Monday, November 23, 2020

Writing Disabled Characters in My Early-Mid 30's

1,606 words
12 minute read


By the time I reached my 30's, my writing had started to change once again.

I found myself gravitating away from Christian Fiction, away from Mainstream Fiction, and toward FanFiction.

I wasn't a stranger to it.  (I'd been writing Full House FanFiction before I even knew what the genre was when I was eleven.)  Over the years, I bounced through different fandoms and wrote stories in most.

I'm often drawn to FanFiction because it is such a struggle for me to create fully formed, authentic characters from scratch. It's much more doable to utilize the framework and established background already there and give that even more depth than often exists on screen.

THE HARDEST PART:

As true as that is, there is also a deeper truth.

Days after I finished Stowaway, I asked a friend from church if they wanted to read it.  They had been one of my closest friends for the past five years, despite leaving church three years prior.  They said they could not read my novel because two of my characters were gay.

Friends, it was like being slapped in the face.

First, because this friend had been supportive of my writing for years, always asked about my novels and if they could read them - definitely over the last four years, with these same characters.  So, when I asked if they wanted to read this one, I wasn't expecting this response at all.

Secondly, because I was only just coming around to the fact that I found women pretty.  I was years away from coming out as asexual.  (But that did not change the fact that at 14, my first celebrity crush was Dominique Moceanu...not Jonathan Taylor Thomas...)

Needless to say, my friend's rejection of my writing and their reason for it, felt deeply personal.  If they could not even read my writing, could they still love me as a person?  Would they want to be my friend?  How could I ever feel safe with them again?

I felt destroyed.  I sat at my computer and sobbed for over a half an hour.  (And I am not a crier.)  Eventually, I got myself together and was able to move forward, but my writing changed in a major way.

I retreated.  I stuck to writing characters that already existed, because that felt safer than writing my own.

(If you click on the links to stories in this post, you'll see that in fandoms, I write under a separate handle, but rest-assured, it is still me.  Also, if you click on the links to stories provided, mind the warnings given in each piece.  Your mental health and safety are more important than a story.)

CRIMINAL MINDS:

In the spring of 2010, I discovered Criminal Minds and marathoned all the shows.  By 2011, I was watching episodes live.  So, it was no wonder, then, that my NaNo novel that year was a Criminal Minds FanFiction called Brave New Life.  To my mind, the characters had all gone through so much earlier in life, I wanted to imagine an alternate universe where, perhaps, their paths crossed in high school.

While all of them had significant trauma, there were a couple who presented with more notable chronic illnesses / disability:

Spencer:

It's a fairly well-known fact (at least within the fandom) that Spencer Reid has various characteristics that read as autistic-presenting.  Though, I haven't read the story in some years, I believe I kept those aspects consistent, as I tried to remain true to their characters as much as possible.

Ashley:

Ashley Seaver was brand new in season 6 (which had just begun when I wrote this story) so I took some liberties with her character, developing her background and her past.  My version of high school Ashley had an eating disorder.

GLEE:

I'd been a fan of Glee since the pilot episode in 2009.  But it took me until 2012 to even start writing FanFiction.  By November, I was ready to explore further and developed another alternate universe set during season 3 of the show.  There were already disabled characters (Artie) and newly-disabled characters (Quinn) who were featured in the background, but in We Are Who We Were, I chose to put the spotlight on two others.

Santana:

Santana was definitely my favorite character on Glee, and she inspired me to start writing for the fandom.  So it makes sense that she was the character I most wanted to center.  In this AU, Santana loses her mom, and deals with a heart-wrenching grief (on top of previous trauma.)

Blaine:

Blaine was a fan-favorite and I wanted my story to be read.  So I cast Blaine as the co-lead, who recently lost his older brother.  Blaine deals with a different kind of grief (and a different kind of trauma - previously inflicted by his brother.)

2013's Tear Down All The Walls was yet another Glee AU, which featured a massive tour bus crash, carrying half the Glee club.  Most are injured, some severely (like Jake) who comes away with head trauma.

Rachel:

Strangely, it was Rachel's arc and her depth that I really wound up loving.  She is also among the injured (exactly how escapes me) and it's due to her hospitalization that another secret she is carrying comes to light.  (Suffice it to say, trauma is involved.)  It's been a few years, and I still really love her characterization.


