Flash Diagnosis: Illness as Craft

September 9, 2021 § 7 Comments

By Sarah Fawn Montgomery

When my father became ill, time stopped, and with it, the words.

It was not that I was unfamiliar with writing with and through and perhaps because of pain—much of my writing centers on disability, my most recent book, Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir, scrawled during anxiety attacks, OCD compulsions, and PTSD flashbacks.

I am well familiar with writing with pain, hunched over the keyboard with a muscle spasm, trying to finish a page before fatigue sets in. Sometimes I take time away from writing when I’m in pain, a practice disabled writers must accept despite the loud proclamation of “write every day” that comes from abled writers and writing programs. I write by hand when I cannot stare at a screen because of chronic migraines, or in bed when chronic infection takes a month, then six, to heal. I do not keep track of hours or words or any of the other writing milestones simply unavailable to disabled writers. I do not write to escape illness, rather I look to disability to guide my practice and craft. Disability and illness are essential to my writing—they shape my work as they shape my life.

But when my father was diagnosed with cancer—hugging me goodbye at the airport on Father’s Day, given a grave warning from physicians the next—I could not write. Perhaps it wasn’t the words that went, but rather the time, the sense that I had space stretched in front of me to make stories, space to live in the past of memoir rather than the present, which was painful and fleeting.

I was nearly finished with a book manuscript, but suddenly I could not conceive of a project that spanned many years when the narrative of my life compressed into the moment of diagnosis. The book was about my father and our complicated relationship, and I could not make myself finish writing, complete, end, and final words that sent me hazy and uncertain.

While my experience as a disabled writer means I am more prepared than most to create when pain is the only given, my experience with chronic illness has never involved such proximity to death. I am unsure how to create while witnessing its opposite, how to build worlds when my own is crumbling.

As before, I turn to diagnosis to lead my craft. My father’s illness means we exist in brief. Our conversations are short because he does not have energy, because he is grieving and does not want to talk. Our moments of joy—a procedure, the promise of a new treatment—are quick before the next disaster reveals itself on a CAT scan.

So I write in brief. It is hard to conceive of a far-reaching future, so I focus on single moments. It is hard to focus on a work that might outlast my father, so I write what I can accomplish while he is here. I am overwhelmed by grief and fear and the medical responsibility I have assumed as a medical proxy and the oldest daughter of eight, so I focus on what I can control—a few paragraphs, a short burst of memory.

Time does not operate the way it did before, so neither does my writing. I spend 16 hours flying from one side of the country to the next, moving backwards against the sun as though I am a time traveler. When I look at what I have written those many hours, it is less than 1,000 words; I have started and stopped a dozen pieces. Writing feels like duty and distraction, a task calling me away from the important work of caregiving, yet one whose pleasure and control I am desperate for.

I lose hours each day on hold to hospitals and physicians, am constantly living in another time zone. My father takes hours to eat the calories he used to consume in minutes. He stops eating altogether, convinced he would rather end the narrative himself than see how the story plays out on its own. My mother and I repeat ourselves over and over on the phone, spiraling, meandering like we are told to do when writing essays. We search for new ways to craft this narrative, though nothing provides the resolution we hope.

When I feel distracted, pulled in a dozen directions—phone calls and medical paperwork and treatment follow-ups and sorrowful calls with my mother and cheerful attempts to console my father—I remember that I am still living. I do not need to write this story now or at all. I do not need to write like I used to, can instead condense memory, search for the moments that give meaning to my life. I write as I exist—in flash, in short bursts, emotion and time compressed—the way a memory can come from nowhere and send you reeling.

Now my writing mirrors my living—it is brief and urgent, sharp and vital. I write flash because it is the only way I know to process the story of my life coming to an end. I write flash because it is the only way I can light up the dark.

It feels wrong, in many ways, to think of writing when I am grieving so, when living in the present rather than ruminating on the past is essential. But I write to make sense of the world, to understand how the man who made his living building the fences that bordered and controlled the world feels to watch his own borders and control slip away. I write to remember his easy grin when he sped up his work truck, fence posts and chain-link rattling in the bed, rushing down dusty California backroads to give me a tickle-belly, Creedence Clearwater Revival on the radio and sunshine splayed across the dash.

