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Tips on Writing about Personal Health
Written by
She Writes
August 2018
Written by
She Writes
August 2018

This guest post was provided by Francine Falk-Allen, author of Not a Poster Child. Falk-Allen facilitates a polio survivors’ group in Marin County, and also a Meetup writing group, Just Write Marin County. She was the polio representative interviewed in a PBS/Nobel Prize Media film, The War Against Microbes. She lives in Marin County with her husband.

I’ve just published a memoir about living with a lifelong disability. Personal health writing is a niche, and in designing the piece it’s important to determine if we are choosing to write a journal, a blog, an article, a pamphlet or a book. Or something to file in “might be useful later.”

Don't Be Discouraged

I took an essay workshop with a columnist from the San Francisco Chronicle, and before we started on a sample piece, he said, “Don’t write about your cancer experience. That’s been done more than enough.” I thought that was harsh, especially since I’d had cancer a few years before. But when I looked for disability memoirs, library and bookstore shelves and Amazon were full of cancer and Alzheimer’s stories.  Other health problems, not so much. So, I’d say the first thing to consider, as in all writing, is identifying your audience, and whether the topic has been overworked. 

When I told a seasoned writer that I was writing a memoir about my experience of polio and growing up disabled, she said, “What’s your angle?” My angle. Huh. I told her I wanted to let people know what it was really like to be disabled.  But another friend said, “No one is going to be interested in polio.”  I was pretty deflated. So, I had those challenges in mind: how am I going to make this interesting to people and give it its own unique quality?

Let the Story Tell Itself

I just mind-dumped at first. I actually had only intended to write an essay detailing what I remembered about my life before polio at age three, plus the six months of treatment in a hospital.  That became four chapters. 

An editor friend read my first crummy full draft later, and said I was sometimes preachy in the middle and end of the book, despite the early chapters being outstanding. We cannot tell people what to think or feel. I rewrote the material to reflect only my experiences and responses to them. No one wants to read an admonition and we also need to be hyper-aware of how we present our own golden informed opinions.

Then Refine, Refine, Refine

The old adage, “Show rather than tell” was integral. I learned to set a scene and use a good example of an experience rather than relating all the times it happened and how they were different.

When others read early drafts, I requested to be told if anything was unclear or put people to sleep. Some didn’t like the more intensive medical sections, so I spread them around or omitted them. Others liked reading about conditions similar to theirs and how I dealt with them.

I learned to read the manuscript as “someone else” and thought about how I would “hear” the material. Sometimes this led me to be more specific and sometimes to delete sections. I chose not to use any curse words, but I admitted that I swore a lot when I was upset.          

I learned to look for the universal aspect of my condition.  For instance, as an adult, I had to wear a foot straightening device to bed for a few years and I had a live-in boyfriend who wished I wouldn’t wear it.  Then he broke his ankle and had to wear a cast for months.  My writing group thought this was funny; for me, it illustrated that “anything could happen to anyone at any time” and I liked the irony.

I read other memoirs or articles about issues similar to mine.  I learned how others expressed the difficulty, the humor, the icky-ness.  Many of them were very badly written, jumped around and revisited issues in a haphazard way, or got off on tangents about experiences totally unrelated to the physical problem. Not everything in a book needs to be about the topic; I wanted to illustrate in my memoir that I had tried to have a normal life and do the things others did even though it was difficult. But my editor helped me keep to the point: how disability affected me.

I had a bit in one place about a toenail mishap due to my walking issues, and it was too graphic; one reader said, “Spare me!”  So, I said that the toenail looked like something from outer space. Specific descriptions are important, and I did a lot of research to get my facts straight, but unless we’re writing for doctors, being less detailed can be kind.

If what is desired is a cathartic experience about your physical difficulty, that’s for a personal journal.  Intending to inspire people about one health experience is for a magazine or blog.  A person who has gone through something unusual, learned a lot or found something really funny or inspiring in disease or injury may have a book.

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