Artistic License to Ill

Courtesy of Flagstaff Medical Center

After a year off, I’m starting to send out work to literary magazines again. After having a good laugh at my thesis and writing and editing a number of other pieces, I decided it was time to figure out what kind of essays literary magazines have been publishing in the last two years.
I read each essay in the neglected magazines I subscribe to, and began making my way through the online content of my thirty favorites—the ones I lust after the most—and I uncovered a common theme. The huge chunk of the essays being published are about illness—with the unmistakable prevalence of cancer. Some of these sickness pieces are wonderful and succeed in transcending the trope, and there are many books, particularly Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Trillin’s Ask Alice, that are stunning.
But when I was a student reading slush, I used to joke about the “sickness essay” because it seemed like nearly a third of what I had to read for the magazine opened up with somebody on their deathbed: the writer, a spouse, a child, a friend, or a parent. The writer would invariably shift the narrative to when the subject of the essay had displayed their first symptom (unknown to them at the time) and for the sake of juxtaposition, include another scene where the sufferer was perfectly healthy. A good portion of these pieces do everything they can to keep their sometimes overwhelming emotions quiet on the page in order to dodge any accusation of sentimentality—the death sentence for any written work. All of these pieces were well written, and undoubtedly at least one person at the editorial meeting had clutched their heart and swooned over the “lines.” But isn’t the human experience a little broader than that?
For someone like me, who’s healthy and fortunate enough to have friends and family who don’t suffer from any serious malady, the gates to this apparent sub-genre of creative nonfiction are locked. If only someone close to me would just die, or become seriously ill—but not cancer, I’d prefer a diagnosis no one’s ever heard of (you know, to inform readers)—I could finally cobble together a magnificent essay that has everything: interesting facts, family, have something at stake and an emotional arc. All I’d need is a sacrificial acquaintance, preferably a flaky friend, but I’d settle for someone from school. Or I could write something from my own deathbed.
Should all essayists keep a WebMD link on their desktop?
Thankfully there are still many fine pieces of nonfiction getting published, and some of them are and will always be sickness essays. I think the sickness essay has a lot in common with the war movie. There’s so much emotional crap already built into them that mediocrity is easy to achieve, while greatness is exponentially more difficult. They’ll both be around as long as the rest of us keep buying tickets and slowing down as we pass the scene of a car accident.

9 Comments

  • Marcus says:

    You could start injecting yourself with (or ingesting) various toxins and write about the effects & influences of each. Different dosages, too. Probably enough there for a whole collection of essays. Title it “Under the Sink: My year-long journey of self-inflicted sickness”

    • Scott Eubanks says:

      William Burroughs already wrote Naked Lunch. It even has a drug glossary in the back with advice on how to get off them (usually by substituting one drug for another).

      • Marcus says:

        Oh, right. That’ll teach me to actually read the books on the nightstand.

        • Scott Eubanks says:

          You and me both. After faking it for 32 years, even refering to it in converstaions and papers, I’ve finally read The Great Gatsby.

          • Marcus says:

            I read the first twenty pages of Tender Is the Night about a week ago. Probably won’t ever finish it.

            How many English majors wrote papers on books they never read?

            • Scott Eubanks says:

              I figure I faked reading around a dozen books. I’d like to thank multiple choice testing, and in particular, the Los Angeles Unified School District. I just read the Odyssey, but I’m still avoiding making eye contact with Anna Karanina. It’s too big and Russian.

  • Hopefully nobody in your family will get ill Scott and you won’t have to write the sickness essay, but there’s always the sickness short story…
    ;-)

    • Scott Eubanks says:

      It’s funny that you say that. Whit just got out of the doctor’s with Salmonella poisoning. I’m tempted to sit at her bedside, furtively taking notes. The next post will be about how I want to become outrageously wealthy.

  • Hey, it worked for Travie McCoy and Bruno Mars so why not for authors?

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