Negative Space: At the Intersection of Disability and Writers’ Online Complaint Culture

September 22, 2020 § 8 Comments

By Amy Long

I noticed it first in my MFA program. Despite the opportunity costs inherent in leaving the workforce to return to school, most of my peers spent more time complaining about writing than they did writing. “I have to write a story for workshop,” they said in whining, exasperated tones when we passed in the halls or met in our shared offices. The complaints baffled me. Weren’t the pieces we had to write for workshop the reason we’d pursued the degree? Why had these people even applied to MFA programs if they didn’t want to write?

Our program offered us full funding, livable stipends, and good insurance in exchange for the low course loads we taught. Rent was cheap. We rode the bus for free with our student IDs. At the student health center, we got free counseling, even psychiatric care. We had instant friends and faculty who treated us as peers. We got Fridays off. We had little about which we could reasonably complain. Most of us did anyway.

I was different. As soon as I finished teaching my 11 am Writing and Rhetoric class on Mondays and Wednesdays, I hurried home to eat, take a painkiller—maybe two—and write until the sun set. I reserved Tuesdays and Thursdays for doctor’s appointments, therapy, errands, but just as often, I woke up, took two oxycodone, had a Coke and a few handfuls of cereal, and sat down to write on my laptop.

Given my disability, I was lucky I could write at all. I’ve had debilitating daily headaches since I was three years old and have spent the last two decades trying and failing preventive drugs, invasive procedures, and expensive alternative therapies. By the time I started my MFA, I knew that only opioids relieve my pain. My off-campus doctor wrote me a dose twice as high as the one I’m forced to accept now that physicians, government agencies, insurance companies, and others have restricted or de-incentivized opioid prescribing in misdirected efforts to curb overdose deaths and wage an unwinnable war on addiction.

I can think of few conditions more damaging to a writer than pain in the place where she thinks, but on my MFA dose, I functioned so well even our program director didn’t know I had a pain problem; on my post-grad dose, I’m lucky if I can write for two hours on a “good” day. Since writing time is harder to find and sustain outside academia, I assumed the culture of negativity around writing would stay there. But I hear echoes of I have to write a story for workshop all over the Facebook groups and Twitter threads that comprise the online writing community.

Online, writers compare the act of writing to torture, abuse, insanity. Their language assumes that anyone who enjoys her own artmaking is, among other things, an uncool goody two shoes harshing everyone’s deprecation buzz. The worst thing about listening to someone talk about how much they love writing is having to nod along in agreement reads one genre-typical tweet. Other writers commiserate in the comments or with clicks on posts’ little read hearts. Negativity has become something of a currency or writerly necessity—a way to make friends, create personas or “personal brands,” gain followers on social media, and signify in-group belonging. The half-jokes and memes serve as a rhetorical bonding exercise that all but requires a body unencumbered by anything approaching disability.

To not feel your body while writing—to not need to tune out pain, to rest, to wait for your next dose of relief—is a privilege too often ignored or left unquestioned. Instead, we allow participation in semi-ironic social-media threads to act as a never-ending networking event at which writers interpolate writing as an act of self-loathing or a cruel taskmaster to whom we voluntarily report. Complaints about writing broadcast to others not only that you write but that you “get it” in a way hobbyists (coded feminine) never will. “Real” writers, we are made to understand, pour so much of their minds and bodies into their work that they’re driven insane, even tortured or abused, by blank pages, flighty muses, narrative or poetic structures with which they choose to experiment. That their metaphors often invoke mental illness or physical pain reinforces and highlights the normative, implicitly abled bodies behind all those 240-character laments about a craft I practice from my bed.

But what might a disabled writer’s comment look like under that kind of tweet or Facebook post? If I say Yeah, it is hard to nod along when other people say they love writing; I haven’t been able to write since my pain flared last month, and I miss it so much that just seeing your tweet breaks my heart, I break the genre’s unwritten rules. Real hurt, actual illness, complaints expressed not metaphorically but as descriptions of writers’ literal pain aren’t funny; they don’t invite retweets or good-natured riffing or even lend themselves to metaphor. The different ways abled and disabled writers express frustration or displeasure with our shared art reveal inequities sustained and kept invisible by the cult of negativity: what we have that you don’t, the barriers we face that you can’t see, what you take for granted that we can’t.

