Editor’s note: This is the second student reflection about a course taught in the Spring of 2018. For more information about the course see the introductory post from this series by the course’s instructor, Dr. Chris Eagle from The Center for the Study of Human Health.

Health 385W: Writing Bodies has challenged students, including myself, through works by writers such as Flannery O’Connor, Tolstoy, Michael Chabon, and other remarkable fictional Authors, to view the body through the eyes of literature. The class pushes the boundaries of our everyday thinking and prompts the consideration of lived human experiences outside of what we are used to. Truth be told, while our bodies are the primary vehicles through which we interact with our environment, in states of health, we rarely consider embodiment. Unless faced with a condition that disrupts our usual functions, a step is just a step, each breath goes almost unnoticed, and our lives as social beings continue in a usual fashion. But that’s the thing about illness, disability, pain, what have you—it brings us back to our bodies.Being tasked with constructing a short story in which embodiment is the central premise seemed a challenging task, at first, for those of us who had never produced a fictional piece of literature and furthermore had suffered from nothing more than the common cold or a sprained ankle. Yet, exposure to vivid short stories concerning illness and an emphasis on the humanities, proved most instrumental in getting me to view embodiment as something that could be richly written of and that ought to be expressed more through writing.

Empathy is an important skill in writing fiction.
Empathy is an important skill in writing fiction. Image by GNOME icon artists

After getting over the initial hurdle of subject matter (i.e. Which human condition am I going to write about?), I was free to explore the differing aspects of the condition I chose:

What is everyday life like for those living with this condition?

What is it like being a family member or a friend of someone with the condition?

What stereotypes are often attributed to the condition?

Although some of the work put into the making of our short stories required research of the actual condition, the bulk of our writing was driven by a sort of empathetic creativity. That is, creativity that comes from being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. While some of us may have never experienced illness or disability, very few of us can say that they do not know anyone who has or that we can’t imagine, to some extent, what it must be like. Many times while I was writing my paper, I found myself, eyes closed, imagining what it might be like to be in the position of the character— what I might feel, how I might respond, what I might think- and from this place of empathetic creativity, a 3,000-word short story was birthed.

I believe courses like these make us more human. They stretch our paradigms of what it means to be human, and furthermore, what it means to be a great writer. A good writer, perhaps, can tell in lengthy and elaborate detail the experiences which they have lived. A great writer, on the other hand, can see through the eyes of others and form a rich and meaningful piece of literature that neither dilutes nor misconstrues that reality. If illness, disability, and pain bring us back to our bodies, so too does writing about the body.

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