Course Syllabus

The Wounded Storyteller: Crafting the Illness Narrative

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Complete Syllabus

Stories of illness can be hard to write and even harder to read, asking writers to render vividly long timelines, entangled ailments, periods of disorientation, and dense, technical language—while not overwhelming readers with the grief of loss or proximity to death. And yet these stories are essential to our understanding of what it means to be human.

In this 10-week online course, writers will craft nonfiction narratives that explore the experience of illness. We’ll begin by discussing the established value of writing about such experiences, exploring the difference between writing that is primarily therapeutic and writing that seeks to reach literary audiences. Next, we’ll explore how craft choices can help writers avoid the common narrative pitfalls of illness writing, using exercises on chronology, framing, structure, research, and character-building to glimpse the different ways stories might be told. Near the end of our time together, we’ll consider the book-length illness narrative and clarify for ourselves why we should tell illness stories at all—what our experience has to offer the world.

Whether you are just beginning to tell the story of your own illness, or you have written a book that you know needs tightening, this workshop will provide you with the craft tools and support to critically and creatively approach unwieldy stories of illness.

How it works:

Each week provides:

  • 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:

  • writing prompts and/or assignments
  • opportunities to submit a full-length essay for instructor and/or peer review (up to 3,500 words and typically in weeks 3, 6, and 9)
  • optional video conferences that are open to all students in Week 2 (and which will be available afterwards as a recording for those who cannot participate)

Aside from the live conference, there is no need to be online at any particular time of day.
To create a better classroom experience for all, you are expected to participate weekly in class discussions to receive instructor feedback on your work.

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Week 1: The Challenge of Telling Stories of Illness
What does it mean to tell illness stories well? We’ll begin class with an overview of the hurdles writers face—from the social expectation that a story end in triumph, to the desire to include every appointment, to the dense medicalized language that bogs down narratives. We’ll also discuss how physiological trauma from these experiences can impact a writing practice. You will share what brought you to this moment of telling your story, and which roadblocks you suspect will be yours.

Week 2: The Tyranny of Play-by-Play
This week, we’ll discuss how writers like Eve Ensler and Sarah Manguso use short, titled sections to span a long period of time, while also circumventing the expectation that their stories unfold chronologically or as a unified narrative, a tool that can help with disorientation and trauma. You will practice building and breaking your timelines on the page, identifying smaller moments that can be entry points to writing about periods of life.

Week 3: Bite-sized Intensity
How do we build painful scenes in ways that readers can bear (at least enough to keep reading)? This week, we’ll go even deeper into the use of fragments in illness essays, considering how section titles, length variation, ordering and dispersal of scenes, characters, humor, and the inclusion of non-illness stories can help texture and pace a narrative.

Week 4: The Terrible & the Beautiful: Character and Syntax
It’s easy to turn doctors into villains; it’s easy for medical language to become a briar patch on the page. This week, we observe how writers build fully human, complex characters and render technological and biological explanations in elegant, sharp language—and practice elevating our own.

Week 5: Beginnings
A diagnosis is often the moment we realize we’re living a story, but it’s rarely the actual beginning of the condition. It’s also a minefield for cliches. This week we’ll read beginnings from many different illness writers as you practice writing (and rewriting) your own beginning, seeking the opening that will surprise and seduce readers.

Week 6: Time Management in Illness
A horrible moment can swell, taking up room on the page; hard years might be described simply and left to resonate. This week, we’ll look at examples of when a narrative needs to move quickly through time and when it should linger in scene and reflection. Then you’ll practice writing the same events different ways.

Week 7: Framing
Our illnesses unfold in the messy midst of the rest of our lives. But one essay can’t contain everything. This week, we’ll consider the question of how to write toward one question at a time, considering what we can exclude and how external structures can help naturally contain what each essay is trying to do.

Week 8: Not Just Your Story
Sometimes the dramatic stories we’ve lived feel strangely flat on the page: like our entire identity is victimhood, and we’re alone in it. This week, you will identify and play with the stories that lie beneath and around your story, from other family members living with the same conditions to the partner who holds back your hair, seeking tension and depth.

Week 9: Incorporating Research in Compelling Ways
Our illnesses unfold in larger contexts: political, historical, environmental, technological, familial, and more. How might we use research in ways that build textured, meaningful arcs, and how do we avoid rendering that research in yawn-worthy ways? This week you’ll craft tense and playful prose from the diverse sources you gather.

Week 10: What Is the Point of Illness (and Telling Stories of Illness)?
Illness is no gift itself, and yet our experiences often come with a “boon,” something hard-won we carry with us. In this final week, you’ll practice walking the thin line between the trite and the poignant, noticing how writers featured during the course have made meaning from their experiences. As a group, we’ll also reflect on when the book length—versus the essay length—most powerfully communicates experiences with illness.

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Questions? Check out our FAQ page or contact our Director of Education, Sharla Yates, at yates[at]