Weighing Disability and Writing

April 27, 2012 § 11 Comments

Managing Editor Sarah Einstein discusses a recent blog post on writing (and not writing) about a disability:

On the River Teeth blog, Jason Dutton has posted an insightful post about identity, embodiment, and personal narrative.  He discusses the choices that face him as an essayist with cerebral palsy whose instinct is often to leave his disability off the page:

I tried to avoid it. For a while I entertained the idea that I didn’t need to mention cerebral palsy unless the reader needed clarification. But I couldn’t write about a birthday party without mentioning why it took a lot of effort to climb a set of stone steps in front of the birthday girl’s house. I couldn’t write about my longing to be a stage performer without revealing why I can’t perform. Before too long, I realized that cerebral palsy had affected nearly all of my existence in some way or another.

Dutton examines the difficulty of putting experience on the page. When he writes about the way disability shapes his actions–say, walking across the parking lot at work–he feels the mechanics of his disability take on too much weight, that the essay becomes darker than he wants it to be.  His impulse then is to reassure the reader, to normalize his experience, to say that he’s okay.

Except that’s not honest either, because getting tired in a parking lot isn’t fun. I’m lying when I’m cheerful and I’m lying when I’m not, and I don’t know how to find the honesty in between. But maybe it’s enough to start by admitting when my words don’t feel quite true. Maybe writing about the honesty of disability will help me recognize what I feel, name the emotions I don’t know, chart the points at which “true” and “false” are so interconnected as to be rendered inadequate descriptions. Maybe finding the honesty of disability is much like exploring the honesty of betrayal or love or life, and maybe writing about disability isn’t much different, or any less significant, than writing about anything that is real and true.

And we agree.  Writing about disability isn’t any less significant than writing about anything that is real and true.  Dutton’s insightful look at his own process can help all of us think about what we put on the page when we write ourselves.

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§ 11 Responses to Weighing Disability and Writing

  • Gary Presley says:

    Well, as someone who writes and writes as a crip, all I can say is disability shapes the words whether we write about disability or not. Then there is this: if the disability is visible, there is another whole thread to the narrative. (That’s not to say there ain’t one if the disability is invisible.) Continuing on, a writer with a disability can never tell the whole truth about the disability. Existence is fluid. Being a crip may mean everything in some circumstances and be totally irrelevant in others. Oh, yes. Let’s talk about “onset.” I was bunged up at age seventeen. Whole different perspective about living in Cripville than Dutton’s. I’ve written about disability, but funnily enough, it ain’t a popular subject–or to say it this way, only occasionally do I find an audience. The good part is people are curious. The bad part is reading about disability is a reminder that life is probably gonna bite you in the ass before it kills you. Those are the things (other than talent, and having something to say) that influence writing about disability. The thing is, I can no more not reveal disability through my writing than, say, I cannot hide the fact I am a white, male, American.

  • Stephanie Hilliard says:

    My brother-in-law, also a writer, struggles with CMT. He has debated some of these same issues. A current fiction piece that he’s working on includes a protagonist who was badly injured and shares similar disability problems as my brother-in-law. It allows him to explore his feelings about being disabled and what it takes just to cope. It also lets us as his readers learn how better to empathize with someone whose daily existence can sometimes be a struggle just to walk across a parking lot.

    I know my brother-in-law is tempted to try and ignore his disability as well. He would rather not think about it. But in reality, while it does not define who he is, it certainly defines how he functions.

  • Jackie Gay says:

    I’m a writer with a disability – I lost my leg in an accident at age 30, and wrote my way through the changes, the before and after that I thought (then) would forever define my life. My experience is like Gary’s – that readers find disability deeply unsexy and that avoiding the stereotypes (punished by God, embittered, heroic, victim, cipher for another character’s situation, boring whiner who goes on and on about how difficult it is to walk across the car park) is a minefield and if you don’t watch it… BAM… there goes another limb, metaphorically, of course…

    But we have to do it, try and write it, try to articulate the truth. I return again and again to my favourite quote from Johnny Depp: ‘Don’t compromise. Do your work, and if what you’re giving is not what they want, you have to be prepared to walk away.’

    ps I’m English which is why the spellchecker thinks I’ve got it wrong.

    keep right on


  • sarahemc2 says:


    First, let me say BIG FAN. But I think you probably already know how much I admire your writing.

    I think Dutton captures something very lovely and subtle in this article, something that I would phrase as the difference between “coming out crip” and “being out crip.” About the balancing act between creating a self on the page that acknowledges all of who he is without making the essay “about” disability. Mostly, I think this says something about who we are as readers… about the fact that we are living in a moment and time when “crip issues” are so invisible that it’s difficult for us to read the essayist with a disability without having that disability explored for us in the piece. I think it means something significant that the “cripped essay” can’t rely on a common understanding of different experiences of embodiment… that it has to assume an able-bodied reader. Or, at least, it does right now. With enough exceptionally bodied AND exceptionally talented essayists and memoirists–like yourself and like Dutton–maybe that won’t be true in ten years.

    Here’s hoping!


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  • Gary Presley says:

    It’s a wonderfully thoughtful essay, laced with the irony about his condition that I try to reveal in my own writing. I think the heart of creative nonfiction is reportorial. As much as we want to know about politics in Sudan, or the economic weaknesses in China, or any other general matter in this world, we look to CNF for reports on personal perceptions of the same world. Disability is just another country.

  • a. m. f. says:

    I appreciate Brevity highlighting this one. I’d seen it on an FB feed, but didn’t have a chance to read until now. After reading it, and the fine comments, it made me realize that there isn’t a lot of fiction or non-fiction regarding certain disabilities, while others, such as mental illness, appear quite often. Frankly, there are many genres that could use with a broader sweep of the pen to remind us that ‘normal’ is just a word, it defines nothing. It is understandable if the person with the disability would rather not ‘go there’, however, more insight would serve us all well. We think nothing of the essay about mental illness or cancer; we champion the protagonist who is dealing with an addictive behavior…why not living with leg braces, or wheelchairs, albeit, as mentioned, woven into the bigger picture?
    Slightly different, but something that came to mind, was a memoir I shall never forget, ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’. It struck a chord because it gave such great insight into a world that I couldn’t imagine existed. It did/can exist, and I’m most grateful to understand that person’s hell just a little…even if reading it put me a bit on edge. That is the gift of words; it’s why I read. ~

  • My Mom has become disabled as have my inlaws. I think it’s great that he’s writing about his CP Isn’t that what writing is for–to communicate our experience and through that expand our mutual consciousness. Great post!

  • […] week’s Brevity Nonfiction Blog article by Sarah Einstein, Weighing Disability and Writing—a blog post about a blog post, which is what I’m doing here—got me thinking about honesty […]

  • sandrabranum says:

    I have often said: some journeys we do not choose, but regardless we write about them or go crazy. This was the reason I began my blog when my eye shots began. Since 2010 I have found new friends and more courage which helps in the day-to-day struggles of chronic “Life.”

  • […] week’s Brevity Nonfiction Blog article by Sarah Einstein, Weighing Disability and Writing—a blog post about a blog post, which is what I’m doing here—got me thinking about honesty […]

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