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10 Questions for Jodie Noel Vinson

Six months before your trip, you begin the search. Scrolling through headshots, you note several eligible prospects. One after the other, you dial the numner below each photo.

The first seven receptionists inform you that, contrary to the green check mark on your insurance's provider list, the doctor isn't taking new clients. A few seem upset that you would ask.
—from "Patient, Heal Thyself," Volume 63, Issue 4 (Winter 2022)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
Not the first I wrote, but one of the first I published, “To Know A Bean,” comes to mind because a reader recently reached out to let me know they’d come across it in The Concord Saunterer. The essay is about a literary pilgrimage I made to Walden Pond, and the reader had identified with some of the themes evoked, the feeling of arriving to and inhabiting a place you’d only read about. Each time this kind of exchange happens, I’m reminded to tell authors when a piece means something to me. In those connections with a reader, I’m affirmed in my practice and identity a writer, in a way that can’t be undermined.

What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
The author who always holds sway over my work is Marcel Proust, whose elegiac tangentials may be forever imprinted on my writer self. But I also constantly look to contemporary writers who push the boundaries of nonfiction, including Eula Biss, Maggie Nelson, Leslie Jamison, Claudia Rankine, among others. Authors like Anne Boyer, Sarah Manguso, Sonya Huber, Audre Lorde, and Susan Sontag have been especially helpful to me in discovering new ways to write about illness.

What other professions have you worked in?
I was a bookseller for many years, and once managed a travel bookstore that curated recommended reading lists for travelers and tour groups. I now serve as program director for a small literary arts nonprofit, a job that keeps me in touch with the creative process and connected to other writers.

What did you want to be when you were young?
I would have liked to be a writer like Jo March in Little Women, but was too practically minded to make that my sole profession. I have, however, pursued literary-adjacent jobs to keep the written word close.

What inspired you to write this piece?
Falling sick and not getting better. I first wrote a draft of “Patient, Heal Thyself,” in December 2020. I remember it coming out as a catharsis of all I’d been through that year. My inability to express the lingering symptoms that followed a COVID infection to doctors in a way that would elicit help, understanding, and care had been very painful to me. The more I researched and read and reached out to others, the more I understood the gaslighting I’d experienced was a common and age-old practice, often directed toward women and people of color. I wanted to find a way to elucidate the experience of navigating the broken paths of our labyrinthine medical system, and, more than anything, I wanted to be heard.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Travel has, in the past, been my muse. Arriving to a new place interrupts my habitual ways of being and seeing the world, which often allows me to write. Since falling ill while traveling in March 2020, I’ve begun to question that muse with a growing awareness of the impact my mobility might have on others, and on the earth. And, strangely, illness itself has served as a sort of muse for me—a metaphorical place from which to see the world in a new way.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My husband Marc is my first and best reader. Even if he can’t always tell me what might be wrong or how to fix it, he unerringly intuits the places where I need to focus my revisions.

If you could work in another art form what would it be?
I’d like to be a better photographer. I enjoy the way that art form exercises a different part of my brain than the linguistic, and I see the world better for it.

What are you working on currently?
I continue to write essays that explore the creative expression of illness, especially its chronic or invisible forms. I’m interested in how other writers and artists have approached this challenge.

What are you reading right now?
I just finished Elizabeth Outka’s Viral Modernism, a prescient book about the presence (or, more often: absence) of the 1918 pandemic in literature. I’m reading about Darwin and the ways he adapted to chronic illness. And I’ve been dipping into some great nonfiction writers—Geoff Dyer, Katie Roiphe, Deborah Levy—to further my craft.

JODIE NOEL VINSON holds an MFA in nonfiction creative writing from Emerson College. Her essays and reviews have been published in the New York Times, Harvard Review, Literary Hub, Ploughshares, Electric Literature, Agni, Creative Nonfiction, Catapult, and The Rumpus, among other places. She is the recipient of the Arts & Letters Susan Atefat Prize for Creative Nonfiction, the Ninth Letter Literary Award in Creative Nonfiction, and the Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets & Writers. Jodie lives in Providence, where she is writing a book about the intersections of chronic illness and creative expression.


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