The first of an on-going series on improving the nonfiction workshop & essay pedagogy; find managing editor Will Slattery's information in the sidebar if you'd like to be a part of the series.
“Even though this essay is about mental illness, it would be nice if you could end on a positive note,” someone offers. The class nods in agreement. Mental illness, the workshop concludes, is important to talk about, but readers might find it depressing.
The student essay we are workshopping is about mental illness stemming from childhood abuse, and the writer is terrified that their parents will find out they have disclosed family secrets, terrified their classmates will judge them for their depression, terrified that the anxiety they feel over the workshop will lead to a panic attack. The writing leaves much to be discussed, but it is mental illness on which some of the students fixate.
This is not the first time my students have written about mental illness—according to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in five U.S. adults has a mental illness, young adults aged 18-25 with the highest rates. So far this semester, one student has written about medication-resistant depression before disappearing from the class, another has written about a suicide attempt, one has written about self-harm, one has written about discovering therapy after years of feeling “wrong,” and several have written about bullying and lifelong depression. During workshops writers slouch in their chairs, picking at scar and avoiding eye contact. They want, they say in our whole-class and one-on-one debriefs, to share their stories, but they are so, so afraid.
I understand. I am on tour for my book Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir
, which shares my experiences with severe anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder, alongside an interrogation of the history of mental illness treatments in the United States. In the months leading up to the publication of a story I’d kept secret most of my life, I felt balanced on the edge of a tremendous fall. I knew how lucky I was to have a book, to have a tour, but traveling around the country announcing my madness to strangers was terrifying.
“I agree,” adds a student. “Readers want to know you’re trying, that you’re going to be ok.”
The class is silent as they struggle with whether to let this judgment linger in the air, or to suggest a frightening alternate possibility—that perhaps mental illness is not an easily workshopped arc, but a life story of permanent negotiation.
On the last stop on my book tour for Quite Mad
, a man approached me after my reading and gripped my arm.
“I used to work as correctional officer,” he warned. “I locked bonkers people like you away.”
He stared me down, his eyes menacing, his hand holding me motionless. I was unsure what to say. Was he going to purchase a book? Should I sign it, “All best, Bonkers?”
True, I’d read passages about the time I experienced dozens of panic attacks each day, the time I feared the clouds and even my cat were giving me warnings from the future. But his threat caught me off guard. As I flew home after several months of book tour travel, exhausted, elated, I could still feel his fingers boring into the bone.
Writing about ourselves is difficult enough as nonfiction writers, but disabled writers face the burden of contextualizing their lived experience for an audience that does not inhabit the same world—an audience that sometimes fears, hates, and polices disability. Though many writers experience the workshop’s desire for context, disabled writers have the added task of rewriting the very world their readers inhabit. The possibility of their page is perpetuated by abled audience expectations.
Just as many workshops erroneously assume a default experience of gender, race, and sexuality, so, too, do they often assume an abled experience, balking when writers challenge this. The truth contract inherent in creative nonfiction becomes intensified for disabled writers, whose symptoms and experiences seem “unreal” to those who have not shared them, or whose insights about the medical industry and health are not in line with what “healthy” individuals believe. Workshops can thus mirror the disability experience—where patients face doubt and suspicion by friends, family, physicians—becoming spaces for suspicion, for policing truth and tone. During my MFA and PhD workshops, I heard classmates debate what was “wrong” with authors, fixating on what they believed to be symptoms and armchair diagnosing. Workshops asked authors to describe painful symptoms in more visceral detail, or suggested there might be secret, underlying issues writers had not disclosed. They debated if writers’ symptoms warranted writers’ “complaining,” if writers’ descriptions of ailments were accurate, lived experience apparently up for debate along with scene and dialogue.
The traditional workshop method asks writers to observe silence, but this reflects the erasure disabled folks face daily by a world that does not provide accommodations and labels those who request them troublesome. While the traditional creative writing workshop brings together diverse readers, certain voices speak loudest, certain stories privileged, and while the job of a workshop is to help a writer find how best to tell their story, workshops often rewrite stories to suit those who most need to understand difference.
