Elements of Style: A Blind Writer’s Bible

July 3, 2019 § 22 Comments

finkeBy Beth Finke

Like so many of the other young people flocking to journalism school at the end of the 1970s, I was sure I’d become the next Woodward or Bernstein.

But then the spots showed up.

“Retinopathy,” the eye specialist said.

During my months in the hospital for eye surgeries, a social worker suggested I keep a journal. Good idea. Only problem? My eyes were patched shut. How could I write?

Just 25 years old, I’d gotten married months before the diagnosis, and my new husband came to the rescue. Mike bought me a cassette recorder. Three months in the hospital provided plenty of time to fill tape after tape with daily thoughts and impressions. Maintaining that audio journal helped me through long, dark hours in my hospital bed.

Eye surgeries didn’t work. A year after my diagnosis, I was totally blind. The Americans with Disabilities Act wouldn’t be passed until four years later, in 1990. I lost my job.

Mike arranged for low-interest loans with friends and bought me a very expensive Christmas present that year: a talking computer. Revolutionary technology combined special screen navigation software with a speech synthesizer to parrot the letters I typed. I could hear – and fix – typos as I went along, and when I was finished, I could check grammar and spelling errors by manipulating the keys to make the synthesizer read a page of type by character, word, line, or paragraph.

I set to work transcribing my hospital recordings. Entries provided me with cheap therapy, and boy, did I need it! I had already tried finding inspiration from audio books by blind authors, but most of them wrote about finding God or performing amazing feats like sailing across the Atlantic alone or hiking the Appalachian Trail with a guide dog. Was the world ready for a book by an unathletic pagan who’d gone blind? One way to find out: start writing it.

Revise and Rewrite

Writing my memoir took three years. Revising and rewriting it took ten. I found inspiration from The Elements of Style, which was required reading in my journalism school days. “Remember, it is no sign of weakness or defeat that your manuscript ends up in need of major surgery,” authors Strunk & White say in Chapter V, An Approach to Style. “This is a common occurrence in all writing, and among the best writers.”

Long Time, No See was published by University of Illinois Press in 2003. My first NPR essay aired nationally on Morning Edition that year, too. Event coordinators began inviting me to do presentations. No matter where I spoke, or what the occasion, when it came to the Q & A part of my book presentations, nearly every question was about one thing: my Seeing Eye dog.

“Where’d you get your dog?”

“Can that dog tell a red light from a green light?”

“What breed is it?”

“How does your dog know where you want to go?”

I may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night. I knew my next book should be about Seeing Eye dogs. Not a memoir. Something shorter. A picture book? Yes! Maybe about a dog who doesn’t always like his job.

Other dogs get to play Frisbee in the park, but day after day, this dog has to follow commands, lead a blind woman around to places he’d rather not go.  And speaking of going…other dogs get to lift their legs on any tree they want, but this dog has to wait until his human companion takes his harness off and gives him permission. The book would be a sequel of sorts.  Long Time, No Pee.

The rejections came quickly. Most arrived via postcard, which meant poor Mike had to read them aloud to me.

Be Clear

Picture books are only 900 words long. Surely this one wouldn’t take me ten years to edit and revise. Or would it? Back to Strunk and White.

The “White” of Strunk and White is E. B. White, a highly regarded writer and contributing editor for The New Yorker. White was so taken by the writing tips he learned at Cornell from Professor William Strunk that he revived his professor’s guide into Elements of Style, a small 71-page book published by Macmillan in 1959.

E.B. White is also the author of the children’s classics Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little. He must have followed his own rules when rewriting and revising the manuscripts of those masterpieces. So I did, too.

Omit Needless Words

Known to some as a word bible, Elements of Style is jam-packed with easy-to-follow gems like “Be Clear” and “Do not overwrite.” Each short declaration is followed by a couple longer sentences explaining the importance of that rule. Examples:

Write with nouns and verbs. “In general…it is nouns and verbs, not their assistants, that give to good writing its toughness and color.”

Avoid fancy words. “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able.”

“Omit needless words” is probably the most famous guideline from Elements of Style, but “do not overwrite” and “avoid fancy words” are sensational supporting actors.

Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound was published by Blue Marlin Publications in 2007. I’ve been visiting schools regularly ever since, talking with kids about disability, trust, adapting to change, bonding with animals, service dogs, teamwork, diversity and dealing with bullying.

