Interview with Katherine Hauswirth, RN, MSN

Interview by: Sapana Panday, MPH, CCMEP, Director of Educational Development, The France Foundation, Almanac Editorial Board member

Sapana Panday, MPH, CCMEP, a director of educational development at The France Foundation, interviewed her co-worker Katherine Hauswirth, RN, MSN, who is a grant writer. Usually they are hatching plans for medical education, but, for a change of pace, they went beyond that topic and drew some parallels with Katherine’s creative writing life. Katherine’s new book of nature essays, “The Book of Noticing: Collections and Connections on the Trail,” launches with Homebound Publications this month.

SP: How have you been able to maintain a professional career while working on your passions on the side? Can you share some of your secrets to finding the time and discipline to make your book happen?

KH: First of all, The France Foundation is a supportive work environment, so that is a tremendous help. And I get stellar support from my husband, son, and extended family and friends, too. I have learned to be less shy about asking for what I need — whether that means a shift in work hours or a weekend afternoon to myself to get some creative writing done.

One big leap for me was splitting the rent on an inexpensive creative writing office near home, which gave me, as Virginia Woolf said, “a room of one’s own.” This commitment made me show up and more seriously “apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair” — a common expression among writers about there being no substitute for simply staying with it.

Also, it really helps me to connect with writers who are into all things nature and exchange critiques with them — this feeds my ongoing energy and interest while sharpening my skills. I also enter contests, which are a great motivator, especially when I win something! One of the pieces in my book won a Soul-Making Keats Literary Award, and part of my book is based on a writing residency that was awarded to me.

SP: Current medical writing tends to be pretty dry and scientific. How can we incorporate more creativity into medical education writing?

KH: Well, I think that science doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, it is often quite fascinating, and it often boils down to how you present the information. Many of the naturalists I cite in my book are heavily into the science of the natural world. In medical writing (and hopefully with all nonfiction), the work, of course, must always be fact-based, but the information won’t be absorbed, or sometimes won’t even be considered, if the learner isn’t engaged.

Creativity in education, which is a key way to engage the learner, is a true collaborative effort. I mostly do research and write needs assessments and learning objectives, which hopefully establishes a good foundation of information. But the people who create the educational content are always seeking ways to better create streamlined and eye- and ear-catching presentations, often incorporating multiple forms of media. Our chief medical officer ensures that we are accurate and on target, while also reflecting on actual clinician needs and priorities based on his own clinical experience. And our directors of educational development come to the table with innovative educational ideas — whether we use some sort of pre-education transmissions to build interest, employ a gaming format, or design the program in a way that has clinicians communicating about real practice challenges and solutions. Conversations incorporating all of these perspectives are a great way for us to keep our efforts fresh and relevant for the learner.

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SP: Conversely, did you find that your medical education experience helped in your creative writings? I mean, do you really put references in non-academic writing?

KH: My editor was quite amused by the fact that my book of essays about nature came with endnotes — a hard habit to break! The final format doesn’t have that; it’s got a big bibliography at the end instead. We didn’t want readers to get lost in all of the fine print. But I did want to be sure that all of the facts I looked up were verifiable and attributed properly, just like I want to be sure of that here at work!

A couple of other carryovers from the medical education world to the book world: First, professional connections matter. My book didn’t stop at two-dimensional sources; I talked to and learned from plenty of experts — via email, call or face-to-face, much in the way we reach out to expert faculty for their insights. And in my creative writing world as well as my CME world, having a good rapport with your sources tends to lead to good things — fresh new ideas, for instance. I also connected with organizations, like the local Audubon Society, that have a similar mission to mine — care of and interest in the natural world. It’s been mutually beneficial: they are hosting my book talks, and I am providing them with events that draw members. In CME, professional connections matter in much the same way. All parties benefit when the partnership is solid, and when the conversations continue beyond the project at hand.

Second, processes matter! So much research went into the book, but it didn’t end there. Then there were the many iterations of a proposal for the publisher, and, when the contract was signed, the many iterations of the book before it could be printed. At each step along the way, there were numerous phone calls or meetings, and back-and-forth emails. Does any of this sound familiar? How about: needs assessment, proposal, funding, hard work with faculty, the intense work of the education itself, and outcomes analysis and reporting? My publisher found a way to simplify the book process with an online communications platform, and we scheduled a timeline for hashing out details. Similarly, here at work, the weekly operations team meetings, the Outcomes Committee and kickoffs that walk through funded proposals help us all to stay on the same page, in terms of goals and results.

WB Yeats said that “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Isn’t that what we want for our learners? To get there we need to plan thoughtfully and well, from the very first spark of an idea to our final outcomes analysis, and even on from there. I suppose that’s a good metaphor for what I hope for with “The Book of Noticing,” too — readers who catch a spark and hopefully some flames that continue long after the book’s final page has been turned.

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SP: As a published writer, you’ve had to understand your audience and figure out how to reach out to them — something we do every day with our learners. Any advice that you picked up from the publishing world?

KH: Quite a lot, actually. Unless you are a very, very big name — like Stephen King or Joyce Carol Oates — today’s highly competitive publishing industry demands that writers do quite a lot on their own to attract readers. There are so much stimuli coming at people every day, from so many sources. I was advised to think about my demographic (middle-aged and up; probably more females than males) and the social media they are drawn to, and to have a genuine, give-and-take presence there. I was advised to keep communicating, but a key part of that is that it shouldn’t just be about “Buy my book! Buy my book!”—the reader has to feel that there’s something they are getting from me. The same is true for our medical education learners. They need something that catches their genuine interest; they need to trust the source; and then they need to be able to quickly ascertain what they might get from the education. They might need reminders, too, and we have to understand the difference between being helpful and over-communicating.

When I got into the final stages with the book, I started noting what made me sit up and pay attention, and what rose to the top of the bestseller lists in my category. Of course, in medical education, the audience isn’t just looking for entertainment or “feel-good” moments (although sometimes they don’t hurt!). They are there, specifically, to learn and to improve their practices. Learners, like readers, tend to show up and learn best when they feel engaged and enlivened. So figuring out how to engage people, provide what they are seeking and keep them engaged — that works in both the CME world and the publishing world.

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SP: Thanks for the conversation! Where can we find the book?

KH: Thank you. It was interesting to look at the parallels between my two worlds! “The Book of Noticing: Collections and Connections on the Trail” can be purchased on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble sites, and at many bookstores starting in mid-May.

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