On not writing about illness


I don’t want to write about this, she said.

For the woman who spoke these too familiar words to me, this was illness. Insidious, consuming, chronic. I nodded because it was also my story, just with different symptoms.

We spoke in the shorthand we had each become practiced at employing around our narratives, framing conditions that did not, in spite of our best efforts, abate. How subpar health care providers fell short or failed outright. How compromises to job security and social connection had greyed our quality of life. How the dance toward some kind of acceptance had asked (and still asks) for grace but we often had to substitute grit.

I don’t know how to write about this, I thought. And I wondered if that was what, deep down, she had meant.

Ten years ago, in the middle of working on my MFA, I moved from Iowa to my Pacific Northwest home, partly to end the commute straining my marriage but also to seek the medical care my body clearly needed. I didn’t get better. I almost didn’t graduate — not because I was too ill, but because trying to keep the illness out of my writing made it nearly impossible to write.

The body is one of our most powerful lenses for interpreting our experiences. Trying to compartmentalize the chaos in my physical world so I could keep operating in the mental one ground my work to a halt, and what I was able to force onto the page felt lifeless and untrue.

I’ve learned since then that giving illness its space outside my body — acknowledging it in words — gives me back space within for the rest of my story. It does not mean I let the illness narrative take over. But in ceding a little room for it in my practice, I find more capacity to connect with the physical memories essential to the larger history I’m trying to unearth.

How do I write about illness when I need to reclaim that space? “Take notes,” author Dylan Landis urged each writer listening to her keynote address at Vortext. Her words were intended as more general advice for writer’s block, but I’ve been leaning on them in this particular realm since that weekend. May had more than its share of medical diversions, including one during the conference itself, which landed me in the ER.

But I refuse to let all this turn into silence. So I’m simply writing what I observe when space feels scarce, as it did at times last month — moving the experience out of my flesh to re-examine when I’m ready.

How does illness, chronic or otherwise, impact your creative process? How does it hinder, and how does it reveal truths you might not otherwise examine? I invite you to
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