Do Not Overwrite

I lead memoir-writing classes for older adults, too. We meet once a week, I assign weekly prompts for them to work on at home, and I borrow tips from Strunk & White when editing their work: essays have to be shorter than 500 words so every student gets a chance to read aloud in class every week. What a privilege it is to spend hours a week with people 65 and better, and then make a school visit that same week with kids 14 or under. Spending time with both age groups leaves me feeling young.
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Beth Finke lives in Chicago with her husband, Mike Knezovich, and her Seeing Eye dog, Whitney. Her latest book is Writing Out Loud: What A Blind Teacher Learned Leading a Memoir Class for Seniors, and she recently launched Memoir Teacher Masterclass, a short course to encourage and support writers who want to organize and lead their own memoir-writing classes.

Stylish Negotiations: How a Blind Writer Finds the Right Journals

July 14, 2017 § 12 Comments

Emily K. Micheal TEDx promo photo 9.2016By Emily K. Michael

Submission guidelines rarely make me angry. Because I seek publications that share my interests – ecology, feminism, disability, music – all the specifications can start to look the same. Most journals want a well-rounded submission, free from religious agendas, offensive stereotypes, and one-dimensional fables of inspiration.

When I find a publication that seems promising, I scroll through the journal’s “About” page and submission guidelines. Here’s where I can make some serious assessments. Journals lose my interest if they proclaim, “send us your best work” or “we only publish good poetry.” I won’t let my students use “good” and “bad” as standalone terms, so I hesitate to send my work to a journal that won’t express its own agenda in more vibrant language.

Among publications that promote the work of disabled writers, the guidelines evince a similar aesthetic. Here are excerpts from three journals committed to sharing the work of writers with disabilities:

“Writers with disabilities can submit poems on any topic. For topics unrelated to disability, [The Journal] will ask you to confirm that you have a disability upon acceptance. Non-disabled writers must submit work that relates in some way to disability.”

“Submissions may be either by an individual with a disability or anyone who is part of the community.”

“[The Journal] is a forum for people with disabilities to speak for ourselves. We hope that our allies will support this endeavor.”

These guidelines echo the common thread among disability-related publications: work by writers with disabilities or work about disability. While some journals open submissions to friends, caregivers, and other allies, others only want work by disabled people – presumably for a disabled audience.

The style of the guidelines matters. With lists of fussy rules and blocks of prescriptive reminders, a journal seems overbearing. When I answered a recent call for blind writers, the editor wrote to me, “Make sure to use plenty of vivid details.” I felt like a freshman in a creative writing class.

But perhaps I should have expected this kind of micromanagement. The guidelines for his publication read: “We want to hear first-person stories not merely about blindness, but about what it takes to survive and strive as a human. We want to establish a new venue for exploring direct experiences surrounding the often misunderstood and under-appreciated aspects of blindness.”

What fascinates me here are two concepts: striving “as a human” and “the under-appreciated aspects of blindness.” These phrases sound subtle alarms. Even before this editor reads my submission, I must prove myself “as a human.” This is a journal that wants human stories, not more-than-human, not nonhuman. It’s a journal devoted to personhood.

The “under-appreciated aspects of blindness” are the compensatory gifts of disability, cleverly disguised. In their very next paragraph, the guidelines instruct the writer: “The most important thing is that [the submission is] honest, unafraid, and rooted in an experience of visual impairment.” I put this line in conversation with the editor’s advice to “avoid talking about your diagnosis and focus on the experience.”

The editor wants blindness, but not my blindness. While I support the journal’s efforts to cast disabled people as more than their diagnoses, I don’t appreciate the reminders. If I choose to focus on medical details, that choice is not a shortcoming or a sign of my ignorance: it’s a rhetorical move with desired effects.

These guidelines are a reaction to a powerful threat hibernating in the presence of disabled artists – that we might dare to speak of our experiences without courage, that we might offer the nondisabled reader a few lines of fragmented, unpredictable reality. Against this threat, the guidelines erect new definitions: Our reality is now unreality. They won’t acknowledge our experiences or publish our work.

They want clean lines.

But the desire for clean, polished renderings of disability is not confined to nondisabled readers  – who receive plenty of blame for the bad attitudes we face each day. On another call for disabled poets, posted to social media, a writer asked, “What kind of poetry are you looking for?” And the editor offered a fabulous phrase:

“I don’t want microaggressions. I want good poetry.”

Now I know what the editor means: she doesn’t want poetry that whines or complains, poetry that fusses over the little irritations of each day. She wants something more than a poet’s note to herself – poems that would resonate with readers beyond the original writer.

But this statement erects a binary between “microaggressions” and “good poetry.” It’s as if the editor is not just critiquing submissions, but the inspiration for those submissions. As I look through my work, I should censor myself, interrogate each poem for a suitably elevated motivation. In forming the “good poetry” or the “courageous” depiction of vision loss required by these editors, I am supposed to rise above the everyday irritations of disability, distill my experiences into a fine, sparkling elixir.

