How to Write a Risky Personal Essay



Are you a personal essay writer, or an aspiring personal essay writer who is reluctant to write the truth about yourself because you fear others will judge you for your flaws?

This past May, I attended the Muse and Marketplace, an annual writing conference held by the Boston based writing center, Grubstreet. The details of many of the workshops are worthy of sharing with you, but, since I’m a personal essay writer and memoirist, one in particular resonated with me: “Writing a Risky Personal Essay.” A poet, journalist, critic, writing instructor, award winning memoirist, and more, Ethan Gilsdorf opened the session with this quote by  Cheryl Strayed: “When people are honest and vulnerable, we usually respond with our own honesty and our own vulnerability, and with kindness.”

How do you begin writing a risky personal essay? Gilsdorf advises to first explore a “burning question about your life,” something “messy,” human. Write a list of topics: a crisis, an unresolved conflict with family or yourself, questions from your past that have yet to be answered, a particular obsession of yours, or something considered taboo.

Don’t go searching for a topic. “Let the topic select you,” Gilsdorf encourages. I think of what Ann Hood said in a workshop I attended at Grub Street: “Write about what keeps you up at night.” Once the topic “finds you,” and you’re ready to wrestle with your past on the page, Gilsdorf reminds us to focus on the “building blocks” of a personal essay: employ scene, or dramatic moments, and reflection, where you step back and make sense of the events that have occurred. The essay should reveal how you, as a character, have changed. Who are you now versus then? How you have grown as a result of the conflict? To reveal character, include your quirks, and your voice. To better understand this ambiguous term, Gisldorf quotes Julie Wildhaber: “Voice is the personality of the story.” You want to create a distinct persona on the page, one the reader can trust. For instance, How you write about your experience growing up with a single mother will be very different than someone else’s experience. Voice is influenced by tone, or the attitude of the character. Are you angry, somber, anxious?

It’s worth noting that the essay doesn’t have to conclude with resolution, but it should end with what you have learned. Readers are not interested in reportage of events, or being left unsatisfied. It’s helpful to think of the essay as having two layers: the context, or plot – this happened then that happened – versus the deeper, emotional layer, the stuff we often find difficult to write about. Sue Silverman refers to theses layers as the “voice of innocence versus the voice of experience.” Vivian Gornick calls them “The “Situation and the Story.”

As a writing exercise, here’s what Gilsdorf suggested in the workshop: Choose a risky topic and go back to a key, dramatic moment in time. To recreate it on the page, employ dialogue, scene, and action. For me, it helps to use the five senses. Be careful of over-explaining. Doing so runs the risk of booting readers out of scene. Then write a section that reflects on that scene. Examine what happened, why it happened, what you now know about yourself that you didn’t know then. Explain how and why you’ve changed. Is there a question you are still unable to answer? Explain why.

When writing about an experience emotionally close to us, it’s difficult to see prose that smacks of self-indulgence. Gilsdorf cautions us to be aware of this pitfall. When revising the essay, examine places that sound over-sentimental.


To help you get a better sense of what the risky personal essay looks like, I encourage you to read Gilsdorf’s essay, “The Day My Mother Became a Stranger,” published this past May in Boston Magazine.

Here are some other resources Gilsdorf suggested:

The Source of All Things, a memoir by Tracey Ross

All Aboard,” an essay by Dave Demerjian.

Cubby, Skinny, Accepting,” and essay by Cole Kazdin

Good-luck with your risky essay!


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Benefits of Being a Military Nurse



Are you interested in entering the nursing profession? If so, you could not have chosen a better time to do so. The fastest growing field in the United States is healthcare, with more than 3.5 million jobs projected to be added to the economy by 2020. One-third of that number will be registered nurses. If you are planning to go to nursing school, you may be interested in one of the more popular specialties: neonatal nursing, midwifery, or critical care. Or maybe you’re interested in military nursing. Nursing School Hub, a website dedicated to providing resources for those interested in the nursing profession, recently posted an info-graphic article, “The Military Nurse’s Toolkit.”

The benefits of being a military nurse may tempt you: loan repayment, world travel, and the opportunity to help a broad population. It goes without saying that military nurses face risks: physical injury by enemy combatants, and psychological stress from exposure to injured and deceased soldiers. If you have not read my post about PTSD and nurses, I encourage you to read it here.

If you are not interested in military nursing, but are eager to learn about nursing-related topics, such as scholarships, must read books for nurses, top nursing schools and jobs, and where to find a job, I recommend taking a good look at Nursing School Hub’s website.


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Do Omega 3 Supplements Heal a Traumatic Brain Injury?



With a family history of heart disease, I decided to err on the side of caution and started taking omega 3 supplements years ago. I had read that they are good for your heart, and help regulate cholesterol. But I did not know about the greater benefits packed within the glycerin coating.

The brain, consisting of more than sixty percent fat, is the fattiest organ in the body.  Twenty percent of that number is comprised of an omega 3 fatty acid called DHA, or docosahexanoic adic. DHA is found in the central nervous system and is believed to help maintain optimal brain function, reduce inflammation, and increase fluidity within cell membranes. Recent research shows that omega 3, primarily DHA and EPA (another fatty acid that helps reduce inflammation) are both beneficial in the treatment of traumatic brain injuries. Since the pathology of a TBI involves cellular destruction and death, researchers have concluded that omega 3 can help mitigate that process. But, as research tends to go, more studies are needed to look closely at the benefits and risks of treating TBIs with omega 3.

