10 Writing Lessons from Disability

Publsihed in The Children's Writer, October 2013

When I became blind at 26 and hard-of-hearing at 28, I didn’t expect I would ever consider disability as an asset. I still view it as a huge deprivation and the source of everyday challenge, but my personal tragedy has been redemptive. Disability has changed me—positively. Recently, I also realized it has been a critical training ground for my writing life. Here are 10 writing lessons it has taught:

1. Mine your negative experiences

Disability presented me with my greatest test. Over a two-year period I stepped from a familiar, ordinary world into an unknown, extraordinary one full of obstacles and trials. I knew the pain of lost senses, but like a typical protagonist, I had to undergo an array of other problems: lost work, lost independence. My worst experience stripped me to the core. But it gave me the impetus to strive on and overcome. I had one goal—to regain an independent life.

Invariably, our greatest life challenges provide enough literary storms for multiple books and articles. (Six of my eight books and most of my essays). A journey with crisis and challenge is exactly what we give our fictional characters. We writers ask, “Where’s the pain for this protagonist?” Then we ask, “Where’s additional pain?” So exploring our most devastating experiences gives building material for our work. And, of course, such life material makes good memoir. For positive proof, read Gary Paulsen’s Harris and Me: A Summer Remembered.

2. Exploit All the Senses

As a newly-blind adult, I had no confidence in my remaining senses. Through training, I found that the old—sorry senses—hearing and touch could be excellent substitutes, helping me pull off daily tasks. Automatically, I tuned into a frenzy of sound, feel, and smell. I began to manage my world through echoes, fragrances, warmth, and coolness.

As a writer, I have to remember to describe setting and the visual stimuli bombarding my characters. In my first attempt at a novel, I featured an able-bodied sixth grade boy. My editor detected that he impersonated a blind kid, never noticing anything out the bus window. Talk about our signature in every aspect of our writing! So where I have to detail the visual imagery consciously, sighted authors have to elbow aside the lure of the visuals and concentrate on the tactile and auditory worlds of their characters. Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes confirms that every sense enriches a manuscript. Every sense is an art.

3. Risk Absurdity

Because I make mistakes walking my world, I understand about risking absurdity—the title of a recently-sold essay. No matter my skills, I embarrass myself, hugging a stranger, touching a random breast. Though I hope for control and grace, my disabilities increase my goofs and expose my vulnerabilities. One recourse is to stay home and never venture out in public, which would make disability, in fact, tragic.

That I’m aware of my flaws makes it less surprising to me that my writing, too, has faults. Autobiography, the basis of most of my published work, is defined by the Doubters’ Dictionary (John Ralston Saul) as “exhibitionism by someone too old to take her clothes off in public.” Therefore exhibiting myself or my work to public inspection isn’t a new or brutal experience. After all, I’m the one whose editor once wrote in the margin beside a sentimental paragraph, “Oh gag, Sally.”

So take risks in your writing. Offer it to criticism. We have to hear what we do well, but we also need suggestions if we want to improve. Put a muzzle on the thirteen-year-old inside yourself, and expose your flawed work to the world.

4. Redo

To conquer computer speech software or programs, I have to redo, practice, and perfect the keystrokes. Redoing doesn’t always lead to instant triumph. Often there’s a good bit of repeating and starting over, a good bit of swearing. But when I get it right, I want to applaud myself loudly enough to blow off the rooftop.

Not getting it right in my daily life prepares me for redoing my manuscripts. Revision is not devastating. It’s actually a lot more fun than redoing computer steps. And experiencing the improvement in the piece gives me enough self-esteem to be insufferable. Rejection hurts, but after I consider a few medieval tortures for the editor, I rebound, rethink, redo, and finally, resend. The writer, Frank O’Connor, was said to revise “endlessly, endlessly, endlessly,” even after a work was published.

5. Persevere

Perseverance suggests resolve, persistence, determination and is probably one of the most important assets of a disabled person. Deaf-blindness requires me to push forward, to think creatively about the hurdles in my path. I hate walking in snow, the weather phenomenon I call “blind person’s fog,” because I can’t distinguish the sidewalk from the street. Still, I have errands and commitments. I have to go out. To keep up my independence, I have to commit to practice, which can feel like drudgery.

