Course Syllabus

Extraordinary Embodiment: Writing Chronic Illness & Disability

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Complete Syllabus

Although illness and disability are universal human experiences, written works about these experiences can be narrowly categorized by publishers, editors, market forces and even reader expectations into “inspirational” narratives that limit your reflection and complex experience, shutting down your creative work and your inquiry. How do you write freely, understanding and pushing against the expected narratives that hold you back? 

PLEASE NOTE: This class is limited to those who are writing about their own bodies and minds.

While the perspective of the caregiver and the family member is equally important, the issue of writing about others brings up a range of challenges that require their own attention. Therefore, the brevity of this class requires a focus, so this class is designed for those who have some experience with memoir and narrative essays and want to focus on writing about personal experiences with chronic illness and/or disability.

How it works:

Each week provides:

  • writing prompts and/or assignments
  • discussions of assigned readings and other general writing topics with peers and the instructor
  • written lectures and a selection of readings

Some weeks also include:

  • opportunities to submit a full-length essay or essays for instructor and/or peer review (up to 4,000 words)

To create a better classroom experience for all, you are required to participate weekly to receive instructor feedback on your work.

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Week 1: Immersion in Flash Prose
This week will begin with short vivid pieces of nonfiction writing about chronic illness and disability and then working on your own. Because so much pressure is put on those with extraordinary bodies to explain their existence, this class will completely relieve that pressure: no explanation necessary. You will experiment with flash and compression.

Week 2: What Science Sees and Cannot See
As the expert on your own extraordinary body, you often have a great deal of background data to convey to readers to understand key scenes in your narratives. The dilemmas in presenting research about your condition include bogging down your texts, medicalizing your life story, and shifting the focus away from lived experience. You will look at the ways in which authors writing the extraordinary body have integrated and talked back to research and then try to use these models in your writing.

Week 3: Shaping Longer Essays
This week delves into longer essays, asking how an essay of extraordinary embodiment uses structure, voice, narrative, and image to support the weight of the essay. You will share ideas for essays in 500-word concept-blasts that others in the class will comment on and ask questions about.

Week 4: Resistance & Manifesto
How is your body framed as a person with a chronic illness or disability, and how do you resist that framing? What would you like to rant about? What is your manifesto of embodied experience? This week will free your voice and claim space to write about your versions of reality, thinking about how to challenge your readers and yourself with vulnerability and honesty. You will write and share your Body Manifesto.

Week 5: Experimental and Visual Forms
During this week, you will share a draft of a longer essay for peer critique. For inspiration, you will look at the ways in which writers have used experimental forms and formats to convey the experience of chronic illness and disability.


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Questions? Check out our FAQ page, or please direct them to the Director of Education, Sharla Yates at yates[at]