Ariana was on top of the world. She had just graduated magna cum laude from Vanderbilt with a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing. She had been showered with accolades, including Vanderbilt's Most Outstanding English Major award, the Merrill Moore Prize for Poetry, and the Academy of American Poets Vanderbilt Prize.
She was preparing to start her Master's in Secondary Education in English, also at Vanderbilt, when her health unraveled overnight. Getting diagnosed with three serious diseases meant deferring graduate school. She spent the next six months bedridden at her parents’ home.
As Ariana recovered, she began working as a Graider - coaching students remotely on their writing. Teachers and students immediately loved her feedback.
Ariana had found a new way to share the skills that she had honed over years of working at the Vanderbilt Writing Studio. Ariana also worked as a middle school teaching assistant with the Duke TIP summer program and as a private writing and SAT tutor for four years.
As Ariana embarks on a new chapter - focused on healing and an eventual return to Vanderbilt - we called her to ask a few questions.
Some comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.
You’ve already had so much success as a writer. How early in life did you realize you had a talent and a passion for writing?
My mom is a writer and published author. When I was really young, I would sit beside her scribbling on loose sheets of paper while she typed. I thought, “Mom’s working, I’m working too. We’re both writing!” I started writing poetry in 2nd grade and essentially majored in poetry in college. That was a dream. Poetry informs all of the writing I do.
And I always loved reading. I remember trying to fit the Harry Potter books in my 2nd-grade desk, but they were so big they wouldn't fit!
My favorite thing to do was read. That’s still true.
Wow - that’s pretty cool. Where do you see the crossover from poetry?
With poetry, there is so much pressure on the language. You have so few words to communicate all that you need to express. And short-form poetry like haiku and tanka is even more distilled. You feel so much pressure to get every single word right. You can almost feel them clicking into place. When I have to write much longer pieces, it can be intimidating to have to write 3,000 words that way. I have this standard for writing ... to try to apply the beauty.
Poetry is especially helpful for thinking about the endings of a piece of writing. Endings are so important. In poetry, there is so much attention on whether you’ve “earned the ending” of your poem. So I ask myself, “If this were a poem, how would I end it?” You want to open it up a little bit but stay within the bounds of the piece.
You’re grappling with some serious health challenges. What’s your journey with Celiac disease and why is awareness so important?
I have been chronically ill since middle school but I was highly functional for many years. A year and a half ago, my health rapidly deteriorated and I was finally diagnosed with celiac disease. Most people associate celiac with gluten, but they don’t know that it is a serious autoimmune condition. If it goes untreated for a long time, it can result in even more serious health conditions that cannot be reversed by going gluten-free.
My long untreated Celiac disease triggered dysautonomia, an autonomic nervous system dysfunction. My specific type is called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS). That affects my heart rate, blood flow, digestion, sweating, and more--basically all bodily functions. The act of standing up after lying down makes my heart rate double, so I almost faint anytime I’m upright.
I can't have a normal full-time job or go to graduate school.
There is no cure.
There are not even very good treatments for it.
I also have a mast cell disease. My body is constantly releasing too much histamine even though I am not actually allergic to anything. My immune system is over-reacting so much that I could go into anaphylactic shock at any time. So now I carry an EpiPen.
The conditions I have are complicated and rare, which makes it harder to tell others about them. But awareness is so important to getting treatment, so I hope that sharing my story will help other people get diagnosed earlier than I was.
Learn more and support research efforts here:
Dysautonomia International is a non-profit that seeks to improve the lives of individuals living with autonomic nervous system disorders through research, physician education, public awareness and patient empowerment programs.
The Mastocytosis Society, a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting patients affected by Mastocytosis and Mast Cell Activation Disorders as well as their families, caregivers and physicians through research, education and advocacy.
Have you used writing to cope with all of this?
Yes, and I recently published an article, “The Dream and Nightmare of Celiac,” about my diagnosis. Many people read it, and that meant a lot to me. It’s important to me to spread awareness. Writing feels like a gift to me, and a solace as well as a passion. When I read and write, I enter another world. That’s a cliche, because it’s true. I use writing to leave my body, to access memories and possible futures.
What is the dream job in your future?
I would love to be a high school teacher, teaching creative writing and doing my own writing on the side. I worry about this sometimes. I don’t know if it will be physically feasible for me. But I’ve always seen myself in front of a classroom.
I realized I wanted to be a teacher during college when I worked at the Writing Studio. I never got tired of explaining--for the 500th time--a concept like how to craft a thesis statement. Every time, it was exciting to see the look in the student’s eyes when they got it.
I am also motivated because so many students come out of high school hating poetry. They feel like poetry is a puzzle they just haven't figured out. It’s something they don't have any access to. But poems are not problems to be solved, and poetry can be such fun. I want to help more students learn that.
Congratulations, Ariana, on being recognized as our Graider of the Month. We admire your strength, appreciate your openness, and look forward to seeing the impact you have on students near and far.