“Sometimes there’s just something that presses to be written. And you just have to write. It’s in your mind, and it keeps being there, and you have to write it.”
VCFA alumnx Jude Ford (W ‘16) started her journey as an author by writing“…very terrible stories about my pet rabbit.” Ford was just ten-years-old, and as she explains with a laugh, “I gave [the rabbit] some superpowers.”
After writing poetry in high school and writing in her personal journals for most of her life, Ford began practicing writing on a more regular basis after experiencing a near fatal illness—one her doctors couldn’t even name—in her 40s in 1990. The disease would later be diagnosed as Adult Onset Still’s Disease, an extremely rare autoimmune disease that affects roughly 0.4% per 1,000 people.*
“I had to write about [Still’s]. Psychologically, I had to write about it. I found an ad in a bookstore for a writing coach, called her, and I worked with her for six or seven years on what became a lot of things, but what became my book eventually,” says Ford.
She published that very book, Fever of Unknown Origin: a True Tale of Medicine, Mystery and Magic, with Wipf & Stock Publishers in 2022. In this raw and personal memoir, Ford explores her second bad episode with Still’s in the summer of 1990, her fraught time in the hospital away from her family and friends, and the illnesses and deaths of her parents that followed just two years later. “I put the two of them together,” Ford explains, “partly because of the timing, but also because the issues are very similar in many ways: Dealing with things that are medical and scary, how do you [deal with] that, and how do you keep hoping for recovery?”
Ford explains that this story of illness, both inside and around her, simply had to be told.
“This is an obvious statement, but whenever you come near to death, and you don’t know why or what its name is, it’s very scary. When I first got well, I kind of didn’t want to even think about it. I got back to work really quickly… But I kept, in mind, going back to certain scenes and certain things that happened. That’s what trauma does, it sticks in your brain,” says Ford. “So when I started working with my first writing coach, we started working on poetry. Really pretty quickly, I started writing short pieces about the illness. I never planned to write a book. I thought I was writing little short essays, but it became obvious after a couple of years that it was going to have to be a book. [My writing coach] told me that and I said, ‘No. I can’t do that.’ She said, ‘Yes, you can. You will.’”
Through Fever of Unknown Origin, Ford found a sense of connection, understanding, and community with her readers. Whether readers are speaking of their own illnesses or the illnesses of their parents, Ford says people have written to tell her “Thank you for writing this” and “This is also my story.” The body, after all, no matter what our journey is with it, is a universal and deeply human experience.
“I think what I always hoped for [with Fever of Unknown Origin]—and what is happening to some degree—is that people who are dealing with similar issues will not feel so alone, especially with a disease that the doctors don’t know how to label,” notes Ford. “It’s a very frustrating road, and even more so for the people who are still struggling to figure out what’s wrong with them. I mean, with illnesses, there are so many kinds, and they’re so prevalent these days. So my hope is that other people will relate, and I get that feedback.”
To her peers looking to write about personal themes—such as writing about the body, our relationship with the body, and the deaths of loved ones—Ford suggests starting with a thorough and unflinching investigation of the self. “Go for the jugular. Deep. If it scares you, that means you need to write it,” encourages Ford. “I really sincerely believe that the most powerful memoir writing comes from the willingness to go to the stuff that’s scary and makes you feel vulnerable.”
And that’s exactly what Ford is continuing to do with her own writing. With a rigorous and prolific personal writing schedule, Ford is currently working on another memoir, an essay collection, a poetry collection, a haiku book, and a collection of the fiction works she wrote while attending VCFA.
“I have a lot of things I want to write,” says Ford, “and I need to get going.”
For now, you can keep up with what Ford is working on next, and purchase Fever of Unknown Origin, at www.judithford.com.
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*This statistic was provided by Jude Ford.