Stories are about being alive, including, among all other things, getting sick and eventually dying. Carve’s archives include some powerful stories in which illness or death play a central role. While it is important to have some veracity in a story by getting the medical details right, these are not “case presentations;” they are narratives. Like other effective stories, the authors never rely on sentimentality. We have characters who may not understand themselves, may not say what they mean, or may learn something when confronted with reality. Here are some outstanding examples of Carve stories that center around illnesses.
Cancer: “A Dying Mother” by Kelly Lundgren Pietrucha
Appearing in Carve’s spring 2008 issue, this story received Notable Story recognition in the 2008 Million Writers Award. It’s told from the point of view of an adult daughter visiting her hospitalized mother, a breast cancer patient refusing treatment. This story is about mothers and daughters. It is through the mother’s stories, which are nested into this story, that we discover something about this relationship. The dying mother is literally ‘brought to life’ on the page with her story she calls “The Story Not About Bowling.” There are echoes here of “A Conversation with My Father” by Grace Paley, acknowledged by Pietrucha as “my mother of fiction.”
Eating Disorder: “Stalled Symphony” by Liesl Wilke
Powerful winner of our 2011 Carver Contest. Here the diagnosis is eating disorder, and it’s right there at the mall. The story doesn’t follow a traditional story arc, and yet there’s certainly an honesty about women and body image here. There’s such an effective use of compression in this 2900 word story taking place over a few minutes in a women’s bathroom at the mall. Here these women are away from the men, all ages and sizes, a symphony of bathroom sounds. It’s the college girl vomiting up her burgers, worried about what people will say about her weight gain, that takes center stage in this vulnerable place. Won’t somebody help her?
Disability: “Neuropathy” by Kathy Flann
A prizewinner in our 2012 Carver Contest, “Neuropathy” is one story where the disease state is central to the theme of the story. The narrator has been left from an automobile accident with limb weakness and pain. She’s living an insular life refusing to treat her pain, after her husband, a narcotic addict, dies. She’s trying to do good works in the community and along the way has to face her grown son falling in love with a wheelchair-bound young woman. The second person point-of-view here sneaks up on the reader and I believe reflects something about labels we give each other.
As evidenced in these stories, it’s certainly true that people who are sick continue to care about other people. They also care about their place in the world and how that might change as a result of their illness or death. In part, the honest fiction of the above stories means the struggle of illness is not about the cancer cells or eating disorder or disability, it’s about what happens to the character’s relationship to the rest of the world.
Guest post by Cynthia Litz, MD, a reading committee member of Carve since 2012.
Cynthia Litz is a reader for Carve submissions. She is a physician and mother living in Dallas and New York City. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Narrative Magazine, Camera Obscura, and Annals of Internal Medicine. Her collection of flash fiction, Imprints, is available from Matter Press.