Note. This is a revised version of the essay I posted on December 10, where I tried to say so much that I buried the point.
I’ve had this website for nearly a year, and I’ve been posting on my blog since July. As I assess my hopes for this project, I have reconsidered the text on my homepage, and specifically the discussion of the role of blindness in my work. On the one hand, I want to be direct about this role; on the other, I want to avoid ghetto-izing my work into a “disabilities” category.
I don’t read a novel simply because it was written by an African-American woman or a Caucasian man. I read books that have literary or other value and that emerge from my prior reading or that come highly recommended. (Of course, while I’m reading, I’m likely to be aware of the author’s own story.) If I find the book has little or no merit, I don’t feel obligated to finish because there’s so much else to read and appreciate. True, I have read books by disabled people because they were written by disabled people, but I’ve done so in order to learn how other disabled writers approach the subject. I discuss the best examples in “Time to Move Past Memoir.” But much writing by disabled people about disabled people, like most of all writing, leaves a lot to be desired.
No question, the lives of people with physical disabilities need to be voiced by those who live them. Self-expression is reason alone. While authors can imagine experiences they’ve never had, imagination goes only so far. Two decades ago, I read an account by a reporter named Charlie LeDuff who blindfolded himself for a week in order to learn what it was like to live blind. The exercise necessarily failed because it could not replicate a blind person’s near-certainty that sight will not be restored, which forces both psychological and practical adjustments that are absent when the disability is planned and set to last for such a finite time. The account described an interesting exercise, and it made me think about the time component of disability, but it wasn’t an authentic representation.
Despite my reservations about that article, I agree with LeDuff’s implicit premise that each of us contains all human emotion and experience, if in varying degrees. Some people are naturally more cheerful than others, some more prone to depression. Ideally, we plumb those tiniest glimmers from our own experience to help us understand what others feel strongly. The arts can spark this receptivity, and no art is better suited for this role than literature. Literature, its medium a constant rearranging of symbols on a blank page, bypasses the senses and goes straight to the heart and the mind.
Anyone could become disabled. Perhaps this potential is one of the reasons that so many non-disabled creative people have sought to depict disability. (See the essay I cite above.)
Even so, I worry that by highlighting blindness on my homepage, I may have inadvertently discouraged some visitors from digging deeper. The website isn’t a disability resource center, nor is it intended to promote a disabled point of view, whatever that may be. All my writing, whether or not about disability, is directed to a mainstream audience. I don’t want to pigeonhole it.
For these reasons, I’ve decided to shorten my homepage message to signal that what visitors will encounter on my website is meant to be entertaining and thought-provoking. They’ll find out soon enough that blindness is a frequent topic—five of my preceding eight blog posts concern disability, directly or otherwise.
For posterity, I close with the passage I’m removing from the homepage. It captures the spirit of much of what I still want to accomplish:
Because I lost my vision at thirteen, blind characters negotiating a sighted world figure prominently.
The question might arise what a blind writer can offer the world beyond an inspirational memoir. Take the common assumption that blind people live in darkness. Rendered realistically, such characters pick up perceptions in so many ways that they cease to miss vision, except when reminded of its absence. Awareness, it turns out, need not be felt as either darkness or light. A sighted person deep in thought can stare out a window and see nothing, and that isn’t darkness, either. Such recognitions make blindness less frightening than people naturally assume.