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Barr gets personal

Writing fellowship results in three publications

Emily Barr

When Emily Barr learned that the McGovern Center for Humanities & Ethics would offer a writing fellowship, she applied with a specific goal in mind – to submit for publication an essay she began working on years earlier as part of her PhD application.

“I have been writing for many years, trying to describe my experiences not only as a part of processing my own feelings, but also to help others,” said Barr, PhD, CPNP-PC, CNM, FAAN, an assistant professor at Cizik School of Nursing at UTHealth Houston. “Whether you are writing a grant proposal, a scientific paper, or a poem, you are telling a story, and I wanted to improve my writing skills.”

Barr was the only nurse in that first cohort of the Intensive Writer’s Workshop for Health Professionals, and she has long been drawn to exploring the intrinsic humanity of health care and science. She earned a Bachelor of Science in communication arts with a focus on scientific writing from Cornell University and completed her PhD on the caring science track at the University of Colorado College of Nursing. Caring science focuses on elevating nursing from a task-oriented profession to a relationship-centered practice, focusing on the emotional and holistic well-being of patients with an emphasis on self-care.

After completing her undergraduate degree in 1990, Barr volunteered at a lay monastery in Northern California, caring for children with HIV and AIDS. The experience inspired her to pursue a career devoted to parents and children with HIV as a pediatric nurse practitioner, nurse midwife, and researcher. The writing fellowship helped her hone her origin-story essay and get it published in the journal AIDS.

“I want to build on that,” she said. “I have 30 years of stories about caring for people with HIV that I would like to share.”

The workshop also opened a door for Barr to explore the even more personal topic of sibling grief.

Barr experienced this particular type of sorrow in a way most of us never will – her late brother was the Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died from a drug overdose in 2014. Because of who he was, reminders of his life and death were inescapably everywhere.

“I feel like this piece is mostly saying, ‘While you all lost an actor, I lost my brother, I lost this person I loved and grew up with,’” Barr said of her essay recently published in The Paris Review. “You will read the part about the different characters he played, and then you will see my connection to him. This is what happened to me, to us, after we lost him.”

Barr typically keeps private that fact that she had a famous brother, but she decided to go forward with the publication in hopes of helping others struggling with the loss of a sibling.

In addition to the essay, a poem about her reaction to her brother’s death was published online in The Perch, a creative arts journal published by the Yale Program for Recovery and Community Health and the College Letters of Wesleyan University.

Barr credits feedback from her writing fellowship classmates with helping her polish her pieces. Most of the other participants wrote about the life-and-death experiences that happen in their jobs every day, she said.

“Through medical humanities, we can process the really hard stuff we face every day as nurses and physicians and help people understand it better. It offers another way of knowing,” she said. “I would really love to see more nurses in the program. It helps you think about writing in a different way, even when you are writing for publication and grants. Our brains need that.”

The program is open to all clinicians and scientists in the Houston area, said McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics Director Rev. Nathan Carlin, PhD. Fellows meet for three hours, one evening a month from October through May to discuss assigned readings and share their work with classmates.

Leading the course is Pritha Bhattacharyya, PhD, MFA, fiction and Inprint C. Glenn Cambor Fellow in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston and Inprint Writer-in-Residence with the McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics.

Learn more and apply for the 2024-2025 cohort by August 15.

Read the works Dr. Emily Barr published as result of her participation in the Intensive Writer’s Workshop for Health Professionals.

 “Vespers: A nursing origin story set in the dawn of the HIV pandemic” (2024). AIDS, 38(6), 925-927.    

Encyclopedia Brown: A Story for My Brother, Philip Seymour Hoffman,” The Paris Review, April 22, 2024.

“Paparazzi,” The Perch, April 25, 2024.

Sherri Deatherage Green

In this story

Emily A Barr, PhD, RN, CPNP-PC, CNM, FAAN

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