Write about a fever. Write about a headache. Write about snorting and snuffling your way through the common cold.
You may see these as boring writing prompts. Who cares, you might ask, about someone who’s taking his temperature every other minute? What’s so exciting about popping a couple of Tylenol? Do I really want to write about snot?
The purpose of this article is to convince you that illness–even in its most mundane manifestation–is a storyworthy topic, particularly when you are working within the mode of realistic fiction. Your characters are made of flesh and bone and blood. They love, they hate. They also blow their nose and do what my mother calls “numero uno and numero due” in the bathroom. Why, then, do so many beginning writers shy away from such readily-available story material?
You might think illness–especially the common kind–doesn’t make for a scintillating plot. Isn’t it more exciting, you might argue, to develop a story around a more dramatic conflict–such as a car crash or burglary or rape, or maybe even something really “out there” like a nuclear holocaust or alien invasion?
Ordinarily I counsel students who are focused on infusing their fiction with such high drama to turn off the television (or Hulu or Netflix). But let’s keep the TV on for just a second to prove my point. Why have medical dramas always been popular on television? From Dr. Kildare and Marcus Welby, M.D. to ER and House and Grey’s Anatomy, viewers always have been drawn to the exploration of how our bodies go awry. Fiction writers can easily tap into this interest. They must, however, approach illness in a much less melodramatic way.
If you watch an episode of one of these aforementioned shows, you’ll note that the illness or disease explored is often something ridiculously rare that evades simple diagnosis. There’s plenty of big-time drama rolling–and neatly getting solved–within sixty minutes: Bring on the flesh-eating bacteria! The Siamese twins who share a heart! The patients who code! The doctors and the nurses who screw each other senseless in the medical-supply closets!
I hardly advocate trying to replicate such drama on the page. First of all, most writers are not medical professionals. We don’t have the knowledge base–or the vocabulary–to explore life (and death) in the hospital. We cannot possibly expect to write a satisfying and credible tale about those Siamese twins within the brief span of fifteen to twenty pages.
What we can do is ease into writing about more dramatic illnesses–such as cancer or AIDS–by first learning how to write about common complaints.
Let’s go back to one of the first writing prompts: write about a fever. One of Raymond Carver’s most-anthologized stories–aptly titled “Fever”–does just that. This is a very simple story about a man named Carlyle whose wife has left him alone with two young children. Carlyle’s most immediate conflict is his need to find a reliable babysitter. But as the story progresses, he also must come to terms with his wife’s decision to run off with another man and must face the responsibilities of life as a single father.
He does this by “doing” what the body often does in times of great stress. He gets ill. Spikes a fever. His delirium becomes a stand-in for his confusion. He “sweats through” his problems and comes out on the other side more accepting of his fate.
Like other contemporary writers, Carver uses a common illness as a metaphor for an emotional state. So next time you sit down to write, consider the metaphorical possibilities of the following:
- a headache
- an earache
- dry eye
- strep throat
What deeper conflicts might be related to these problems? Maybe your character develops a migraine thinking about an impending divorce or home foreclosure. Maybe he or she develops an ulcer from working a stressful retail job during holiday season.
Once we learn how to write about minor bodily problems in our short fiction, we are better equipped to tackle more serious ailments in longer work. A novel gives us plenty of time to pace the progression of a character’s response to terminal or chronic illness. You might think that readers want to avoid steeping themselves in such depressing topics. But we need only glance at the best-seller list to see the popularity of fiction devoted to illness. Novels such as John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Jodi Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper draw us in precisely because they deal with huge life and death issues.
So beginning writers: get out your thermometer, your Tylenol, and your NyQuil Sinus, put them in the hands of your characters, and get to work.