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.