08 September 2023
The author of Life Unseen: A Story of Blindness reflects on the experience of being a blind writer
Recently I had lunch with a friend. She was thrilled I had finished my book on the history of blindness, Life Unseen, and said generously, 'But it must have been so hard for you. I mean all that researching and seeing the screen.'
As a legally blind writer, I appreciate empathy when kindly meant. I understand that for most in the sighted world, blindness is considered a catastrophic state, encasing its owners in a dark prison. Let’s face it: writing is a visual transaction from page to mind and that not being able to see a screen, or words on a page might be understood as 'harrrd' as my friend would say.
And yet I found myself responding to her view by disagreeing with her. While my loss of eyesight was not always easy, what surprised me is that it had not limited me, or my writing. If anything, my blindness was simply a neutral state that had given me a different sense of the world and helped me find a voice that I did not know I had.
In some ways, I am not surprised at her imagined tragedy of sight loss.
Blindness and its connection to writers and writing has long fascinated the sighted world, from Homer, Sophocles, Milton, and Shakespeare, who equated blindness as a catastrophic dark loss close to death or an inspirational trope, giving blind people astonishing gifts in poetry, music or prophecy. Victorian writers such as Charles Dickens, Emily Bronte and Willkie Collins also enjoyed using blind characters as melodramatic plot devices, despite not asking blind people themselves what their experience was really like.
Yet, as I told my friend, modern blind writers have challenged these negative assumptions. Many such as Helen Keller, Aldous Huxley and Jorges Luis Borges, have argued their visual decline or blindness has given them many advantages above their sighted colleagues. They reject the premise that writing blind comes from a miserable state of darkness.
Borges, the Argentinian poet and Nobel Prize winner, who lost his sight progressively, wrote in The Paris Review, that 'the world of the blind is not the night that people imagine…' But instead lived in a land of green and bluish mists, which were 'vaguely luminous'. He continued: 'A writer, or any man, must believe that whatever happens to him is an instrument, everything has been given for an end….If a blind man thinks this way, he is saved.' He pointed out that because of his blindness, he took the time to learn Anglo-Saxon and to write books he didn’t even know he was going to write.
While I don’t buy into the sort of magical blindness myths (which Borges did), I agree writing is not, nor ever has been, reliant upon seeing words on a page. As many philosophers and linguists will tell you; it is the agreed communal value we attach to words – their sense, pulse, rhythm and beat, and understanding inside our minds. Whether sighted, semi-sighted or blind, words carry their weight because of meaning and memories, and the mental impulses we attach to those meanings.
I am not alone in this experience, and many writers, blind or not, have relied on hearing words in their heads, more than seeing them on a page. The American author Henry James (1843-1916), owing to arthritis in his hands, began dictating his novels to his secretary in the spring of 1897. He would dictate in the morning, then take lunch, and then make revisions in the afternoon. He confessed that he found the rhythm and texture of his writing changed and that he found his voice became a new sound world. 'It all seems to be so much more effectively and unceasingly pulled out of me in speech than in writing.' I know what he means.
As I shared with my lunch date, it is true my headphones have become my constant companion. I look less at the screen and am more reliant on technology and my own internal mindset. When recording the audio version of my book – spending over two weeks in a small recording booth, I felt the punctuation very clearly – having to learn where to breathe, and where to stress and lean in on words and verbs.
It’s true too that instead of reading from a page, I find myself hearing cadence and rhythm, as well as tonal colour. When I type a sentence, I ask, does this make the sentence upbeat or flat? What is the pulse? Slow or quick? Above all, how do I want readers to feel? But perhaps what I was really imparting to my dining companion is that these are aspects that all writers consider, blind or not. Losing my sight does not change the desire to write well or with emotional impact. I just want to write from memory and experience, however acquired.
Selina Mills is an award-winning writer and broadcaster who is legally blind. Educated in the USA and the UK, Selina has worked as a senior reporter and broadcaster for Reuters, The Daily Telegraph, and the BBC. Her book: Life Unseen: A Story of Blindness is published by Bloomsbury.
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