What is it Like to Be a Blind Writer Writing for Sighted Readers?
George Mendoza and Kristen Witucki Talk Craft, Community, and Ableism in the Publishing Industry
What is it like to be blind in an industry overwhelmingly dominated by sighted individuals? Jessica Powers, founder and publisher at Catalyst Press, spoke to George Mendoza and Kristen Witucki about crafting stories for sighted readers, finding community and release in fiction, and battling ableism in traditional publishing and publicity.
Jessica Powers: When did you both start writing?
Kristen Witucki: My favorite toy as a child was the tape recorder. I destroyed my first one by pouring water on it so that I could hear the sound of water. Once I got that life lesson out of the way (and did not kill myself, as my mother worried), it became my best tool for telling stories, writing, and revising, long after I learned how to read and write. I wanted to write because I love to read and to live in stories, and I want to create that experience for others and for myself.
I wrote (on paper) my first “novel” when I was 12. It was based on my grandmother’s life; she had to take care of her mother while her brothers could continue in school. My mother unearthed the manuscript 25 years later, and it has every literary stereotype gone amuck. (Think Caddie Woodlawn, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Anne Shirley mushed together.) I might never be able to fix it, but it was mine. My teacher took me the whole way through the drafting, revising, and publication-seeking process, and a very kind editor realized that a child wrote this and gently turned it down in a way that I emerged from the experience thinking, “Ok, I was rejected this time, but so is everyone else, and I can do this sometime.”
But I came to writing and the subject of disability during college in my composition classes when my professors asked me to work on the blindness stories more. And as a senior in college, I was fortunate to hear the author Jhumpa Lahiri speak as our college’s writer-in-residence. At the time she was writing about the experiences of immigrants from India and their first-generation American children and the lives they were forging here; she was also writing about love and loss, commitment and betrayal, human longing. She said that writing gave her a center and a way to be a participatory observer in the world, and I thought maybe I could try this as a blind person.
George Mendoza: I come from a family of writers and artists so I guess in a way it is an inherited gift. However, because I went blind at 15, I really had no other choice but to find my creative juice. Creativity saved my life! I grew up listening to talking books for the blind, books like The Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia. Books took me away from my own suffering and doubts. I am a painter, too. I find painting very relaxing, while writing and working on a novel is hard work and labor intense.
Jessica Powers: The world of books has long been associated with sight, with the exception of books in braille. But now there are audiobooks, voice-activated text to page, software that can read emails and books to you. What technology do you two use to read books? What technology do you use to write?
Kristen Witucki: I grew up reading with braille and audio, and I still use both those methods. I write on either a small braille notetaking computer or on my laptop using Jaws, a screen reading program.I dream in color and I can actually see the words on a printed page.
George Mendoza: I use Jaws computer software to write with on my computer. Jaws has a human-like voice. When I type, the program reads the words back to me so am directed with my sentences as I construct them. Jaws also lets me proofread to make sure the sentences read well and make sense. When I proofread, the spell check is once again using a human voice. It is not perfect, but it is the best thing next to a human proofreading for me. As for reading, I listen to digital audiobooks provided to the blind by the New Mexico Library for the Blind.
Jessica Powers: I know writers who have to physically write their books, others who use their computers, writers who read their books out loud to revise, writers who cut and paste physically. What is the process of writing like for you that might be different than a sighted person? How do you think that changes both your experience of writing and changes the book that you end up writing?
George Mendoza: My writing process goes something like this: I usually dream about the words I am going to write about while sleeping. Then I write down some notes in very large print, because of my blindness. I review them and then I write those words and scenes on my computer using the Jaws speech system for the blind. I dream in color and I can actually see the words on a printed page.
Kristen Witucki: I think the computer has brought my process of writing closer to that of a sighted person so that writing itself is very similar. If I send a manuscript for feedback, I still find it easier to respond to narrative comments written in the body of an email than I do to comments embedded into the text. But I’ve learned to work with all of these features.I feel that many times I have taken my hearing for granted, the ability to eavesdrop to get material for stories.
Jessica Powers: How do you think readers experience books when they listen to books or feel books (as in braille, or even sighted children who have tactile picture books), as opposed to readers who “read” books in the traditional manner? What changes in a reader’s absorption or experience of a book? This applies to all readers, sighted and blind.
George Mendoza: I miss reading a regular hardcopy book! But over the years, I got used to listening to books, hundreds of books. I think a lot of people are listening to books rather than reading them nowadays.
