by Heidi Julavits
To write about writing is to discover how writing lends itself to practically any metaphor. Writing and cooking (“like salt, metaphors are an ingredient to be used sparingly”); writing and mountain climbing (“the reader should be hitched to the plot by a few more carabiners”); writing and shipwrecks (“SOS”).
For The Treatment, these eleven writers wrote about issues related to medicine, the medical establishment, health, healthcare, and television shows. As a pairing, writing and medicine produce many easy metaphors. We speak of both as “practices”—the suggestion being that a lot of effort is required, and that both writers and doctors are in the constant state of learning, hopefully, how to be better. And while the only real criteria to be a writer is that you be alive, the product of writing is often afflicted, if not terminally ill. I want to say it’s always afflicted; to write is by definition to produce a problem that needs assessment and treatment. The sentences require surgery—outpatient surgery in some cases, major surgery in others.
As a writer, however, it is hard to be a good doctor to your afflicted early drafts. This is where I became involved. I was appointed as this project’s doctor-editor. I was flown in from New York to collaborate with these students on their work; fittingly, I fell sick each time I returned home after my three-day stint in Arkansas. The students were often sick when I met with them. The people on my planes were sick. It was a sicker than usual time.
Over the course of the semester, the students and I met to interact with the patient—the patient, in this analogy, being the piece of writing. As the doctor-editor, however, I found myself treating not just the writing but also the people that produced the writing. I conducted check-ups. What did they want to write about? What made them curious? Did they have a family history of this curiosity? What, as we began treating “the patient,” mattered to them most?
And so we developed treatment strategies. The writers rewrote and rewrote and rewrote. They practiced their practice. The point, after a while, was not to solve a problem, or to cure an illness; the point was to understand how to create an intellectual, moral, or structural question that mattered enough for each writer to engage in it repeatedly, and to repeatedly try to listen for what was working, what was not—the heart, the lungs, the sentences, the argument—based on his or her own individual definitions of health.
And so here are the results of our practice. Linh Chuong writes about the physical risks undertaken by nail salon employees (some of whom are Chuong’s relatives, and a majority of whom are Southeast Asian immigrants) whose daily exposure to chemicals in the workplace endanger their current health and their reproductive futures. Sami Kennedy profiles a young woman with Crohn’s disease struggling, as she passes from the world of pediatric to adult medicine, to have more and more say in her treatment, and to fight for an approach that understands the mind to be as important as the body. Zoë Calhoun describes, with dark wit and compassion, her experience working at a state-funded camp for children with learning disabilities. Laura Klasek notices that there’s really not so much separating the Dr. Oz adherents and believers of non-FDA-approved dietary supplement from our “humors” obsessed medieval forebears. Josephine Reece curates questions and responses (such as “what is flirting?”) posted on a reddit by people diagnosed with autism. Alli Dillard notes every cause of death in all five seasons of “Six Feet Under,” and weaves this gruesome data into a prose poem. Dagen Hughes explains the biopsychosocial model and how its slightly warmer embrace by the medical community might mean different future roles for both doctors and patients. Rachel Thomas views medical ethics through the lens of the most successful and longest-running sci-fi television show in the history of sci-fi television shows, Doctor Who. Amelia Robert tracks the roots of anorexia’s “discovery” to England’s Victorian period. Samia Nawaz shadows an oncologist and a plastic surgeon to discover what it means to be a “serious” doctor. Camille Guillot, the daughter of two physicians, examines the challenge of being good doctor as well as a good parent, and how it is sometimes not possible to be both at once.
The writers conferred with me, their attending physician, but by the end, despite what I said earlier about writers making bad doctors for their own writing, these writers were all quite competent caretakers of their own work. As proven by the pieces here, they don’t require my services any longer. I’ll be retiring. You can find me on the links.