5 Tips on How to Write an Illness Memoir

5 Tips on How to Write an Illness Memoir 

“Nothing is quite so isolating as the knowledge when one hurts, nobody else feels the pain,” Robert Murphy.


What can we learn from illness memoirs?

Recently I have been ill with a severe adverse response to a certain osteoporosis infusion medication. I wished that I could have spoken to someone else who had experienced what I had gone through. A search of Google did not reveal any personal writing about the same experiences. There was much medical literature available on the internet but it was too clinical and did not address my personal issues.

When we face serious or chronic illness or disability we are thrown into an unknown, insecure and uncharted world. We leave our world of health and security and are thrown into a place where nothing is known and has to be learnt. Writing about our illness experience gives us back our power and with it creates a voice. We often lose this voice when our bodies are ill or diminished in some way. The therapeutic process of writing examines the shock of trauma of illness; we the writers, can be observers to the situation of our lives and can reflect and grow. We write down the words of our experience and in doing so develop resilience in ourselves through the process of writing. When we review our lives through personal writing we develop strength and a pattern to face illness or death.

The two main reasons for writing an illness memoir:

  1. To assist the writer to gain control of their illness and hopefully heal.
  2. To help others with similar illnesses and their families to understand.

A personal narrative in the form of an illness memoir has been long considered as one of the most important methods of advancing personal human issues. A personal story speaks loudly and can shine a beacon into a dark and frightening area.

Imagine- if you found a lump in your breast and were shocked to be diagnosed with breast cancer. Your doctor and medical team might be helpful and supportive but, another person who has experienced the same as you would comprehend your deepest fears and anxieties. You might search out a memoir of someone who has battled breast cancer and won. This can  be a metaphor for your own struggle.


5 Tips on How to Write an Illness Memoir 


  1. Read other illness memoirs, see what has been written, and know the genre.

I suggest you Google the internet for the illness memoir related to your condition. You will be surprised at the market and extent of this genre. Many things in our lives have created situations where we have become distant from others, this isolation is evident when we are diagnosed with chronic illness and disease. Suddenly we are separated from our position in the well population, we can’t do many things we used to do and are now enmeshed in medical treatments and procedures. We face an uncertain future.

One of my favourite books on this genre is The Body Silent by Robert Murphy. The first time I read this book I was stunned. I was transported into the world of Robert Murphy and learnt to experience his world through his writing. From that time on, I viewed disability in a different way. When I was a nursing lecturer I used excerpts of Murphy’s book to show the human aspect to having a disability.

Murphy was a professor at Columbia University before he developed a spinal condition that eventually left him totally paralysed. A tumour developed from his second cervical vertebra to the eighth thoracic vertebra. Over time, he lost the use of his legs and mobility. Murphy writes with eloquence about the loss of control of his life. Eventually he became a prisoner in his own body, unable to even turn in bed without assistance. He became reliant on others for everything to do with his life.  Murphy took up the cause of the disabled in today’s society and articulated the everyday obstacles of a person living with a disability and became an advocate for the disabled. He mentioned that many disabled individuals chose early retirement instead of trying to deal with insurmountable challenges of being disabled in the workplace. Murphy suggested that disabled people can be productive if assisted. Many are stripped of their previous identity and unable to develop a new disabled identity.

“…I had lost more than the use of my legs. I had lost a part of myself…” Robert Murphy, The Body Silent.

Murphy discussed the many biases shown to disabled people, how some avoid them, others patronise them, or are cruel and dismissive to their personhood.

“Nobody has ever asked me what it is like to be a paraplegic and a now a quadriplegic-for this would violate of the rules of middle class etiquette…after all, tumours can happen to anybody-even to them.” Robert Murphy, The Body Silent.


In another well-known inspiring memoir about disability, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, the author suffered a massive stroke and was completely paralysed and speechless. He was only able to communicate by using one eyelid. Using this eye lid he dictated his remarkable book. It is hard for the reader to comprehend what life would be like under those circumstances. Bauby takes us gently into his world and we are never the same again. The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly is now a major movie.