Kristen Witucki: Sight can be a very quick way to absorb information, if someone has a lot of functional vision and no learning disabilities. If people learn to read braille when they are young, they can learn to read quickly but don’t skim quite as much. There are ways to find and skim in audio, but the act of feeling and the act of listening can sometimes help people to take in information more slowly and sometimes more fully.
Jessica Powers: I have never really thought about how you can’t “skim” or “speed-read” an audiobook, and how the act of listening to a book, as opposed to reading it, deliberately slows people down to absorb information more completely and slowly. Are there any other ways in which the lack of manufactured “shortcuts” available to you lead to more deliberateness in your actions?
Kristen Witucki: Sometimes! Listening and reading by touch allow me to absorb things more carefully at times, as long as my kids or work or other thoughts are not interrupting, which is a relatively common occurrence. I do notice that I’m more often able not to be upset with traffic or transit delays, because I have so little control compared to others about how I get from place to place. I feel that being spared a lot of road rage is a constant gift.
I’m afraid that many times, though perhaps not always, I absorb many of the societal weaknesses that some of my friends without disabilities do. For instance, I remember thinking when I was younger that I was free of visual biases such as judging people by skin color because of my blindness, only to realize that racial biases along with other biases are more than visual and that the way to confront them as they come up is through education and life experience, not lack of vision. Blindness is not my “get out of bias free” card.My blind characters are based on experiences I know, but they still aren’t me, and I inhabit them separately.
So in terms of concentrating on the nonessential, I’m guilty of social media overconsumption and doomscrolling on Facebook, and I haven’t taken up Twitter or bothered to figure out the accessibility quirks in Instagram, because I’m nervous I’ll get sucked in completely.
George Mendoza: My mother taught me to take life slow and easy. Sometimes my life gets too busy but then it slows down again. These days I mostly write and paint. I got tired of traveling with all the restrictions and the cost due to inflation nation now. I live the creative life and I do not focus on living in the fast lane anymore. I am still very active while the real world spins by me in a speedy blur. For me, I think blindness has put me in a tunnel of vision in a way. In other words, I have to concentrate more in life because of my disability. I focused on my art and writing basically because I can’t drive a truck or work as a normal person, which is fine with me. I would rather live in a fantasy than in the so-called real world.
Jessica Powers: What are things that sighted writers take for granted that you can’t? What are ways that being blind has given you an advantage? Are there things you take for granted?
George Mendoza: I miss editing my own work because I cannot see it on the screen. However, this might be a blessing in disguise since I have to work with editors who can see and put their own twist on my stories. In other words, a second pair of eyes is always a good thing to have as backup for my books. If the editor is good or even great, then my novels become better for the reader.
Kristen Witucki: I still use an old enough braille notetaker that if I want to convert the file to read aloud in braille. It can take an extra few minutes to make sure it is working. I don’t have a braille embosser right now, both because of the cost and the space to store it, so getting a story on to paper in a format I can read is not possible without help or if I braille it out again on the brailler (sort of like a braille typewriter). I feel that many times I have taken my hearing for granted, the ability to eavesdrop to get material for stories.If the editor is good or even great, then my novels become better for the reader.
Jessica Powers: I just watched the Apple series See, and one of the things that struck me in watching it was the way that other senses become enhanced when you lose one sense. Do you have any observations about how you emphasize certain sensory details in your writing that a sighted author might neglect or fail to notice? How do you deal with description, with visual aspects of the story?
George Mendoza: When I was losing my eyesight at 15, my other senses became more enhanced to survive. For example, I used my hearing to cross a street and hopefully not get killed! I use my white cane in the assumption that everyone knows I am blind. I use a technique I call “inner vision” with my main character, Michael Spirit Man. I have created “visionary eyes” or “magic eyes” which protect Michael from demons in the dream worlds. These eyes also guide him across the Wastelands of Shook.
Kristen Witucki: I think I’m a very audible writer. Dialogue is huge in my work, as are sounds that characters hear. The best way that I can think of to incorporate sight into a book, as I did in The Transcriber, is to ask people or to get visual details from other books.
Jessica Powers: That’s interesting, Kristen. I’m sighted but if I’m writing about a place I don’t currently live in, I too do extensive research to make sure details are accurate and specific. It sounds like research into visual details is an important writing tool for you.