In their syntax, these guidelines divide me from my sense of how writing transforms my experiences. I can summon up my exhaustion at the end of a long day of intrusive questions, my frustration with the pity of strangers who don’t bother to understand me, my loneliness and longing for other blind companions. The process of art may transform these feelings into something grander, something more transcendent. And it may not. Art begins with our mundanity.

As with the language of compensatory blessings, the editors avoid the word “inspiration.”  Perhaps they know that we’ve gotten hip to its real meaning. We recognize inspiration – the kind expected from stories of overcoming – as code for erasure.

But the unsuspecting blind writer can face other signs of erasure out in the open. A website called TheReImage offers a seemingly noble mission: “TheReImage will share stories focusing on all aspects of life. Each story will feature individuals with different degrees of vision loss, but rather than concentrating on that one aspect, we’re examining the emotions, feelings and experiences we share as humans.” Here is a website dedicated to stories of our shared humanity – doesn’t that sound wonderful? Finally, a publication that acknowledges disabled writers as people!

Again I see “as humans.” I am on edge.

In their submission guidelines, I find that stories should: “Provide a well balanced authentic perspective on living with vision loss. Focus the story on the human experience, not the vision loss. Promote public awareness and greater understanding of vision loss and the capabilities of people with vision loss. Be of interest to the sighted/general public.”

These guidelines hide a sinister contradiction. They encourage writers to offer a balanced, authentic perspective of “vision loss,” and they contrast this brand of authenticity with a “focus on vision loss.” So a story that focuses on disability, that explores some medical or anatomical concept, is therefore deemed inauthentic and unbalanced. Further down the page, The ReImage tells writers to, “Use the term ‘vision loss’ instead of blind or visually impaired,” and “Put the vision loss aspect in the background.”

Perhaps the most heartbreaking feature of these guidelines is the mandate: “Be of interest to the sighted/general public.” TheReImage wants to promote better stories of blindness, but not for a blind audience. They’re rallying against that dark threat again – the notion that we might dream of offering our own experiences, unfiltered through inspiration or courage. And they’re not just circumventing our stories, they’re actually renaming us.

Even though I have dozens of delightful experiences, I can’t write for TheReImage. I am resolutely a blind poet. Not a “writer with sight loss.”

These guidelines tell half a story, and it’s the half that many people want to hear. TheReImage claims to be giving us back our personhood – offering stories where the disability doesn’t overshadow the humanity. But in order to give us membership in their tribe, they must acknowledge that someone has taken it away. You can’t return a stolen vase if it hasn’t been stolen. So disability itself becomes the thief, and they conquer it with style.

TheReImage asks for balance and authenticity, yet it banishes the self-identified blind or visually impaired writer, forcing them to go by another name. What is authentic about having to rename oneself for  a “general/sighted public”?

These guidelines are not designed for my questions. They are not drafts but finalized decrees. I can’t place my trust in a one-sided conversation.

Editors, I am looking for dialogue, a mutual coming-to-terms. I am looking for textual empathy.

I have seen such empathy unfold in real time. In 2015, I responded to a call for women writers. The editors were creating a feminist anthology and seeking diverse and “differently abled” women. Because the project looked interesting, I told the editor that “differently abled” wasn’t a term that I as a disabled woman would choose for myself. I explained that disability wasn’t a dirty word and asked if she would include it in the call for submissions.

To my surprise, the editor immediately altered the language of the call and confessed her desire to use the appropriate term. She said, “It’s hard to know what’s preferred unless you’re in the group,” and I agreed. Ours was a brief exchange, a handful of comments and links shared on Facebook, but it represented a commitment to dialogue.

This commitment to negotiation is what’s missing from so many of the off-putting calls for disabled writers. An editor or panel of editors decrees what “version” of disability I am allowed to submit, and if I don’t comply, they’ll move on to a whole queue of submissions willing to barter for personhood on someone else’s terms.

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Emily K. Michael is a blind poet, musician, and writing instructor from Jacksonville, FL. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Wordgathering, The Hopper, Artemis Journal, The Deaf Poets Society, Nine Mile Magazine, Disability Rhetoric, Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics, BREVITY’s Nonfiction BlogAWP Writer’s Notebook, and Barriers and Belonging: Personal Narratives of Disability. Emily’s work centers on the themes of ecology, disability, feminism, and music. Find her at her blog On the Blink, and watch her TEDx Talk, “The Confluence of Disability and Imagination.”

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