Mailbag: Reasons to Read, Poetry and Blindness

The mailbag is back, readers! I’m happily working my way through last month’s thoughtful comments, doing my best to respond to a decent sampling of them. This week, I’m responding to comments on my post called “Give Us a Reason to Read“, as well as my post wondering what we can learn from the connection between poetry and blindness. Let’s get to the comments!

On “Give Us a Reason to Read“, Amy said:

I love that – thanks for sharing. I’ve found that as I write, I tend to “plan” benign but then as I start writing, the ugly tends to come out of my characters. It’s sometimes hard to have them be awful because I really like them, but I think you make a good point that it is that behavior that clarifies life and makes good writing good.

Nice technique, Amy. I think it’s a great idea to start slow and then discover the ugliness in our characters as we learn more about them. In a way, this mimics our actual experience of getting to know someone — on a first date or first meeting, only positive, benign things are going to come out, but on subequent meetings, we’ll see the person when he or she is irritated or fatigued, and as you say, the ugly will start to come out.

The conversation really got hopping on my post about the connection between poetry and blindness. Let me say first off that I agree with a few commenters who pointed out that my sample size was tiny and my evidence anecdotal. However, I was more interested in what the connection could mean for us sighted writers, and how limiting sight might actually improve our writing in some ways. We lean heavily on sight above all other senses in writing, and we’d do well to look at the world from a more tactile or auditory perspective from time to time.

Margaret said:

A good friend in college was blind, and she was one of three other girls with whom I shared an apartment in college senior year. Sharon would fill a pot with water, carefully placing her finger at the point to which she wanted to fill the pot — and by touch, she knew when it was full. She also could tell the level of water in a glass by sound. I am still aware as I fill my water bottle of the rising tone as the bottle fills.

Fascinating detail, Margaret — I’m always interested in the ways people learn to move about in and adapt to their worlds. This is a detail that is ripe for the plucking in fiction, too — whether your character is blind, or just in a dark room, feeling for the surface of the water.

Michael Washburn said:

If the pool of examples is limited to three, counterexamples come readily to mind. Aldous Huxley, who was partially blind, can most charitably be described as an interesting failure — a mediocre novelist whose work, especially later in his career, has a self-indulgent, ponderous quality, as if he is trying to distract the reader from the lack of a strong narrative with one flashy intellectual bauble after another….Although many vision-impaired people are amazingly gifted, I also note that James Thurber, Jorge Luis Borges, and Wyndham Lewis are very good writers who nevertheless fall short of Saki, Franz Kafka, and Ezra Pound.

Very true, Michael! I definitely agree that there’s far too small a sample size to infer that there is a causal link between blindness and a certain writing style. However, imagining what a blind person’s universe might be like can help us enrich our own sensory details in writing. And I’m also continually astonished at the power of human imagination — critics were hard on Helen Keller, for example, because in some of her writings she uses visual or auditory imagery; these critics seemed to believe that Keller was not entitled to use these metaphors because of her lack of actual access to them. But Keller claimed that of course she could use them; she could imagine them as well as anybody. Based on information I read, for example, I think I could imagine pretty well what it might feel like to be on the summit of Everest — the blinding sun, whipping wind, physical exhaustion, etc.

Mary said:

I think you HAVE hit on an interesting correlation between blindness & writing, BLH. So much of our ‘sight’ is in the amygdala, the ancient brain. Blind people can walk down halls strewn with boxes & they’ll naturally skirt them. More than just our orbs are involved in seeing…

In a vaguely related vein, I once sang in a band with a sax player who worked as a caregiver for the blind. I learned of this & began extolling the magical wonderfulness of our sight-deprived brothers & sisters, & this guy stopped me in mid-oration.

“Hey, hey–blind people can be big A-holes just like anybody else! People always make ‘em into saints & they’re NOT. They’re just regular people…”

Thanks, Mary. I’m fascinated by that other “sense” that allows us to feel space around us as well — my reading of Oliver Sacks tells me it is “proprioception”, and it enables us to balance ourselves and be aware of our bodies’ size, shape, and movements as well. Apparently we have far more senses than just the usual five, including senses of temperature, pressure, and pain. Some doctors even list nausea as another sense, because it is such a different category of feeling.

And as for your point, I think it’s important to remember! The blind or deaf or otherwise disabled are ordinary folks like the rest of us, and it is reductive to put them on pedestals.

Thanks for your comments, readers — ’til next time!

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