Kristen, your protagonists are blind, while George, yours are sighted. Can you both talk about these choices you made and why?
George Mendoza: Good question! I grew up with sight so I still remember the sighted world. Michael is sighted. In Vision of the Spirit Man, Michael becomes blind in a strange way. He has the sight of enhanced vision rather than blindness. I have written a lot of my characters having to deal with blindness. For example, Alexander Champs in Vision of the Spirit Man is a famous blind poet. My New York agent once asked me to write a book about a blind detective. I just wasn’t interested in that world. I wanted to get away from my own blindness and all the limitations that come with being blind. I wanted to create a super hero so I could escape in that fantasy world.
Kristen Witucki: Louis, the protagonist in The Transcriber, is the sighted brother of a blind sister. Everyone thinks she’s amazing because she can’t see, but he often knows, or thinks he knows, what’s really going on. When I think back on that book, he could see, but the most important aspect of that book was how he thought about things. In my novel, Outside Myself, both protagonists are blind, but one lost his sight gradually while the other never had sight. I’m now working on a story with a sighted character, and I do feel a lot of insecurity about whether she is adequately showing the way she would perceive her world that I would not. But I also think that the writer’s job is to imagine how another character who is not the writer would perceive things. In other words, my blind characters are based on experiences I know, but they still aren’t me, and I inhabit them separately.Blindness is not my “get out of bias free” card.
Jessica Powers: It sounds like your disability has deeply informed the emotional journeys of your characters, whether they are sighted or blind.
Kristen Witucki: I’ve written one short book, one novel, and some shorter nonfiction articles, and I would still consider myself to be an emerging writer. In these early books, disability has been a primary experience for these characters, whether they are going through it or observing others who have disabilities or both. Disability is a primary force with which they come to terms, invent and reinvent themselves, and learn about the idiosyncrasies and hypocrisies of society. I hope that in later books, it can still be present but maybe a little more subtle.
Jessica Powers: What is your perception of how blind or other disabled characters are commonly portrayed in books when written by sighted authors? How do we limit characters with disabilities—when their defining characteristic is disability—and how can we break past that to create more well-rounded characters where that is just one more fact, like any other fact, about a character (even if it influences their lives more than some facts)?
Kristen Witucki: There are a lot more characters with disabilities now than there were when I was a kid and even before that. There are risks to writing any character in a group one doesn’t belong to—for instance, I wrote a character based on my husband’s life, and I asked him a lot of questions, but the character was African American. So I tried hard to get it right, but I might not have gotten it all right. Authors are all human and are all fallible. That said, I think there’s a risk of writing with too much sympathy, or fear of the disability, or amazement/inspiration, and I think we all grapple with that risk in some form or other when we go to the page.
George Mendoza: I have read a lot of books about disabled characters and to tell you the truth, they were written pretty damn good and accurate. For example, I didn’t mind the fact that the Dare Devil was blind and had super powers. Most of the books I have read have blind people with enhanced senses which has been true in my case. You lose one sense and then you enhance another sense.
Jessica Powers: Are there stigmas around blindness in the industry?
George Mendoza: I imagine people think our manuscripts are going to be a mess or in crayon!
Kristen Witucki: I don’t work in the industry, so I’m not sure. Access to the book and the written word is still a precious gift I can’t fully expect or take for granted. The accessible libraries have done so much to give us access to words we might not otherwise have. Because of that separation between “mainstream readers” and blind readers and writers, I think some people and some publishers might think of blind readers and writers as separate from others, or maybe as an accessibility box to check off rather than part of the complex, multi-faceted, diverse reading audience. However, I don’t fully know this, and I like to hope it’s slowly changing.
George Mendoza is a legally blind author, Paralympic runner, artist, and public speaker. After going legally blind as a teenager as a result of a rare, incurable eye disease, George went on to smash world records as a runner in the Paralympics, produce award-winning paintings for Smithsonian exhibitions, and found a non-profit organization to support young artists in his home state of New Mexico. Book 2 in his Spirit Man fantasy series, Vision of the Spirit Man, is available May 10.
Kristen Witucki is the author of two works of fiction, The Transcriber and Outside Myself. Blind since birth, Kristen is the curriculum and content editor for Learning Ally’s College Success Program and a TVI for Vistas Education Partners, and her nonfiction has appeared at the Huffington Post, the Momoir Project, Literary Mama and Brain, Child.