Perseverance has to rank in the top-most qualities, as well, for a writer. Over and over again, I hear the correlation between output and sales. Those who sell their work write constantly and send manuscripts out in the same manner. They persevere, stay committed. There’s a reason that authors say writing is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration

6. Be disciplined

To pull off life with disability, I need a regimen. My guide dog needs two miles of work a day. She also requires daily obedience training. “Up,” “down,” then “sit.” These commands make up her puppy push-ups. On our trips Flossie makes some decisions alone, guiding me around obstacles. The “puppy Push-ups” remind her that I’m still boss.

Writers need some regimen, too. The most famous routine is “butt-in-the-chair.” To produce, we need self-restraint, since life is full of distractions. Many writers teach and face towers of papers to grade, books and lectures to prepare. Many of us have speaking engagements, which require planning. Juggling the classes, talks, and creative work with other life demands can be difficult—all the more reason to schedule. The Y.A. author, Chris Lynch, has said it, and Judy Bridges has written it--a book entitled, Shut Up and Write.

7. Read

A great irony is that I lost my sight and became a reader. In the hospital with my eyes patched, I listened to audio tapes and discovered books. Independent recreation is scarce for disabled people; so many hobbies take a companion to complete—tandem biking, snow skiing. Reading provides solo enjoyment.

Because I became blind before the technological revolution, I found that informational progress was a huge challenge. Books, especially nonfiction, provided the best source for information. Reading became not just a hobby, but a way to extend my mental life.

Reading is not a hobby for writers. It’s a necessity, a crucial element in our development and sustenance. We need a treasury of past and present literature, to know our field, our genre.

Erik Larson, who wrote the crossover book, In the Garden of Beasts, says writers must read “voraciously and promiscuously,” to get new ideas, to avoid writers’ block. Noa Wheeler, editor at Henry Holt, concurs. “Read everything you can get your hands on,” she advises. “Know what’s out there!”

8. Listen

Soon after becoming blind I overheard my aunt say, “Sally has grown so quiet.”

Now in my family, one could be a complete chatterbox and seem quiet, but I definitely did reform. Blindness has turned me into a demon listener. Without the visual temptations, I tune into my ears. They’ve become my lifeline.

A writer’s ears are her lifeline, too. M.T. Anderson claims to eavesdrop on teenage conversations at malls. His dialogue in Feed proves that.

But writers should listen to the voices around them not just to craft authentic dialogue. Immersion in language fuels our finger movements on keyboards. People’s speaking-and-reading-voices have become as much an art form as music. And what do editors say they are seeking most and finding least? Voice. By being avid listeners, we can detect the personality in speech and the charisma of the speaker, then capture that elusive quality. Read Sharon Creech’s The Unfinished Angel or John Green’s Fault in Our Stars for inspiring voices.

9. Do Research

Forty years ago, the Internet was unavailable. I couldn’t Google the answers to my questions. Researching any subject, therefore, meant library visits, hired readers, cassette tape recorders, and Brailed notes. Ironically, blindness made research more challenging at a time when I wanted to learn anything, everything. The best antidote to my anxiety or sadness was to learn something new; it uplifted me as little else could.

In addition, I slid into internal research. As I rode a bus, I couldn’t find distraction out the window, so I sank into memory and analyzed feelings. I grew in self-awareness.

The importance of external research for a writer needs little explanation. But the value of internal research may be less clear. Certainly family stories, family legends, our own folklore provide rich material. But in her book What’s Your Story? A Young Person’s Guide to Writing Fiction, Marion Dane Bauer suggests writing ourselves into our characters. That’s actually a maxim for authors. How can we do that without knowing who we are?

10. Find the Outsider within

Disability led me involuntarily into a minority group. I experienced a bit of the stereotypes and discrimination of that status. I felt myself on the fringe, as the outsider, no longer a member of the in-group. I found common ground with people in other minority groups. I’ve never spoken to anyone who hasn’t felt like an outsider at some point. So most people can remember the discomfort of not belonging.

Writers need to recapture the loneliness, anger, and indignation of the outsider looking in. Empathy seems critical to interesting characterization. There’s a reason 17-year-old S.E. Hinton won such popular acclaim with her debut novel, The Outsiders. Our protagonists need angst and insecurity, not the comfort that often comes from membership in a privileged majority.

So think of me and all the disabled travelers. Whether we head to the grocery store or to a country an ocean away, we face tests. Traveling life as a writer, also, presents obstacles along the way, no matter if we’re a midlist or best-selling author. Will the midlister ever sell another book? Will the best seller’s next book reap enough sales or high praise? As writers, we throw difficulties at our characters. As people, whether disabled or not, life tosses those challenges at us. It’s up to us, especially if we’re writers, to turn them into assets.