BLIND WRITER AT WORK
With an almost thirty-year career and seven notebooks of published clips, you'd think I'd be secure in my calling as an author. I thought I was, until the winter night of the telephone conference for writers with disabilities.
The conference moderator asked each of us to introduce ourselves. One new member, whom I will call Jane, was blind. She mentioned her employment and her radio show. In my intro, I spoke of my long-time writing past and my over 500 bylines.
Shortly after our intros, Jane asked me "Do you work?" Sighted people phrase this question differently. They ask "What do you do?" or "Do you make any money writing?" Most writers get such questions.
I don't mind explaining that the kind of writing I've chosen (poetry and personal essay) is not known for paying well. I have been paid, of course, and sometimes pretty well. I have been lucky enough to have been published in both disability and mainstream magazines and anthologies. I frequently read for audiences and my white cane and Braille text are always evident. My local newspaper and radio commentary work have given me community recognition as an author and advocate.
But my desire is for influence in the world. I want to make people think and react and question. And I want tangible achievements that speak to my value in a world that does not always see me as valuable. (Fame, riches, and bylines in "The New Yorker" and "Poetry Magazine" would be nice too.)
This, however, was a blind person asking me. I am also blind. Perhaps disability makes us need recognition more. And perhaps it conditions some of us to give responses that do not challenge negativity. All disabled people know the potential negativity and condescension of those who make their "real" jobs known.
Did I defend my art and my discipline? Did I stand up for my calling and my identity? Did I at least ask why Jane was so disrespectful to someone she'd barely met? To my shame, I sacrificed myself to this altar of ability hierachy. "No," I cowered, "I don't work."
Jane's insensitivity, probably caused by her own insecurities, was insignificant compared to my selling myself out.
I've spent my entire career writing what I want to write. I am highly self-directed (if you don't count chocolate).
I've met brilliant authors with enviable credentials who have supported me and many others with respect, generosity, and thoughtful criticism. Such helpful people are always secure in who they are. They expect me to be real-world serious about the work.
I should have said "I work at home. I always try for my best effort on every page."
In a "This I Believe" essay, an author suggested that we shouldn't ask "What do you do?" We should ask "What is your story?"
As published authors, we can forget that we endure more rejection than many people, that we are rarely thanked for what we do, and that much of what we do is unseen by others. We should always stand up for that.
People who haven't found their truth and value need to devalue those around them. Perhaps, if Jane takes twenty minutes a day to write, she will find and cultivate her self. But I am grateful that she has reminded me of mine. I probably need center stage as much as Jane does, but I'd rather earn my pride and my accolades.
P.S. It's four days later, and the guy from the American Foundation for the Blind Career Connect just called. He was updating data. He asked whether I was employed.
"Of course. I'm still a free-lance writer but, for your purposes, I'm just not monetarily gainfully employed."
Thanks again, Jane.