My Body, My Story: Illuminated Memoir

On November 18, 2022, I gave a talk at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. Thanks to John Muthyala and Donna Anderson for the invite.

No, I wasn’t there to talk about Jane Austen and monsters. Well, of course I found a way to talk about Austen, but this talk was about writing a memoir about my cancer year. It was about talking about what writing does for us as a therapeutic mode of expression and how writing can help others understand us.

So, I talked and led an activity for about an hour on writing my memoir and a visual essay (a streamlined version of my memoir that focused on the passages about hair but added photos). The activity itself was focused on asking the audience to think about their own health and wellness (physical and mental) and to consider what they would share with people about a specific time in their lives in which they endured a medical problem, difficult experience, etc. I also asked them to think about the ways writing is illuminating for the writer and reader.

I met so many wonderful people in this learning community. A 93-year-old participant told me about his wife who passed away from breast cancer ten years ago at the age of 81. Another participant told me that she was a 30-year breast cancer survivor. Another talked about an out of body experience she had when she was recovering from a major health problem in the hospital. Many more people asked me questions and shared their experience with illness, including being a caretaker for someone battling cancer. We realized together that we all have stories to tell about our bodies, but sometimes we also tell the stories of other people’s bodies. We are not as separate as we might think we are when it comes to cancer.

The second half of the day featured USM professor Lisa Hibl, who led some exercises on writing. Lisa began with some poignant excerpts by Atul Gawande, Richard Seltzer, and Anatole Broyard on writing about illness. Then she read a few pieces of literature, two of which were by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and two that were by contemporary authors comparing animals to humans in some way.

The Whitman piece is called “The Wound-Dresser” from his 1865 Drum-Taps collection. The Dickinson poem is “One need not be a chamber–to be haunted–.” I’m a huge Whitman and Dickinson fan–have been since Wendy Barker’s senior seminar at the University of Texas at San Antonio on Whitman and Dickinson. 🙂 The first section of Whitman poem (there are four) has an amazing final couplet that relates to what we were addressing:

What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,

Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?

What stays with you? Which experiences, things, people in life are so important that you return to them again and again? Are there thoughts or feelings about them are so deep that it might be difficult to bring it all to the surface?

The Dickinson poem is one I have not read in a while, but it fits perfectly with my monsters book. There are monsters of the mind much scarier than what you might find outside of yourself:

One need not be a chamber—to be haunted—
One need not be a House—
The Brain—has Corridors surpassing 
Material Place—

Ourself—behind Ourself—Concealed—
Should startle—most—
Assassin—hid in Our Apartment—
Be Horror’s least—

The Prudent—carries a Revolver—
He bolts the Door, 
O’erlooking a Superior Spectre
More near—

Dickinson is my favorite poet. I mean I read her work for fun. When I was an undergrad I became obsessed with her work–read it all! Returning to it is such a delight as it felt like Lisa picked this poem just for me–she didn’t. 🙂 Dickinson reminds us that we are our minds; our minds are the monsters. We make the monsters, and they are closer than we think. How do we grapple with those monsters? When can we do this in writing? (I know I did this in my memoir.)

The contemporary works Lisa shared surprised me! One is Brian Doyle’s “Joyas Volardores.” It is an essay from 2005 about scale–particularly between the size of a hummingbird’s heart and that of a whale’s. I taught this essay in a composition class almost 15 years ago and had forgotten about it. I think I’ll add it to my Animal Studies class when I teach it again.

Elisabeth Tova Bailey’s 2017 book The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating was also a surprise. It’s about sound, scale, and pace. Yes, it’s about a snail, but it’s much more than that. It’s a memoir about the author’s odd illness and her being bedridden and watching a real snail move around her room. Sometimes our life forces us to pause and notice the minutiae of life and its grandiosity.

Lisa finished up by giving the audience some writing prompts and between 2 to 10 minutes to respond to them. Here are some of them:

  • What kind of conversation would you have with your favorite author? What might it reveal about you?
  • What is a diagnosis? Is it personal or public? Is it a state of being? How would you tell a story about a diagnosis? What is the story that would be put under the spotlight?
  • What’s in the shadows? What do you tell the public (in the spotlight) and what’s inside of you that you haven’t yet shared (in the shadows still)?
  • What images help you tell stories? What’s the story behind the images?
  • What stays with you latest and deepest, as Whitman asks?

The image that stuck with me throughout my cancer year was that of a roller coaster. All the ups and downs. The scariness. The sickness. The waiting for the ride to end. As I said in my talk yesterday, the ride became a state of being.

I think you all know which author I would talk to. Drum roll please…..Jane Austen. What would we talk about? We’d talk about family, friends, marriage, independence, and, of course, writing!

With whom would you converse, and why? Drop your answers in the comments!

One response to “My Body, My Story: Illuminated Memoir”

  1. John Steinbeck! The Grapes of Wrath. Need I say anymore


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