I write to remember the sweet smell of sawdust on my father’s work boots, his strong calloused hands over my own as we placed our palms in wet cement to make ourselves last forever.


Sarah Fawn Montgomery is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir (The Ohio State University Press, 2018) and three poetry chapbooks. She recently edited a special “Experiences of Disability” issue of Brevity. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery

Disability as Nuance, Disability as Craft

September 16, 2020 § 3 Comments

In the introductory conversation around Brevity‘s special issue on the Experiences of Disability, Sonya Huber asks her fellow guest editors Keah Brown and Sarah Fawn Montgomery to discuss how disability shapes their writing process, including ways in which their disabilities can change and deepen what and how they write:

Sarah Fawn Montgomery: Of course disability impacts my writing by sometimes limiting when, if, or how much writing I can accomplish, but disability also deeply informs my craft. It is subject and structure, influencing everything from framing and pacing, to detail and syntax. Disability has also shifted my writing practice. I know that I might not always be well enough to write, so I take advantage of any opportunities and am grateful rather than critical of the work I produce during this time. I recognize that long stretches of writing time are not always possible and have learned to write in short spurts and in unexpected locations. Sometimes I write daily, but many times I do not, and I do not feel guilty for taking time away to care for my body and brain. I understand this as another kind of writing practice, because caring for ourselves away from the writing eventually allows us to put words on the page.

Keah Brown: Disability impacts and shapes every aspect of my life. I am not just my disability but it is the lens through which I navigate the world. The writing process is no different. Earlier on in my career, I felt beholden to discuss disability, and that left me resentful, but as I have matured and grown, both as a person and professionally, I have realized that disability is a part of the nuance I bring to my work. The lens of disability has allowed me to get creative on the days my body won’t allow me to work at all. Shaping the way I approach work, disability is at the center of my work particularly in holding myself and others accountable, as well as giving me the opportunity to be assertive in what I need in order to create and when I need to say no. The truth is this: disability does shape my writing process from beginning to end in precious and obvious ways, but more important than words on the page, is the ability to shape me as a person. I am such a cliché, friends!

You can read the full discussion here.

And access our special issue, “Experiences of Disability.”

Our Newest Issue: Experiences of Disability

September 15, 2020 § 2 Comments

We’ve posted our new issue this morning and we couldn’t be more pleased. The brief essays in this guest-edited special issue consider all aspects of illness and disability: what it is, what it means, how our understanding of disability is changing. The issue’s authors explore how disability is learned during childhood, lived over the entire course of a life, and how our changing understanding of disability shapes the way we experience ourselves and others.
Our anchor author is novelist and essayist Esmé Weijun Wang, author of the New York Times-bestselling essay collection, The Collected Schizophrenias. Other authors featured include Barbara Lanciers, Meg Le Duc, William Fargason, Ona Gritz, Kelly Weber, Maya Osman-Krinsky, Tiffany Promise, Ellen Samuels, Laura Brady, Jeanene Harlick, Amie McGraham, Katie Schwarz, Caroline Bock, and Erin Vachon.

The “Experiences of Disability” issue is guest edited by Keah Brown, Sonya Huber, and Sarah Fawn Montgomery. Artwork by Jill Khoury.

Read the new issue here: https://brevitymag.com/

4732 Millas de Distancia

November 15, 2018 § Leave a comment

By Erin Clark

Sometimes, when he’s working in rural Colombia, my friend Mau will take advantage of a moment of signal to send me his location. It appears in our chat as a red pin in the middle of a blank, white square with a tag that says something like: Mau: 4,732 millas de distancia. The terrain around him is so remote it is unmarked unless I zoom way out. He is not just far away, he is unreachable.

Memoir writing is often a bid for closure. Memoirists face the challenge of how to get the approval they crave from the people they’re writing about so they can let their story rest in peace. I had Mau’s blessing to write our story, but I didn’t want closure, I wanted him here.

November 2017 was the last time we were in the same place. I visited him in Bogotá and instead of touring the city, he arranged a series of photoshoots re-creating romantic scenes in iconic movies, but with my wheelchair in them. What started as re-creations became real romance. I wrote everything down. What we said, what happened, how it felt to me. I sent it to him.

“What do you think?” I asked. I was asking as a woman. I wanted to know if I got it right. Was it just me? Do you feel this way, too? But I am also a writer. I publish the stories I write. On Instagram, on my blog, on the internet, for the public.