Advocating for the importance of one’s story in the world is the challenge of any nonfiction writer, but disabled writers have to advocate for their very right to exist. As a student, I heard classmates ask a writer whether they wished to live without Multiple Sclerosis. As a writer, I was approached by an editor interested in publishing an excerpt from Quite Mad
about caring for my bipolar partner, but only if I addressed whether or not we planned to have children, because “Readers will want to know if you’re going to bring a child into the world with all your problems.” While on tour, I faced the question many disabled writers face: “How do you find the strength to go on living?” While the inclination of the workshop is to silence writers in order to prevent egotistical defenses of poor writing, it is shameful when it allows others to debate someone’s right to life.
“What’s wrong with being inspirational?”
Halfway through the semester, my disability studies students have begun to question their views on what it means to live with a disability and their previous beliefs that writing about disability should be cheery. They critique writing that uses illness as a metaphor. They see the ways the world often depicts disabled folks as childlike, lacking agency or intelligence. They understand that many of the stories surrounding disability do not feature disabled voices at all.
Today we have a class observation and the students are eager to show what they’ve learned. They discuss a classic short story, pointing out the tropes often associated with writing about disability, tropes by and for abled readers: the story is about disability but somehow not narrated by the disabled character; the disabled character is characterized as a burden; the disabled character is described as monstrous, grotesque, more animal than human; the disabled character is not referred to by name, but by disability; the disabled character is described as a powerless, unintelligent child. The moral of the story is that the disabled character teaches the abled narrator—and by extension, the reader—a lesson, making them better people in the process. And in order to teach others, the disabled character must die.
Many in the class are disabled. Some want to write their own stories about epilepsy, Crohn’s, fibromyalgia. They want to rewrite stories like these.
After class, the observer speaks with me. She learned a lot, she says, this class is important. “But the author wasn’t trying to be offensive,” she insists. “What’s wrong with being inspirational?”
This story was written sixty years ago, but little has changed. That narratives about disability should be hopeful suggests disability must be sanitized if the world is to acknowledge it, suggests disability is only of interest if it can somehow serve others. To suggest disabled stories exist to help others overcome prejudice or learn more about themselves frames disability as a clever teaching tool that—when combined with the humor and humility the world often requires from disabled folks—make it palatable. And the emphasis on inspiration often perpetuates a narrative where disabled writers must “overcome” their disabilities. To suggest disability is only of interest when it is eradicated implies a desired eradication of entire communities, implies that if we are to acknowledge their stories, disabled folks must prove their suffering and shame, their “failure” and desire to be “free.”
Early big five publishers were interested in my memoir, but only if I could revise the narrative in a way that offered redemption. While publishers were initially interested in the research—everything from the history of asylums and lobotomies to the chemical science behind contemporary psychopharmaceuticals—they worried this might overwhelm readers. “What readers want is hope,” an editor said of about my discussion of steadily increasing mental illness rates in the United States despite the increasing number of medications.
Recovery was what most publishers thought would sell, and while I agreed, it simply wasn’t possible to revise my life.
At the same conference where a man grabbed my arm, I attended a panel about writing disability. The panel focused on the impositions on disabled writers to devote their work to educating and inspiring others. The panelists were impressive, a powerhouse collective who shared their experiences with literary and editorial ableism, as well as ways to subvert.
Questions began before panelists invited them, hands interrupting midsentence. Audience members refused to use the microphone, saying—despite the panelists’ insistence that the microphone was needed for accessibility purposes—“Oh, I don’t mind. My voice is loud.”
Many in the audience did not think inspirational stories were bad. They wanted hope. Many believed disabled writers had an obligation to educate. Many wanted more cheerful tones. Like my students, they thought disability could be depressing. Many were not disabled.
“Why shouldn’t nondisabled people write about disability?” one audience member questioned when panelists suggested that stories about disability be written by disabled writers. “I have a right.”
“My disabled son needs me to tell his story,” said another.
“I want to write about of the burden of caretaking,” said another. “My family member’s disability is my story too.”
Much like a workshop, panelists were silent as questions turned into comments. When they were at last able to voice their perspective, panelists were firm, stating that they would not appropriate someone else’s story.
One audience member, who wanted to write from the perspective of a disabled person, interrupted. “I don’t think you understand me.”
