Writing Blind

I recently had an essay published in Wanderlust Journal—a piece called “Traveling Blind.” After I have a piece accepted by a journal, I mostly forget about it—at least it drops off my work radar. However, I went to the website and reread the piece. A question occurred to me. Why did I write it?
Everything I write is something I’ve experienced in some way—that includes fiction. If I’m to be authentic in writing about my life in the form of personal essays or memoir, then I have to write about being blind. The reality is that I don’t think about it much of the time. I just live my life—I clean my house, I do my work, I walk, I read. Even if I’m standing in an aisle of the grocery store and looking for salad dressing, I don’t think to myself, I can’t see, and this makes this whole thing hard. Instead, I think, this bottle is the shape of the salad dressing I usually buy, so into my basket it goes. I will sometimes ask people for help, but not always.
The point is that if I’m going to write about my experience as a blind person, then I need to think about it—weird as that may sound. It occurred to me one day—if I could see, I would just be another white guy over fifty. Being blind reclassifies me, puts me in a category of difference—at least according to the world. Do I think about being blind as I’m writing every day? NO.
I recently wrote a story about a mysterious young woman who has an uncanny ability to know which books would be best suited for people she meets in a book store. I wasn’t thinking about being blind when I wrote that story. The story is told from the point of view of the young woman: she’s a student, and she’s meeting an acquaintance for coffee, someone she knew in junior high (middle school to the rest of the world). That’s what I had to think about—being a young person, a young woman, who loves books, and doesn’t quite know how to deal with this person from her past. Writing such a character is tricky. I’m not a young woman, but I love books, and I usually have complicated responses to people from my past.
Perhaps the point here is that writing is always something of a paradox: it’s important to write what one knows, but one has to step outside of the experience to write about it at all. Think about building a fence or painting a painting. You have to stand back and see it coming together as a whole. The same is true for me as I try to write my experiences. And even as I’m writing about what the world defines as a disability, I have to see it from the outside to communicate the experience. That experience is always intensely personal, so that’s how it gets written. The question then becomes, how do you write something intensely personal without feeling as though you’re standing naked on a bus? That’s maybe a post for another day.

2 thoughts on “Writing Blind”

  1. It’s a good point that the things that make us different are, well, normal to us ourselves, and that we need to step outside of ourselves to present it to others.

    And now I want to read that story about the young woman… Have you read Nina Georges’ “The Little Paris Bookshop”? It also has a bookseller who almost magically knows what book would be right for a person.

    1. Angelika. Thanks for your comment. No, I haven’t read “The Little Paris Bookshop.” I’ll have a look for it. I wrote the story about the girl in the book store after thinking about a comment my daughter made about books and people. That story will have to sit for a while.
      And yes, stepping outside one’s experience can be valuable—for anyone. I need to do it on a regular basis just to understand some of the interactions I have with people. Many can be awkward; some are unfortunate; but the majority are either interesting or rewarding, even the awkward ones, which, by the way, are awkward on my part as often as not. At the heart of many of these encounters lies people’s desire to help. And people who want to help generally make the world a better place.

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