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Lifelong Learning Centre

Writing creatively about disability

Posted on Wednesday, 04 March 2015 at 11am
by Cath Nichols. See more of my posts here.
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I am one of the LLC’s Creative Writing tutors. My specialist field is poetry and children’s fiction and my research interests include stories, poetry and plays that contain representations of disability.

Because of my interests in disability, when I read some dodgy advice in a Christmas present – a Mslexia diary for 2015 – I wrote a polite letter of complaint to the editor. Their diary has pages of exercises, quotes from authors and writing advice. A January page recommended making characters more unusual or extreme in order to improve a dull piece of writing. This is not bad advice in itself but it also suggested ‘adding unusual physical characteristics (alopecia, gigantism, obesity), a disabling fear or habit (hand-washing, self-harm, claustrophobia) or a fascinating passion or occupation (dog breeding, beekeeping)’.

I was annoyed and upset, since illness and disability are not lifestyle choices or careers like dog breeding or beekeeping! Whilst some writers might create characters with disabling conditions, the way this writing advice was given seemed to trivialise real experience and real lives. Disabled people do not want to be stared at or prodded in this ‘ooh! how fascinating’ kind of way. I was confident that Mslexia would not advise writers to ‘add interesting subject matter’ by randomly re-writing characters as black, Asian or Chinese, nor would they suggest making a protagonist gay, lesbian or bisexual just to liven things up! So, race and sexuality get more respect – why be so flippant with disabilities?

Anyway, my letter created a flurry of support on Facebook (66 likes!) and Mslexia responded by asking me whom I would recommend to write an article on the subject. I replied with the names of a dozen authors, poets and academics who might write something interesting. Then the editor got back to me and said they wanted ME to write the feature!

The article will be published in the issue covering March-May 2015. It covers things to avoid as a writer: stereotypes of characterisation (disabled villains, martyred children, sidekicks, symbolic disability etc.) and plot tropes (fake disability in crime, the healing power of love in romance) and recommends some good books – where the authors (some of whom have disabilities themselves) have thankfully got it right.

Categories: Creative Writing