Posted by: judyweightman | November 27, 2012

Reading to write: Blind and visually impaired authors

As a writer, I spend most of my time reading.

My day starts with going through my email inbox, which is constantly replenished with press releases and story pitches, as well as correspondence with people who have served, are serving, or I hope will serve as resources for projects I’m working on — to say nothing of the various logistical emails from clients, editors, and colleagues.

Then there’s research, whether I’m browsing Twitter and my RSS feed for story ideas or reading up on a topic that’s piqued my interest to see if there’s enough there to be worth pursuing. Once the story is on the to-do list, there’s additional research, plus interviews that involve at least as much reading as talking — pre-interview preparation, and reading my notes through after to be sure they make sense. And if they don’t? Well, I’ll shoot off an email to the subject to ask for clarification.

Even the writing process itself involves at least as many words coming into my eyeballs as flow out of my fingers on the keyboard — I’m looking at interview notes (a half dozen or more separate documents for a long article) and double-checking facts online, and may have a book or three open and scattered around my desk. Then, after the first draft is done, there are numerous read-throughs to proofread and edit my work.

So I can’t imagine trying to do my job if I couldn’t see. Which isn’t to say that it can’t be done — and done spectacularly well. Here are some famous authors who succeeded despite blindness or visual impairment.

Homer (c. 8th century BC): Virtually nothing is known about the life of the epic poet credited with the Odyssey and the Iliad. The name “Homer” in both Ionic and Aeolic Greek means “blind,” which is probably the source of the attribution of his blindness. It also means “hostage,” or “one who follows” — the source of his identification as a slave.

Painting by Henry Fuseli

John Milton (1608 – 1674): Tradition has it that Milton dictated his masterpiece, Paradise Lost, to his daughters after going blind at 44, probably from glaucoma. His sonnet “On His Blindness” ends with the famous line “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

James Joyce (1882 – 1941): Joyce spent the last 20 years of his life dealing with his deteriorating eyesight, undergoing numerous surgeries. Much of Finnegan’s Wake was dictated to assistants, including Samuel Beckett.

James Thurber (1884 – 1961): As a child, one of Thurber’s brothers shot him in the eye with an arrow when they were playing William Tell. He lost that eye and later lost most of the sight in his other eye, but was as famous for his blobby, somehwat surreal, drawings and cartoons as for his short stories.

Jorge Luis Borges (1889-1986): The Argentinian essayist, novelist, and poet started losing his vision in his early 30s, and was completely blind by the time he was 60. As he struggled with his eyesight, he wrote more poetry, because he could memorize an entire piece as he was working on it. His best-known work in English is Labyrinths, a collection of essays.

Sue Townsend (1946 – ): English novelist-playwright Townsend is best known as the author of the young-adult “Adrian Mole” novels, but has also written plays, adult novels, and nonfiction. She became certifiably blind in 2001 as the result of her diabetes.

Trish Vickers: Not yet published, aspiring author Vickers, 59, lost her sight because of diabetes seven years ago. She works by hand, using rubber bands wrapped around the pad to keep her lines straight. She was working on a short story, and, inspired, wrote 26 pages of one. When her son arrived to pick up the manuscript to be transcribed, he had to tell her that her pen had run out of ink, and all the pages were blank. Vickers asked the local Dorset, UK police for help, and the force spent several months of slow periods reconstructing the marks on the paper, completing the task in April 2012.

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