In two days I had received some very special insights from three remarkable people.
Each of them challenged me to think about personal pronouns in narrative and took me back to an autobiographical part of my PhD (1989) story. In a section on Account-as-Text, I wrote:

I do want to conclude this Preface with a mention of the thesis as text. I have addressed you directly as a reader and have persevered with personal pronouns. I have ordered the text and constructed it. In doing so I am reminded of Miller Mair’s (1987) suggestion that:
Words are substantial, like paint or clay. They are not transparent and secondary. They tell their own tales. They muscle in wherever they are used to influence everything around them with the stories they wish to tell. They bring with them baggage from other places and other times. They lead off in directions that speak of their relationships with other words and other things. Words, and the choice of words in relationship, create realities of their own and do not point to things we suppose are separate and of superior importance. Kelly, Bannister and a Story-Telling Psychology, p.16.

Photo Credits
Kent Oncology Centre


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