How to Write a Book about Illness


read the whole manuscript out loud to your dog.
Read the whole manuscript out loud to your dog.

  • Wait until you are well enough to sit at a desk and work at a keyboard.

  • Go to your favorite bookstore; see an ad for a writing coach.

  • Call the unknown coach as soon as you get home.

  • Tell the coach you don’t know how to write; she will scoff at this.

  • She will say you need to kill your darlings.

  • Eventually you will begin to write about your illness, even if you’d rather not.

  • Writing about your illness will create an undertow; it will grab hold of you.

  • Do not struggle; do not try to return to shore.

  • Write all the details you remember.

  • Write about the protectiveness of denial.

  • Write about pushing hard against every symptom until they take you down.

  • Write about dazzling high fevers.

  • Write about multiple blood draws.

  • Write about a rash that can’t be soothed.

  • Write about boredom, loneliness and fear.

  • Write about hopelessness.

  • Write about knowing the edge of death.

  • Do not soft pedal.

  • Do not avoid bad smells, nightmares, the prospect of sacrificing body parts in order to live.

  • You will cry when you write about your baby boy replacing you with his babysitter.

  • You will cry about everything else you lost.

  • Write about the helpers: the sound of a shaman’s drum, the love of a teacher, the one visitor who came every day without exception.

  • You will cry when you write about the smallest beginnings of recovery: the simple act of a walk outdoors on a sunlit morning.

  • Write about your gratitude

  • When you think you’re finished, go alone to a cabin on a lake shore and read the whole manuscript out loud to your dog.

  • There will be a blizzard.

  • And a power outage.

  • It will be very cold.

  • You will tell the dog that the book isn’t working; that the book will never work; it is too long, too boring, disjointed and complicated.

  • You will want to throw the book into the lake; don’t.

  • When you return home you’ll realize you’re done with your old writing coach.

  • You’ll think it’s also time to be done with the manuscript.

  • Put the failed book in a box and shove it to the back of a closet.

  • Do not touch the book for eight years.

  • Let go of your day job and enroll in an MFA program; you will learn you really are a writer.

  • You will meet a new coach who thinks your book is worth saving; hire her.

  • One day everything in your car, including your annotated manuscript, will be stolen.

  • You will weep as if your dog has died.

  • Your new coach will remind you she has another copy.

  • Together you and she will cut and stitch and revive the bloated manuscript.

  • You will finish it.

  • It will be published.

  • You’ll be glad you didn’t throw it into the lake.

  • You will begin the next project.


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