In the months after the publication of my memoir, many people said they felt sorry for me. Some said they didn’t know how I could go on living. Some put their hands on my shoulders with sympathy. Suddenly I was no longer Dr. Montgomery—I was patient Montgomery.
As a writer about mental illness, I also encountered medical questions and complaints. People asked me what medications they should take. Parents asked if I would offer therapy to their children. Several teachers complained their mentally ill students were “retarded.” I wonder if this is what they call me.
I often read passages set in moments of madness because they establish conflict and narrative tension, but also because I hope my story will lessen the stigma against mental illness, one that insists that the mentally ill are weak, foolish, dangerous, and far from professional. As a writer and professor, I want to claim my identity as a mentally ill woman, want to argue that while it is difficult it is also ok, it is also normal, it also makes me a kinder, more thoughtful observer of the world.
But reading these moments openly invites judgement. In some ways it makes madness spectacle. Here are some of the questions I received:
“What’s the craziest you’ve even been? Like, the absolute craziest?”
“Do you think you’ll ever be strong or brave enough to go off of medication?”
“Did you write this book because it was cheaper than therapy?”
“Aren’t mentally ill people inherently violent?”
“Have you tried yoga, essential oils, prayer?”
When, I wanted to know, would someone ask about my research? When would someone say I wrote beautiful sentences?
According to the latest U.S. Census data, one in five Americans lives with a disability. Disability is likely to impact each of us at some point in our lifetimes, yet at the same time that Americans experience disability at increasing rates, access to health care is under attack and conversations center on ableism rather than accessibility, disabled voices silenced in favor of medical and political authorities. If we are to understand the lived experiences of disabled people, we must seek out disabled stories. More important, we must believe them.
This requires we (dis)able the creative writing workshop. To do so, we must read and assign disabled voices. And we must assign diverse disabled voices because the disability experience varies widely depending on gender, race, sexuality, socio-economic status, and location. We must address disability tropes and illness metaphors not simply because they are cliché, but because they are deeply problematic. We must discuss flat characters that demean or demonize disability. We must be prepared to counter comments that ask disabled students to “be more positive,” as well as those that offer unsolicited medical advice, or claim authority because “I have a disabled friend.”
We must allow—and encourage—disabled writers to write diverse narratives. Once a writer discloses disability through a workshop text, a previous text, or their body, the workshop often filters each craft choice through this lens, tokenizing the writer in the process. I’ve seen workshops ask writers to make blindness the center of a narrative even though the essay never mentions this, or for an author to disclose their autism in a new essay about an unrelated topic because the workshop is unable to conceive of a writer’s opinions on anything other than disability. Recently, a student approached me to ask whether she could write narratives that did not address her disability. After a year of touring with Quite Mad
, my answer to her—yes, of course!—was a reminder to myself.
We need to (dis)able more than the workshop. We must hire disabled faculty and recruit—and then actually support—disabled students. We must solicit disabled writers for publication, invite and accommodate disabled writers to campus and community events. We must interrogate whether our classrooms, conferences, or campuses are accessible. We should even consider the accessibility of the genre itself, for many of the nonfiction forms we praise—visual renderings like hermit crab essays, footnoted essays, lyric essays, graphic essays—are not.
“Readers want to know you’re trying, that you’re going to be ok.”
The class was silent as they struggled with whether to let this judgment linger in the air. They would not—they acknowledged their privilege and position, looking to the essay to guide them, looking to the author, believing the author. Then they turned their attention to craft.
Because the workshop made space for the author’s story, the author claimed space for their story at the Student Faculty Reading Series later that semester. They read the essay aloud, slowly, steadily. The essay was a stronger version of itself—it had not been rewritten by voices who most needed to understand difference.
And after the event, many approached the author to say they wrote beautiful sentences.
Sarah Fawn Montgomery
is the author of Quite Mad: An American Pharma Memoir
(The Ohio State University Press 2018), and three poetry chapbooks, including Regenerate: Poems of Mad Women
(Dancing Girl Press 2017). Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays
, and her poetry and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in various magazines including Brevity
, Crab Orchard Review
, Electric Literature
, The Normal School
, Passages North
, The Poetry Foundation
, The Rumpus
, Split Lip Magazine
, Southeast Review
, and others. She is an Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University. You can follow her on Twitter at @SF_Montgomery