Mau’s work restricts what he reveals about himself in public. My work is the exact opposite. So I was also asking, “Is this ok to say?”

When I send subjects my writing, I sometimes get minor corrections, and always happy permission. But Mau gave me more than permission, he got into it. His suggestions went beyond protecting his work into line edits on mine.

“I hate the word ‘aqua,’ and I think ‘saltily bobbing’ sounds weird,” he said about one of my early vignettes.

I responded with impeccable calm: “Editors don’t tell writers what words to use! I pick each word very carefully. THAT’S WHAT WRITING IS!!!!  Also, the Mediterranean Sea is aqua when the sun hits it.”

He doesn’t get it, I whimpered to myself. But I also had to admit his input was remarkably good.

“I think the ‘ghostwriter’ thing is perfect, and the piece should end there. I would cut the last two paragraphs that feel like they might be part of another piece.”

Mau was right. But more than that, his investment in my writing felt like intimacy.

I kept writing about us until I had 8,000 words of an essay that didn’t feel complete.

“I think you need to put in everything that happened. Not just the photo shoots, but when we met, and all of that. Even the ugly bits,” Mau told me.

I took the classic writing advice, opened a vein and bled on the page until I was over 12,000 words.

It took two months before Mau could read through it. An agony to any writer. A time that seemingly brushed past him without much concern for my suffering.

“I want to be able to devote myself to it,” he said, when I pestered.

“Yes. That’s good,” I said, without relief. It would be easy to wait if I just wanted his approval. But I wanted his devotion.

Finally, he took the essay to the library in Bogotá. “It’s very beautiful and romantic, I love libraries.” He sent me two emails worth of notes.

I had hated the waiting.

I resisted his notes even more.

I loved every second of his attention on the longest and most personal writing project I had ever undertaken.

“You need a punchier beginning,” he wrote. “My speech is too long. Starting with it somehow makes it seem like the focus of the essay is on my bisexuality/HIV.”

“The beginning is so flawless.” I said, demonstrating how I would prefer he commented. “Using your whole speech makes the reader wonder how you could be cynical about love, while I feel so sure we are falling in love at the same moment. I love that part!”

“It’s just that it reads to me like the thing is about ME, and it’s about US. But I see what you mean. Maybe just breaking up that paragraph into two at, “eating off his plate”?

I broke the paragraph in two.

Early in our collaborating, when his first suggestions involved deferring to the bureaucracy he works for instead of the integrity of the piece, I emailed my writer-friend Misha, in a fit of tangled appreciation and frustration. She responded:

To include him in the writing, you have to relinquish some control. Is this something we have to do to include people in our lives more generally speaking? Is this a challenge that will absolutely constrain your work, or after the understandable frustration subsides, might there be a creative possibility that will allow you say what you want while ensuring it’s in bounds for Mau?

She was right. I was bristling against the constraints exactly as I would if he was living in my space and making me adjust my solitary life to his presence. We had decided to not be in a long-distance relationship, but inside my writing we were…relating. Arguing, reaching for understanding, connecting, collaborating, compromising.

When memoirists write about those we love, we risk a harrowing disapproval of how we saw and experienced things. We also risk the equally harrowing experience of being seen as we are and accepted.

If Mau and I had proximity, our affection could be physical. And if it ever came to that, as a writer, I would feel nostalgic for this. For 4,732 millas de distancia, with nothing but white space, a blank page, and his attention, waiting for me to fill it with words.


Erin Clark has been published in 21+1: The Fortune Teller’s Rules, and Life as Ceremony Vol 4. Her essay “Pee Spot” won Beecher’s literary award for non-fiction (as judged by Joy Castro). Her most recent work is Love All The Way, a mini digital memoir weaving video clips and professional photographic recreations of classic romantic movie scenes with Erin as heroine, her wheelchair on full display. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Photo credit: Diego Moncayo

You’re So Brave! Hip Chicks On Writing Memoir

May 20, 2016 § 3 Comments

Sandra Gail Lambert, author of the Brevity essay “Sex Objects,” talks with poet and memoirist Michele Leavitt about disability and the tension and paradox between her day-to-day “nothing to see here” strategy for dodging inappropriate praise bullets and her deep work as a memoir writer.

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