Of course, it’s always better to choose foods rich in omega 3 rather than taking supplements, because those foods contain other nutritional benefits such as protein. EPA and DHA are mostly found in fatty fishes like salmon. ALA, or alpha-linoleic acid, is another omega 3 found in plant sources such as nuts and seeds.

Here’s the disclaimer: Though the FDA has approved medications with omega 3 to treat high levels of triglycerides, they do not approve the use of nutritional supplements to treat TBIs. Because there are not enough scientific studies to prove the effectiveness and safety of omega 3, the FDA explicitly warns  consumers to avoid supplements that have been marketed to prevent, treat, or cure TBIs, including concussions. Of greatest concern is that athletes who have sustained a concussion will take omega 3, believing the supplement will hasten their recovery, then return to the field sooner than they should. Over the past few years, sports guidelines related to concussions have been updated, and clearly note that the first ten days after injury is the period of time posing the greatest risk for sustaining another concussion.

I am not a physician, nutritionist, or pharmacist, and don’t pretend to be an expert on nutritional supplements, so if you are considering taking omega 3 for a TBI, I encourage you to do your research, and, of course, speak with your doctor (please accept my apologies if I sound like a pharmaceutical commercial). But, if you are curious by nature and must know where to learn about omega 3 dosing for a TBI, click here.


Cheers to a healthy brain!







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Choosing an Elder Care Agency


Are you in need of an elder care agency for a loved one, but don’t know what you should be looking for? I’m here to help you get started.

A few years ago, when my father began to experience cognitive decline and difficulty with organizational and household tasks, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. He became anxious when left alone, even for a short amount of time, so my family decided to hire a home health aide.

The agency we chose didn’t charge too much for caregivers, and they could take him out to lunch or to do errands. But personalities between my father and the few caregivers on staff didn’t mesh, so we hired a different agency about a month later. These caregivers lasted six weeks before they burned-out. After a lot of research, we found a larger agency with several caregivers and years of experience caring for people with Alzheimer’s. Because of reasons too complicated to discuss here, it took more than a year before the agency found a few caregivers that my father felt he could trust. And, in the event of illness, there was a large pool of others to fill in. The agency assigned a nurse case manager to oversee the caregivers, to trouble-shoot glitches in schedules, and to coordinate medical appointments. More than two years later, due to policy changes and poor communication from management regarding updates about my father’s condition, we fired them and hired another agency. That was about a month ago and, so far, things are working out well (I’m keeping my fingers crossed).

If you’re in search of an elder care agency, I’ve gathered a list of questions to ask whoever is in charge. But, first, it’s worth noting that private home care agencies are for-profit businesses; they’ll work hard to convince you that they’re the best ones to oversee the care of your loved one. So, before signing your name to a contract of any kind, think of the following as an interview – you do the interviewing:

1)  “Does your agency accept Medicare?”

If the services being provided are for activities of daily living – bathing, dressing, feeding – Medicare will not pay. They will only pay if skilled services like dressing changes or physical therapy are needed. Most likely you, or whoever is receiving care, will either have to pay out of pocket or use long-term care insurance, if you are fortunate enough to have a policy (see #2).

2)  Is your agency registered with the state?

Long before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, my father  bought long-term care insurance, in the event he would need care for an indeterminate amount of time. His policy doesn’t cover the cost of care with agencies not registered in the state in which he lives. I didn’t know this until after we hired the second agency, which was not registered. But Long-term care polices can be costly. I recently learned that most companies no longer offer insurance because they don’t have enough funds to pay benefits; however I heard that New York Life still does.

3)  Does your agency meet federal requirements for safety and health?

4)  How long has your agency been in business and do you have experience caring for people with Alzheimer’s, etc.? What are the primary services your agency provides?

5)  How experienced are your caregivers? Can I see references?

6)  How often do you conduct performance reviews? How are your home health trained, and how do you monitor their skills? Are they licensed? How do they handle emergencies like choking or a heart attack? Are they trained in CPR?

7)  Are caregivers able to drive clients to appointments, to lunch, etc.?

8)  Is there a lot of employee turnover? If so, why?

9)  Are you affiliated with local hospitals? If so, which ones?

10) Do you have case-managers? How often do they visit clients? Will they go to medical appointments? Are they available for emergencies? What are the fees for these services?

Depending on the agency, the fees can range between $125 and $165 per hour. Though it’s expensive, if your family can afford it, it’s worth it.  Case managers help coordinate all aspects of care, including assigning caregivers, and following-up with physicians. And they advocate for their clients.

11) What are the fees for caregiver hours?

12)  How often do you bill? Do you bill directly to long-term care insurance companies, or do clients have to pay upfront?

13)  How do you communicate with family? By email and/or phone. How often? Who are you allowed to speak with? All family members, or just a designated individual like a health care proxy or legal guardian?

If you’re the one designated to speak to the case manager and other staff, I urge you to remind them to send you updates on a regular basis, otherwise they will forget. Remember, you are your loved one’s voice.

Feel free to offer feedback.




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