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[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: J. Kathleen Cheney on Trying to Write Blind

NOTE: This installment of Special Needs In Strange Worlds features a guest post from author J. Kathleen Cheney! – Sarah Chorn

J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, with a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist. Her short fiction has been published in Jim Baen’s Universe, Writers of the Future, and Fantasy Magazine, among others, and her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist. Her novel, The Golden City came out from Penguin in 2013. The sequel, The Seat of Magic debuted July 1. Her website can be found at www.jkathleencheney.com.

Trying to Write Blind

by J. Kathleen Cheney

One of the more irritating bits of critique I’ve ever received: “Have your POV character feel her way around her bedroom so we know she’s blind.”

Seriously? Is that what people think a blind person does in their own bedroom? Feel their way along the walls like they’re a character in an exaggerated 1920s movie? Or are they the ‘magical’ blind person who goes the other way, never steps a foot wrong, and never walks into the corner of a table?

Back in 2007, Jim Baen’s Universe published my short story “Touching the Dead.” The main character, Shironne Anjir, is a young empathic girl who goes blind when her sense of touch suddenly expands, taking up more of her brain’s sensory abilities. Fortunately for her, her empathic abilities give her a sense of where some–although not all–people are in relation to her. That doesn’t help her a bit if someone moves a chair out of its normal spot or scatters wooden blocks across the floor. Or if she’s left unaided in a place where she’s never been before.

But she does not need to feel her way around her own bedroom. In a space that she controls, one with which she’s familiar, she’s independent.

Try it sometime. In your own bedroom, close your eyes and ask yourself if you remember where your bed is. Where is your dresser? How far is it back to the door? If you can do that much, imagine how much easier it would be for someone who practices it every single day.

Go outside with a blindfold on and sit in a chair for a while. What do you hear? (This time of year, for me, it’s a preponderance of cicadas.) Notice the wind touching your face, and whether you can feel the sun on your skin. Better yet, try going out when it’s raining. The world suddenly takes on more definition. Rain sounds different as it hits different objects: a car windshield, the sidewalk, asphalt. It changes the smell of everything. An approaching person’s clothes will absorb the sound of the rain, but their shoes will still squish in the water. An approaching person with an umbrella is a different thing altogether, the water pattering against the umbrella’s taut fabric high off the ground.

Picking up those types of details isn’t a superpower. The blind person who uses that sort of information to get around isn’t magical. They’re practiced. They work hard at it, actually paying attention to the senses that most of us shunt aside as secondary.

At the moment, I’m working on a novel with Shironne Anjir as my protagonist (Dreaming Death). As an author who isn’t blind, I have to work hard to try to understand the character’s situation. How hard does she have to work to compensate? In what situations is she independent, and when does she need help? After four years of blindness, does she even remember what things look like?

I’ve read several books about going blind (a favorite is Touching the Rock by John Hull), I’ve watched TV and movies and documentaries, and I’ve even tried the blindfold. I’ve worn a blindfold for entire days, moving around my house and trying to do chores. Laundry was the worst; I have an unfortunate tendency to buy multiples of things I like in various colors, so I’m not sure if shirt x is the white one or the identical one in navy blue.

If I were blind, I would need to come up with a way to distinguish the two garments. Since I’m not, I can just cheat and peek out from under the blindfold.

This is where my faux-blindness falls apart. Blindness has always been a temporary situation for me, engaged in for research purposes only, with the full knowledge that I can go back to sightedness by removing a blindfold. To grasp what it’s like to know my sight will never return…for that I have to rely on the experience of others who have written about losing their sight.

But I do have to make that effort. As a writer I want to do the best job I can of representing my character’s difficulties and skills accurately. I will never completely understand the world of a blind character. I’m very aware of that. But I do know that my character is neither the girl feeling her way around in the dark, nor the super-heroine who knows where everything is without effort. It’s the balance between those two extremes-how real people act-that I’m seeking for her.

12 Comments on [GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: J. Kathleen Cheney on Trying to Write Blind

  1. This is fascinating, and made me realise how seldom I’ve read characters who were blind, deaf, or facing other similar challenges that people face in the mundane world. Much respect for including that, and for going to such lengths to get it right.

    Did you find it more difficult to describe the setting to readers, given that the character can’t see it and most readers will be thinking visually?

    • That’s a very good question, Andrew.

      Yep. When you can’t use any visual cues, you’re kinda stuck when it comes to describing colors and appearances. In this case my character is recently blind, and so she has memories of what things looked like–such as what her mother looked like–but anything that came into her life after that is a bit of a mystery.

      In this instance, I can describe the character in terms of what she -remembers- looking like and compare that to her memories of her mother. That makes her self-preception inaccurate, since she remembers herself at twelve…not having attained adulthood.

      But as for the rest of the setting, there’s a bit of a workaround. Even though the character is recognizing things by their sounds or smell, most readers don’t need more than an object’s name to picture it. Basically, all the POV -isn’t- able to give them is color…and most of the time readers can fill that in themselves. If my POV touches a wrought-iron fence…you can guess that it’s black. If it’s a ball made of rubber, most of us would guess red (not because they’re inherently red, but because that’s the color we used in grade school.)

      As far as larger settings go, whoever’s guiding her can pitch in with a bit of description so she can orient herself.

