UW News

October 16, 2008

Harborview nurse wins 2008 Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award

Jennifer Culkin is a critical care nurse at Harborview Medical Center and an award-winning author. Her essays have appeared in The Georgia Review and the Utne Reader. In September she received a 2008 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award of $25,000. The annual award offers encouragement and financial support to six women writers who demonstrate excellence and promise in the early stages of their careers. The late novelist Rona Jaffe established the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Awards program in 1995. It is the only national literary awards program of its kind dedicated to supporting women writers exclusively.


Culkin’s first book, A Final Arc of Sky: A Memoir of Critical Care, will be published by Beacon Press in April 2009. The book centers on her nearly 30 years of nursing experience. The author holds a nursing degree from Russell Sage College in Troy, NY, and a master’s of fine arts from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma.

UW: How will the Jaffe Award support your writing?

JC: I’m working part-time currently and had been considering increasing to full-time again because my children are in college. It’s expensive, as I think everyone knows. The Jaffe Award will allow me to continue to work part-time, a schedule that definitely supports writing. The award will provide time to work on my second book, which is still a somewhat vaporous concept. I think of it as a “genetic” memoir. I want to trace my family back several generations, to when they arrived in Boston from Ireland and Italy, and to examine our unique traits — in our family, musicians, religious zeal, nurses and poets are recurrent across generations — through the prism of neuropsychology and other social and biological sciences. It would have to be a work of both imagination and intellect. I’m very interested in how the inner workings of physiology and genetics interplay with culture and environment to produce the unique behavior, the unique person the world sees.

UW: Tell me about the subject matter of your memoir coming out next spring.

JC: The chapters in A Final Arc of Sky are drawn from all kinds of experiences, including taking care of my parents while they were dying, my earlier years in neonatal and pediatric critical care, as well as flight nursing. A chapter about multiple sclerosis, something I’ve had to deal with; I retired from flight nursing in part because of that. It’s a memoir that is medically-infused.

In the aggregate, the book is about caring for people — patients, family and even myself — who are out there on the knife’s edge. I’ve cared for a lot of people in my career, most of them in the ICU or emergency flight setting. I would estimate between 5,000 and 10,000 by now, over 30 years. A lot of people to come under your hands, really.

UW: What did you learn from those experiences?

JC: I think they’ve helped me to keep everything in life in perspective. When you know what trouble really is, you can define it in your own life with much more precision. I think my work has enabled me to be very positive and optimistic in my life on the whole, because I understand where the edges are — how extreme it can get for us as human beings.

ICU nurses are there with people at such ultimate moments of their lives — it’s a weird gift — to be with people when all the niceties are almost stripped away — when what they’re going through is so raw and basic, yet it is your business to try to pull them back from the edge and to help make it all bearable, if you can. Those moments can be difficult, they can take a toll on caregivers, too, over time, but on the other hand, they teach you to see people and situations with great clarity. And you can get very close to the people you are caring for, particularly if you are caring for them over a period of time. You’re there for twelve hours at a time; you get to know their families and friends, you get to know what’s at work in their lives — it’s intense.

UW: How did you come up with the idea for your memoir?

JC: Well, it seemed natural in a lot of ways. I’ve kept journals for many, many years. I draw from journals a lot. For this memoir, I started with events or memories that disturbed me, or haunted me, or stuck with me in some way, and then I worked from that. I wanted to explore what was under the actual physical event, what I thought and felt about those experiences. I think of it as understory in a way, because, especially in medicine, you’re always doing things and if you have feelings, they need to be secondary. Your job is to act. Journaling is an opportunity to revisit and to see what was under the action and to explore the parameters of it.

UW: Tell me a bit about your creative process.

JC: I wouldn’t say the process itself is fluid. It’s hard to make myself sit down. That is really the hardest thing. Sometimes that’s another area where journaling helps me, because the pressure is off in a journal — it’s my space to say whatever I darn well please about anything. So that will often get it started, if I’m stuck.

But, usually, if I just start tinkering with a piece of writing, I get caught up in the nuts and bolts of it and finding the language. I’m very, very interested in language — the creative and fresh use of language. That captures me every time. Trying to find the perfect way to express something that is a little bit ineffable — I just love it. I love the craft and the process.

UW: What do you want your readers to experience when they read your book?

JC: You know, to be a human being is essentially lonely. You’re stuck inside yourself — you have your public persona and your private inner space. This kind of personal, creative nonfiction is a way to see the world from inside someone else’s private space. I think at the heart of it, that’s what I want my readers to experience when they read my book. I want them to look at the world through my eyes for a little while.

One of the great things that nursing has taught me all these years is that if I feel something, a lot of other people feel the same thing. There are a few human themes that we revisit over and over and over again. Generally, if you experience something very deeply and you are able to express it, it will find a degree of resonance with others, because many other people will have had some variation of that thought, that feeling, that experience … and may not have been able to articulate it. I think nonfiction is extremely powerful in that way.

UW: You are a mom, a wife, critical care nurse and an author. How do you balance it all ?

JC: It’s really hard to fit it all in. Some things have to go. I let housework slide. I don’t have a very neat house or a busy social life. I don’t make those a priority. I do prioritize and writing comes up close to the top. I really prefer to be writing, so it’s not a sacrifice exactly. I also have a very supportive husband (who does housework) and two sons. My son Gabe is my reader — he always surprises me with his insights.

What I’ve tried to do over the past four years is say, “I need to get this one thing…chapter, revision, e-mail to an editor…done right now.” And I also say to myself, “I really am going to see this book through to completion, no matter what.” It’s hard, but I think it has been worth it.

UW: Well, your balancing act seems to have paid off well — not only with a book, but with an award!

JC: I was very lucky. I had had a few pieces published and one of the pieces in particular drew the interest of my current publisher, which is Beacon Press. They contacted me and we moved forward from there. And an anonymous someone familiar with my work — there are only three or four possible candidates — nominated me for the Jaffe. You know there’re so many writers out there who are working so hard and many who deserve recognition — it does help to have a little luck!

The Jaffe Award is tremendous validation of my writing. Yep!


Excerpt from A Final Arc of Sky, a Memoir of Critical Care

“I’d give a lot to be able to look out at the world through somebody else’s eyes. I imagine that a moment or two would be enough — I don’t want to be someone else. I just want the information. A few seconds of total immersion, a space of time long enough to soak up the input from someone else’s nerve endings, catch the fireworks in some else’s brain. I don’t know if it would be exhilarating or horrifying, but I think, for a few crystalline moments, it would make a lot of gray areas clear. And I wanted that for my little man, because I didn’t feel I could reach him. He couldn’t tell me anything more subtle than I’m dying here, can you help me out? or Don’t bother me unless you want your hand to cramp from hand-ventilating me for the next forty-five minutes. He was far too frail to be held; I couldn’t access whatever skin contact could teach me. He could only talk to me with the coarse voices of monitor alarms.”