Editor’s note: This series of pieces come from a course project (described below) taught in the Spring of 2018. These projects were created by Human Health students, all of whom agreed to have their work posted here, in an innovative class taught by Dr. Chris Eagle from The Center for the Study of Human Health. Today’s post was written by that faculty member and describes the course and the project. Student projects will be posted over the coming weeks. We hope that you enjoy learning about what our students are doing and join us in celebrating their wonderful work!
How do our bodies shape the way we write, and how do we tell effective stories about our bodies? These are some of the most pressing questions in my field of Health Humanities. They were also the guiding questions for a continued-writing class I led Spring semester called Writing Bodies, where my students and I dissected 15 fictional masterpieces on a wide range of embodied states: chronic illness, dying, addiction, amputation, assault, pregnancy, abortion, blindness, paralysis, deformity, dementia, PTSD, and traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). Each student was then required to submit their own original work of fiction. They could write on any topic they chose, so long as it dealt with the lived experience of embodiment. For the next four intense weeks, we then workshopped each other’s story drafts in the format of a typical Creative Writing class.
Considering the diverse interests and backgrounds of our Human Health majors, I can’t say I was all that surprised by the incredible variety of writing projects I received- powerful, talented stories on topics like bone cancer, Alzheimer’s, heart attacks, insomnia, sex addiction, drug addiction, disability, genetic predispositions, Body Identity Integrity Disorder, accident proneness, and so on. Almost all their stories also showed a subtle appreciation of the emotional toll that care-taking can take on family members. Some stories seemed to draw from personal experience. Some not. We left it to the authors to reveal that or not. Yet in a profound sense, it didn’t matter all that much, because every student managed to write in a way that revealed something universal about the challenges and fragilities of embodiment.
As a class in both advanced literary analysis and introductory creative writing, we operated day-by-day under a very simple hypothesis: every good writer starts off as a great reader. For me, being a great reader has always been modeled on what one of my favorite teachers of literature, the novelist and professor Vladimir Nabokov, once called “fondling details.” With that expression, Nabokov had in mind reading great works of literature with an almost obsessive attention to the minutest details, in other words, dwelling on the very kinds of diction and imagery that tend to get skipped over during more superficial modes of reading. This is a practice I unapologetically enforce in all my classes through reading quizzes that tell me just how carefully – Nabokov would say ‘lovingly’ – my students have collectively fondled the details on any given day.
My favorite memory from this particular group of students will always be how they rose to that challenge, especially in those 10 minutes or so right before class had started. Nowadays, those 10 minutes tend to be all-too-silent, with everybody either scrolling idly away on their smartphones or frantically texting or both. But this group was different. This group used those 10 minutes to quiz each other on the pop quiz they may or may not be about to take. Just in case. How did Ivan hurt himself again? Where was Gregor hoping to send his sister? What was the color of the blindman’s clothes? What did Fiona name her two dogs? What were the contents of Manley Pointer’s valise? Almost invariably, this would spiral off into a chaotic rehashing of favorite scenes and ‘shook’ reactions to the more shocking moments in the stories I’d assigned. Listening to them develop together week by week into outstanding readers and writers was easily one of the most meaningful experiences I’ve ever had as a teacher.