Although my subpar pain management means I never feel as good as I did in my MFA years, I still write most days; it isn’t easy, and often I feel left out of this ritual we enact to signify belonging. I don’t hate writing. I love opening my latest draft and putting new ideas into it. On days when my head hurts so much I can’t look at a computer screen, I don’t relish the opportunity to take a “cheat day” or “go easy on myself.” I hate that my head so often robs me of precious writing time. But I’m even more angry with writers who take their pain-free heads for granted.

I’m disappointed so many of us feel compelled to hate this magical thing we get to do and that we don’t have more affirming ways to strengthen our collective ties. I don’t know exactly what forms those might take, but a discourse centered on the joys and frustrations of creative work might give us all a more robust, inclusive vocabulary for discussing what we love about writing and a more honest way to talk about the challenges we face, whether shared or unique to our communities. I don’t want to censor other writers or dismiss the pleasure I assume they derive from expressing negativity; we all need to vent. But our current approach too often excludes the voices of disabled writers and others who must steal our writing time and can’t afford the time it takes to tweet about the abundant opportunities healthy, abled writers are lucky enough to squander.
Amy Long is the author of Codependence: Essays, selected by Brian Blanchfield as the winner of Cleveland State University Poetry Center’s 2018 Essay Collection Competition. Her work has appeared in Diagram, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere, including as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2019.


This Blog essay is part of our September 2020 special focus on Experiences of Disability. Read our guest-edited special issue of the magazine for more.

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§ 8 Responses to Negative Space: At the Intersection of Disability and Writers’ Online Complaint Culture

  • geodutton says:

    To me, complaining about the pain of writing is worse than complaining about politics and expecting someone to fix it, because there’s nothing anyone else can do to alleviate one’s bad attitude.

    Speaking generally, many writers’ laments are about how hard the work (or learning to do the work well) is. Well, any kind of work that rewards the soul is bound to be hard, so get over it, I say. Nobody forces somebody to be an author, so get off social media and do it or go do something else.

    Ask yourself what inspired you to become a writer and what kind of identity you hoped it would forge, and then do the work to be that person as best you can.

  • I have seldom seen my own experience reflected back at me the way this article does. While our health challenges are not identical, I too struggle with pain management from an autoimmune disease. After using up most of my spoons for a day job that I’m grateful that I like 9 days out of 10, I have very little left for my writing. I count a day on which I knock out a couple hundred words as a success.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences here.

  • bethfinke says:

    Well said. I, too, have a disability. I am totally blind, and I focus on what I am capable of doing and enjoy those things. Thanks in large part to technology, writing comes easily to me. I even enjoy editing and revising!

  • I can really resonate with what you are saying. I suffer from osteoarthritis, spondylitis in my neck that gives me headaches and I am a diabetic with high cholesterol and blood pressure. I have come off oxycodone and have got my brain back. I take Duluxatine
    and Pregabalin for pain and I have cut out tomatoes, peppers and white potatoes from my diet. This is for the inflammation and I also take Turmeric with black pepper (600mg) once a day and my inflammation is so much better. Studies of people who have chronic pain have shown it affects our brain. We suffer with more sleep disorders, depression and anxiety and yet here we are grateful for the few hours we can actually write! Well done for the essay and bringing the subject of disabled writers to the fore.
    Carolyn Crossley
    ©The Vixen of Verse🦊, 2020

  • Allison K Williams says:

    Thank you, this is so valuable to understand. I don’t have a pain issue, and I can’t fully imagine what that’s like. But I love writing and it’s a privilege to be able to do it on both a physical level and a motivation level. Some days the writing process is more challenging than others, but it’s not ever painful.

  • I’m so sorry about your headaches. I had horrible migraines for a few years until I got meds sorted, but not every day. I’m with you on the “Too many people got addicted, so nobody gets opioids” mentality. It should depend on the person and the illness. As for writing, I have no idea why anyone who doesn’t enjoy it and feel fiercely compelled to do it would bother.

  • Katharine Weber says:

    This is provocative and really moving. I have often felt like an outsider because my relationship to writing is a match with things other writer say about their writing process. I dislike the humblebraggy self-deprecating tone many writers put on when referring to their shitty pages and drafts. I am puzzled by the uneasiness, the MFA dialect that doesn’t have much vocabulary for loving kindness and gratitude towards one’s own mind and sensibilities for being able to make art and love doing it.

    • Pamela Valencia says:

      On Sat, Sep 26, 2020, 2:09 PM BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog wrote:

      > Katharine Weber commented: “This is provocative and really moving. I have > often felt like an outsider because my relationship to writing is a match > with things other writer say about their writing process. I dislike the > humblebraggy self-deprecating tone many writers put on when ref” >

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