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Meet the Teaching Artist: Writing Through Illness with Jenessa Abrams

by Writing Workshops Staff

2 months ago

Meet the Teaching Artist: Writing Through Illness with Jenessa Abrams

by Writing Workshops Staff

2 months ago

In a world where narratives of illness often go untold or misunderstood, we're welcoming Jenessa Abrams back to teach her transformative class on Writing Through Illness. Jenessa is a practitioner of Narrative Medicine whose work has been published by The Atlantic, Tin House, Electric Literature, and more.

Through close readings of work Audre Lorde, Melissa Febos, and Paul Kalanithi, participants will embark on a journey of self-discovery, culminating in a polished piece of prose ready for publication.

In six immersive weeks, participants will uncover the power of storytelling as a tool for healing and self-reclamation. Each week, Jenessa will guide students through a carefully crafted curriculum, combining in-class exercises with insightful discussions and peer workshops.

From unraveling the complexities of crafting illness narratives to the art of revision, students will emerge with a newfound understanding of how writing can illuminate and transform their experiences.

With personalized feedback and guidance from Jenessa herself, Writing Through Illness promises to be a transformative experience, empowering writers to give voice to the unsaid and find solace in the written word. Writers of all levels are welcome in this class. 

Hi, Jenessa. Please introduce yourself to our audience.

I'm a practitioner of Narrative Medicine and a writer of fiction, literary criticism, essays, and translation.

What made you want to teach this specific class? Is it something you are focusing on in your own writing practice? Have you noticed a need to focus on this element of craft?

To borrow from Elizabeth McCracken, "Your family is the first novel that you know." Our families are the people who teach us about the world, about our role within it, about what is and isn't considered "normal". Of course, that family of origin is simply one vantage point and our understanding of the world and ourselves changes as we get older and meet people from different families whose belief systems differ from ours. But our family is our starting point and all stories can benefit from tracing that beginning to better understand where we land.

I came to the field of Narrative Medicine because of my passion for listening to and telling stories of illness. Our bodies hold the stories of our lives within them: our ailments, our traumas, our violations, our symptoms, our uncertainties, our diagnoses. Society doesn't always or often make space for us to share those stories openly, in their ugliness and complexity. This course is about carving out that space and learning how to express the experiences that make up who we are so that we can move toward healing.

Give us a breakdown of how the course is going to go. What can the students expect? What is your favorite part about this class you've dreamed up?

One of the my favorite things about teaching is that no class is ever exactly the same. We'll adjust and adapt our time together based on the interests and experiences of the writers in the course to ensure that our explorations and discussions are fruitful, nurturing, expansive, and meaningful for all. For a loose understanding of the basic structure: each week we'll read a few short texts and then discuss them together in relation to larger ideas about family systems and illness in our own work and within the world. Each session will close with a generative writing exercise inspired by the readings and we will hold space for the possibility of sharing. The heart of the course is the writing workshop which gives us an opportunity to read one another's writing, to provide feedback, and to think through avenues for expansion and revision together.

What was your first literary crush?

Amy Hempel.

What are you currently reading?

Wednesday's Child by Yiyun Li.

How do you choose what you're working on? When do you know it is the next thing you want to write all the way to THE END?

There are a series of stories that live inside me that I know I need to write. I've been working on a novel about systems of caregiving, specifically: motherhood, illness, miscarriage, and grief for many years. My life has traced the edges of this novel and I will continue to chase it until we find ourselves meeting somewhere.

Where do you find inspiration? Films.

The art of others is the most inspiring to me.

What is the best piece of writing wisdom you've received that you can pass along to our readers? How did it impact your work? Why has this advice stuck with you?

"The first draft of any work is you telling yourself the story." I read this advice the day I finished the first draft of my novel, when I was certain the book was *done*. Later, I cried in the shower when I realized that I had written 300 pages of a story to teach myself what the story was and that the hard work was going to be figuring out how to tell that story to others.

What is your favorite book to recommend on the craft of writing? Why this book?

Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative by Melissa Febos. I will read anything Melissa Febos writes. She is a genius who inspires me constantly and makes me want to be a better writer. She believes there's no such thing as writer's block, only fear. That is a lesson I carry with me everywhere.

Bonus question: What’s your teaching vibe?

I try to give all of myself to my students.

Learn more about working with Jenessa:

You can learn more about Jenessa's upcoming workshop, Writing Through Illness, and sign up if interested. We would love to be part of your writing practice this year.


Instructor Jenessa Abrams is a writer, literary translator, and practitioner of Narrative Medicine. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Tin House, Electric Literature, Guernica, BOMB Magazine, and elsewhere. She has been awarded fellowships and grants from MacDowell, the Ucross Foundation, the Norman Mailer Center, the Vermont Studio Center, the New York Public Library, and Columbia University, where she earned her MFA in fiction and literary translation. Jenessa has taught at Columbia University and Rutgers University.

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