Save the Date! “On Writing the Illness Narrative” workshop, September 14

On Writing the Illness Narrative

Date: Saturday, September 14, 2019, 10 am-4 pm
Location: The Abigail Stuart House
Facilitator: Tamara Sellman
Registration: available on the Olympia Writing Center page, or call 360-531-1472.

Writing about chronic disease, disability, invisible illness, injury, trauma, even death (by certain approaches), has long been the subject of taboo among editors and publishers.

In 2019, the tide has shifted somewhat–the stories of living with these conditions (or caring for someone who does) are becoming an acceptable “genre.”

And we, not just as individuals but as a society, need a nonclinical way to understand and process these health problems. Stories can document pain, loss, dysfunction, rejection, discrimination, and other major challenges that bely these underpinnings of illness in ways that Dr. Google (or real doctors) cannot.

These stories can also play witness to resilience, resolve, grit, humor and triumph of the spirit over the physical or emotional barriers that the body can erect against one’s will.

While it can take Herculean courage to write one’s story of illness or injury, it can be quite another thing to turn this necessary narrative into a piece of work that can find a home in magazines, books, or online. And there are still barriers to success, even for the best writers out there… All the more reason to share one’s truth and open up the world to the realities of living with illness and disability.

In Writing the Illness Narrative, we’ll review the Ws:

  • What is “illness narrative?” (Some historical background)
  • Why writing illness narrative matters
  • Why reading illness narrative matters
  • Who can write “illness narrative?”
  • Where can you find illness narrative? (great examples from past and present, print and digital, outside literary forms, too)
  • Ho(W) can we write illness narrative (a survey of literary forms, genre as a “way in,” with a look at reader expectations)

In this workshop, if time allows, we can also discuss:

  • the pragmatics of writing while sick/disabled/injured
  • cultural barriers to expect (and transcend)
  • resources for mastering the genre
  • caregiver concerns and support systems
  • ideas for creating collectives and communities

Depending on the length of the workshop, there can be writing assignments/homework (for series workshop), as well as some short space for writing in class on a specific and relevant topic (for single workshops).

Forms discussed are unlimited; “illness narrative” can be told through lyric, prose, images, spoken word, journalism, short stories, dance… any kind of narrative form. However, we will primarily discuss written forms only (poetry, personal essay, long and short fiction, longform and shortform blog, creative nonfiction).

Workshop participants will receive handouts and links.


By day, Tamara Sellman, RPSGT CCSH, writes about sleep disorders and chronic health conditions for nonprofit, education, and healthcare advocacy publications. On evenings and weekends, she stakes claims to her own experiences as a person with MS through poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. Her own illness narrative work has appeared in several publications, including Cirque, North American Review, Pioneertown, Switched-on Gutenberg and others, as well as the MS anthology, “Something on Our Minds” (2015, 2017). Her novel, “Borderlands,” which features a head trauma patient and her assistance dog, was a finalist in the 2012 PNWA mystery contest. She recently completed a hybrid collection of work exploring life after MS diagnosis, “Intentional Tremor,” and is at work on a post-apocalypse novel featuring a disabled community tentatively titled “Welcome to New Normal.” More info:

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