The Careful Craft of the Disability Essay
January 24, 2018 § 8 Comments
By Rachel Hoge
Sometimes I have trouble knowing which came first: my writing or my speech disability. I began stuttering early in life, around four or five years old. Around this time, I wrote my first poem—one short stanza about ducks, but don’t judge, I was learning. One thing I never learned, though, was how to stop stuttering. Like 1% of the American population, stuttering was the neurological and genetic hand I had been dealt. I continued to write, mostly because it was a form of communication and self-expression that was inaccessible to me verbally. I never stopped writing and I never stopped stuttering, and both became significant and lifelong conditions.
In the beginning, I wrote poetry and fiction exclusively, but in my early 20s, once I began to write about my speech disability, I naturally gravitated towards creative nonfiction. I found creative nonfiction could best accentuate the complexity of being disabled: in this genre, I could be both candid and literary, perceptive and forthright. When it came to writing about disability, the personal essay proved to be a perfect fit.
I’ve written at least forty personal essays about my stutter, and have published about half of them. I’ve found there are three craft elements in creative nonfiction that are essential to the disability essay. Without them, I wrote many flawed and unfinished essays.
The first element is scene writing. The use of scene is common in creative nonfiction, but is especially effective in the disability essay. Catherine Kudlick, for example, opens her essay, “The Price of ‘Disability Denial,’” with an immediate scene: the year is 1989, and Kudlick has a visual impairment called nystagmus; as a result, she avoids speaking to large audiences. Then a colleague suddenly reveals to her in-scene that her job security hinges around giving a lecture to 100 students. The reader is instantly panicked, and because this revelation is explored in-scene, the conflict of Kudlick’s disability becomes much more accessible.
Scenes are used to transport the able-bodied reader into an experience they’ve never previously felt or imagined. And because scenes differ from summary—reliving one specific moment in time —the singularity of such a scene allows the reader to fully inhabit an unknown circumstance. Readers can imagine themselves in place of the narrator, or at the very least, can sympathize and comprehend the situation better than before. Scene writing in the disability genre permits the narrator to reveal the uncommon nature of living with their condition. Through scenes, the able-bodied reader begins to understand how everyday activities or common interactions can become difficult or frightening when experienced through disability.
Next, we have research. The integration of facts in disability writing is natural and necessary. It is, after all, writers of disability who must challenge misconceptions and social stigmas surrounding their very identities…while simultaneously crafting scenes, characterization, and assembling a narrative arc. If the disabled writer’s objective is to provide more than a surface-level understanding of disability—for example, if they wish to expand a reader’s understanding, or prevent the spread of misinformation—then the use of research becomes an essential tool in disability writing. Research can also be used to highlight an experience that able-bodied readers are unaware of, like Britney Wilson’s essay “On NYC’s Paratransit, Fighting for Safety, Respect, and Human Dignity,” which examines Access-a-Ride, New York City’s paratransit service that—as a native New Yorker with Cerebral Palsy—Wilson has used for decades.
It should also be mentioned that research provides disability writing with layers it desperately requires, such as context and credibility. Without an understanding of what disability is and how it’s perceived by others, the emotional arc laid out by the narrator would lose significant impact. It’s an unfortunate truth, but one worth relaying: a writer’s first-hand account of disability will always be challenged, but a first-hand account supported by evidence won’t be as easily silenced. Personal experience isn’t enough for most abled-bodied readers because they have their own unconscious portrait of disability—often inspirational or destitute, with no room for complexity or nuance—and that stereotyping needs dismantling. The inclusion of research allows writers of disability to develop a platform of authority, and once on that platform—they can finally share their story.
But perhaps the most powerful craft element of disability writing is reflection. Creative nonfiction writers must have a clear perspective in order to impart a tangible concept, meaning, or epiphany, to the readers. This is even more vital in the disability essay, as a narrator’s introspection on their condition must resonate beyond their own observations. Without commentary from an insightful narrator, the piece becomes a compilation of memory that offers little to no meaning. The retrospective thinking of the disabled narrator must include a larger context for the essay to maintain relevance, like a push against societal norms or expectations, an exploration of body image, or an internal search for self-acceptance.
To explain it another way: an incomplete essay simply reveals the life of a disabled person; a complete essay reveals the life of a disabled person, while offering a new viewpoint or meaningful context. Reflection can provide a more intricate understanding of disability, informing readers and offering wisdom through the narrator’s contemplations. Reflection can overt, like in Meredith Bland’s “All Bodies Count” where she writes about her complicated relationship with her disabled body. Reflection can also be subtle and reserved, like Rebecca Swanson’s contemplation of Tourette’s syndrome in “The Fine Lines of Twitching.” Both approaches show the private perceptions of people with disabilities, and how these perceptions challenge readers to consider a perspective unlike their own.
Still, you might ask: are these the only craft elements significant to the disability essay? Of course not. I encourage writers of disability to embrace the personal essay in whatever way they can. If a disability essay lacks scene writing, research, or reflection, does that mean it’s unaccomplished? Not necessarily.
But do keep in mind: without craft, readers will impose their own understanding of disability onto the essay, and that understanding may be incorrect. And even with craft, readers may misinterpret your meaning. But the danger of not applying—at least some—craft elements to the disability essay, is that society’s depiction of disability will likely go unaltered. Providing the reader with an authentic understanding of disability, and pushing beyond flat portrayals to deliver a more complicated portrait, allows those of us with disabilities to shed light on the misinterpretations of our identities.
To me, there’s nothing more important.
Rachel Hoge is a freelance writer, essayist, and recent MFA graduate from the Arkansas Writers Program. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Salon, the Rumpus, and many more. Lately, she’s been hard at work on her debut essay collection about the intersection of disability and gender. You can follow her on Twitter @hoge_rachel or view her full creative portfolio at https://www.rachelbhoge.com.