Elizabeth Benedict has, in the past, moderated panel discussions focused on writing about sex and writing about grief at The MV Times’ sponsored writers’ festival, Islanders Write. In May, Benedict’s memoir, “Rewriting Illness: A View of My Own” (Mandel Vilar Press), was published, and it is a master class in itself on writing memoir that is relatable, informative, shocking, funny, riveting, anger-inducing, and inspiring.
I’m not alone in my praise of Benedict’s book. The Boston Globe’s swoony reviewer wrote that the book “will mess with you — in irresistible ways. Despite its scary subject, this chronicle reads more like a breathtaking whodunnit — or rather, a whatdunnit.”
“Rewriting Illness” begins with a chapter titled “Cookies and Milk,” and the question, “Might it have been Sue Briskman who made me a hypochondriac?” Sue Briskman was a girl in Benedict’s high school class who one day complained about a lump on the underside of her chin, and within a sparse span of time, “had the audacity to depart this world at 17 years old.” While Benedict didn’t know her terribly well, the impact of Sue Briskman’s passing had a lasting effect on her.
Forty-five years after graduating from high school, Benedict found a lump under her arm: “I kept seeing flashes of Sue Briskman in the senior lounge in her white ribbed turtleneck, then Sue in her coffin, which thank God had been closed.”
Admittedly, Benedict was a seasoned hypochondriac by the time she found her own lump. And while also scared of flying, she assures readers she was not afraid of everything, citing: “blank pages, public speaking, public transportation, dinner parties, countries where I don’t speak the language, interpersonal conflict, difficult conversations, sex, writing about sex, talking about sex in public, and explaining, in public, how to write a sex scene in a work of fiction.” Thus setting the tone for the complexities and contradictions, the poetry and prose, the humor and humiliations of her story.
Benedict is a best-selling novelist, an essayist, the author of “The Joy of Writing Sex,” and the founder of Don’t Sweat the Essay, Inc. She was inclined, yet conflicted about whether, to write about her illness, and was both encouraged to do so, and discouraged by friends from writing another book about cancer.
As one friend said, “I never want to read another cancer memoir!”
West Tisbury–based novelist John Hough, Jr., and his wife Kate, a retired nurse, were in Camp “You’ve got to write this book!”
“Kate and I both read an early draft, and commented in our usual blunt way, with lots of praise and encouragement. As a former caregiver, Kate thinks the book ought to be required reading at medical schools. Useful too, to any and all cancer patients,” explained Hough by email.
After several drafts of the memoir, a writer friend suggested short chapters. The advice resonated, and Benedict went back for another round of revisions, telling her story in bite-size sections with punchy titles like “What the Other Doctor Said,” “What I Wanted to Say to the Doctor,” “The Poor Shrink,” “Hmmm,” “Celebrity Sighting,” and “Clearing Things Up: Thing One: The Secret Lives of Doctors.”
Benedict’s story is one of not being taken seriously. It is about waiting for medical professionals to get back to her, and getting told to have a sonogram rather than a PET scan for budgetary reasons. It is about giving chanting a chance, because her sister recommended she try it for anxiety, and figuring out whom to tell about her diagnoses and whom not to, while seeking guidance from the lives, and deaths by cancer, of writers Nora Ephron and Susan Sontag. It is about finding support in the steady calm of her husband. And it is about figuring out how to manage work, cancer, and a Vineyard vacation.
Benedict elucidated by email: “The book went through many drafts, starting with a straightforward account to what it is now: an assortment of short chapters that both move the story forward and allow me all kinds of digressions — and a lot of funny titles to the chapters. These elements give the book a velocity and ‘entertaining quality’ that it wouldn’t have otherwise, and that I didn’t have going through the experience or writing the first drafts. These are some of the ways I went about ‘rewriting’ my illness — which is what all writers do when we write from our own lives. It’s all another version of ‘what really happened.’”
While she was writing her cancer story, the pandemic interrupted the regularly scheduled programming of our lives. Benedict writes, “Almost overnight, my assignment had changed: Write about surviving cancer in the midst of a global pandemic. It was like having to learn two new languages — Russian and Chinese.” Benedict’s friend Honor Moore, a seasonal Vineyard resident and author of several memoirs, advised her to “put your manuscript in a drawer until this is over,” Benedict writes. “That was when we thought it might last a few weeks, a month on the outside.”
Elizabeth Benedict and Honor Moore will speak at the West Tisbury library about “‘Rewriting Illness’ and What Makes a Memoir” on Thursday, August 3, at 4:30 pm.