      So the reader isn’t going to get some things. I can’t help that. But in other situations, I can work around the circumstances. ;o)

      • That’s really interesting. And I can see how it could add a whole new angle to the unreliable narrator, if her assumptions are coloured by what things looked like years before. That approach to filling in the picture for the reader makes total sense too – after all, as readers we’re always filling in the blanks, so why not have that fill the gap between our senses and hers?

        • I should also admit here that there are sighted POVs in the novel, which gives me a further workaround (although not in the short stories I’ve written).

          But human brains are pretty good at figuring things out, so I’ll just trust the reader to do so ;o)

  2. “”Have your POV character feel her way around her bedroom so we know she’s blind.”

    Seriously? Is that what people think a blind person does in their own bedroom? Feel their way along the walls like they’re a character in an exaggerated 1920s movie? ”

    This exactly.

    The vision impaired do not stumble. we dance.

    I am not blind, but I have had horrible vision my entire life. I hated wearing my glasses a kid, and learned how to identify people by the sound and weight of their footsteps, their gait, their voice, the smell of their shampoo, if they breathed loud, anything that would help me. These days, Contact Lenses are my best friend, because my glasses are thick as coke bottle bottoms. I can see colors and light just fine, but without corrective lenses anything more than 6″ away from my eyes is completely blurry. Early in the morning and late at night when I’m sans contacts, I do NOT “feel my way around”. I know the layout of apartment, I know where my stuff is.

    i don’t feel my way around, and i do not stumble. it’s more of a dance. This many steps from my bed to the bathroom, one step into the bathroom and i’m at the sink, turn around and the shelf with my contacts is right there. Two steps across the hall into the kitchen. I can even make coffee without my contacts in. If I’m half asleep, I can tell exactly where I am by seeing through my feet: am I on carpet or linoleum? if the linoleum is cold I’m in the drafty bathroom, if the floor is room temp I’m in the kitchen. But even this doesn’t matter, because I *know* what room I’m in, I don’t even need the floor to tell me. these are habits, practiced behaviors. I know the dance of my space so well that I don’t even have to think about it.

    I don’t need to know what the hallway looks like, or what color the walls in the bathroom are, or how my reflection in the mirror looks, those things aren’t how I’m experiencing the world, they aren’t part of the dance. it’s the shape of the space, the airflow, how the sound of the hum of the refrigerator changes when i turn my head, the cold bathroom floor, if i can hear birds or traffic outside.

    that said, when i’m in a hotel room, or at a friends house, and i’ve taken my contacts out, I *don’t* know where things are, i don’t know the dance of this space. There is stumbling, and some swearing. Sometimes i’ll just sleep with my contacts in.

    J. Kathleen, you are completely right about how rain (and humidity in general) changes how things sound. Fog always messes me up, because it makes everything sound much closer than it really is (i suppose from sound bouncing off water in the air??), and low humidity in the winter is opposite, things sound further away.

    • “i don’t know the dance of this space” I LOVE how you put that!

      I do think it’s a dance. Even sighted people do that dance, often relying on their spatial memory instead of their sight….say if they’re reading a book as they walk across the house or walking along the hallway rubbing their eyes…so it’s a mystery to me why someone would think a blind person would be incompetent in that way.

    • That phrase about the dance of the space really struck me too. It completely turns around my perspective on this, thinking about the elegance and flow of doing everyday activities well, regardless of whether the person is sighted. Reminded me how powerful experiencing the world from a different perspective can be.

  3. Great write-up Kathleen. This is particularly telling:

    > One of the more irritating bits of critique I’ve ever received: “Have your POV character feel her way around her bedroom so we know she’s blind.”

    I think the attitude stems from people being overly obsessed with “showing” every detail rather than “telling,” and there’s no real effort made to understand the perspective of a disabled person. The result is that the only thing they show is their ignorance. On one hand, I want to give the benefit of the doubt because it can be difficult to understand someone’s perspective when you’re totally unable to relate to them. On the other, a blind person is still a PERSON. It’s not like you’re dealing with someone who isn’t human. A small amount of effort to understanding their perspective would go a long way. I mean, that’s what writers do, right? If you’re a writer, then there’s a really high chance that you write about different perspectives all the time. How can some people put such tremendous effort into thinking about impossible things, aliens, etc., but not spend at least minimal effort into understanding fellow humans?
    Anyway, I suppose I could rant on about this at length, but you’ve written a compelling article, so thank you.

  4. Enjoyed the post, can’t wait to read the book! You know I’m a huge fan of yours 🙂 The heroine in my most recently published science fiction romance is blind, partly inspired by one of my best friends in college. She did exactly what Andrea expressed so beautifully above (wish I’d thought to describe it as dancing when I was writing my book) and what you mentioned too – counted the steps to everything, had everything in its exact place in her home, knew which dresses were which by the details of embroidery or buttons…as you also said, she used sound as her cue for much of what was going on around her…I tried to do justice to my friend in the novel and with all your research, sounds like you’re really working hard to portray the complexities of your character’s situation as well. Wonderful!

    • Aw,thanks, Veronica! I’ll have to get that book and read it. I’ll bet that having a close friend who was blind made it a great deal easier to understand what one can do ;o) I’m trying, and hoping that I can do the topic justice!

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