Boomer and Me by Jo Case is a memoir related to motherhood and what it is like having a child with Asperger’s syndrome. When Leo starts school his mother notices things that make him stand out. He becomes obsessed with things. And friendships are few. He is aggressive in the school yard. The school suggests he be tested and Asperger’s a form of autism is the diagnosis. Jo Case’s gentle book captures her fight to help Leo and her own struggle with her own issues.


Brenda Walker in her book Reading by Moonlight, wrote about her breast cancer. When Brenda packed her bags and belongings to enter hospital for treatment and an uncertain future, she packed a number of books that would create solace and support for her during her treatment. Her five stages of treatment were enhanced by these books.


In a previous blog post I mentioned Paul Kalanithi and his book When Breath Becomes Air. Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon and diagnosed with lung cancer. The book raised questions related to deep issues such as, what makes life worth living when we are faced with severe illness and possible death. What do you do when your life is interrupted?

2.  Learn how to write

Keep a journal, jot notes as you think of them. Writing is not expensive; all you need is pen and paper, a computer if you have one. Writing to heal through your illness memoir does not need any innate talent; you are the expert because of your personal illness experience.

Write daily, 20 minutes a day at first. Write what troubles or delights you.

Your illness memoir is not an autobiography of your life from birth to now. Limit the memoir to a specific time frame or significant events. Only include major events not every detail.

A memoir has to entertain. So, dramatise your story, open with an inciting event, something that captures reader interest. Make full use of tension and emotion to grab the reader.

Strengthen your writing skills by taking a creative writing class, join a critique group. Practice your writing. Show by details of setting, using the senses, using dialogue. Don’t just tell as it can be boring to read. (I explored show and tell in previous blogs.)

Learn about story structure, and details such as an inciting incident that kicks the story along.

Learn about character arcs that show the writer changing and adapting throughout the memoir. Show evidence that you are a better person from the illness experience.

3. Jot a list of specific points related to your illness memoir.

On separate pieces of paper write headings such as the diagnosis and the effects on your life , what were the emotional effects, what were the effects on family, who helped you, who were the Medicos and treatment, how did you improve or not, did you relapse. Don’t forget to mention your current illness situation.

Pose specific questions to each heading:

How did I feel at this point?

What did my loved ones -wife or husband or children think?

What was happening around me?

What changes occurred?

What gave me strength?

What pulled me down?

Use the points you made for each page and flesh out.

Just write. Don’t judge your work. Don’t check your grammar.

Let your writing pour out of you and onto the page.

Edit later.

4. Always tell the truth. A memoir is based on truth telling.

5. Writing your illness memoir will help you to gain a deeper understanding of yourself.

When anyone goes through the trauma of a severe illness or disability, they will be changed, and will have learnt deep lessons on the way. Once you were in the camp of the well and active, but are now facing illness and isolated and unable to carry on your old world. Facing challenges and adverse effects. Feeling isolated.

Your memoir and lessons learnt will be of benefit to others in a similar situation.

Your story could mention what worked for you and how you dealt with your illness. Remember you are not just writing for yourself but to inspire others, those also going through the dark night of the soul.

As I said previously your illness memoir may be a beacon for others who are experiencing what you have.

Why not start your illness memoir now? Your illness is a negative aspect in your life, by writing about it, it can be turned into a positive. The memoir may never be read by others, it may be for your own benefit, and that is fine, but will still strengthen your resilience and ability.

Thank you for reading my blog, I would love to hear any comments from you and please subscribe to my blog.

Regards Cally


2 Replies to “5 Tips on How to Write an Illness Memoir”

  1. Hello Cally!

    It doesn’t surprise me that you wrote a blog that captured my attention from the first sentence and kept me reading until the end. That’s what you do.

    So much helpful information in an organized manner. I have a friend suffering from Stage IV cancer that would enjoy this. I will share it with him.

    Keep fighting and keep writing!

  2. Dear Wendy,
    Thank you for your lovely comments. I appreciate them.
    Every good wish for your friend who is suffering from Stage IV cancer. I wish him well. Regards Cally

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