[Image: a photo of me one night in 2011.  I'm 30, and slowly starting to find myself and three years away from starting a blog that would change everything.]

In 2014, I returned to finish We Are Who We Were from 2012.

2014 is also the year that I created Tonia Says and started blogging and getting to know other actually disabled people for the first time.  Creating the blog led to a massive shift in my writing during in the coming / current years.

By the fall of 2015, I'd begun having panic attacks at the thought of going home.  I did not know what they were or how to explain them.  They weren't what I imagined panic attacks looking like, but the reaction was borne of panic.  At that point, uninformed and with no counterpoint to clarify how unsafe home was for me, I pushed through and made holiday visits.

I ignored my body and the signals it was giving me.

BACK TO FICTION:

At the same time I'd experienced my first panic attack, I returned to writing fiction and began a still-unfinished story called Don't Look Down, which is about two friends who take care of one's aunt and uncles kids and foster kids.  All the kids have trauma (as being removed from one's home is traumatic.)  Notably, this is the very first time I attempted to write an adult character, whose CP mirrored my own. (TWs include sexual abuse, grief, food insecurity, and more...)

Emma:

If you recognize Emma from We Belong, and are wondering: "Wait...  Is it the same Emma?"  Yes, it is!  Though I had a few times where I attempted to write a character with CP, (Rebekah and later Josh) I think Emma is who I consider my first, where I was invested in her and her CP, and did not feel the need to hide her disability or have her parents steep her in shame.

This was a huge milestone and no-doubt had a ton to do with my slowly finding my people in the disability community.  Emma was a helper.  She was capable, not just a prop.  I really enjoyed writing her.  (Very likely why I brought her back in 2016 to be a mentor to Lexie and Jesse, when I wrote the majority of their story.)

MIDDLE-GRADE FICTION:

So, here's some obscure facts for you:  I first had the idea for this story back in 2014, chatting with a friend, Vilissa Thompson about a children's book she hoped to write about disability.  Her thoughts got mine going.  I imagined writing a children's book called I Belong.  It involved a child with CP eventually meeting an adult with CP, but the idea never grew beyond that until a year and a half later when the idea suddenly took off with the idea of twins who had CP.

Though I wrote about 90% of We Belong in mid-2016 (before even starting the Disuphere series) I wasn't able to finish the story at that time - with my connection to the disabled community being very new.

But rediscovering the story in early 2020, I suddenly knew exactly how I wanted to finish it.  So I wrote the last four chapters almost four years after the fact.  But Lexie and Jesse (and Emma, as stated above) were all created back in 2016.

Lexie:

In many ways, Lexie is a young version of me.  Her CP mirrors my own and so do her responses to many of the things explored in We Belong.  Actually, she has quite a few similarities to Francesca, who you'll meet later.

Jesse:

Jesse's CP (and selective mutism) were modeled after my sister's.  I really loved being able to depict two different types of CP in the same story.  (Potentially three, if you count Emma's.)  And to be able to explore (sometimes) co-existing anxiety disorders, as well.

--

So my early - mid 30s were a bit of a whirlwind, and a hodgepodge, writing wise.  I was struggling to find myself and my own voice.  And by midway through 2016, I was beginning to.

Tune in next week for the final post in the Writing Disabled Characters miniseries: My Late 30s.

***

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Friday, November 20, 2020

Review: RUN on Hulu (SPOILERS)

709 words
6 minute read

I've been looking forward to seeing the movie "RUN" on Hulu since it was advertised to be released in theaters this past Mother's Day.  (So...a long time...)  So much so that I got Hulu for the first time, in anticipation.

In true form, Tara and I lasted exactly one hour post the movie's release on Hulu and were up at 1 AM preparing to watch, complete with snacks, and comfort objects.




***

How was the representation?

Kiera Allen (who plays the main character, Chloe) does amazing and is lovely and wonderful and I hope to see so much more of her.  She is, dare I say, the single redeeming factor in this movie.  

The first actual wheelchair-user to play the lead in a horror film in 70 years is no small thing.

***

What was your favorite aspect of or scene in the movie?

My favorite aspect was just seeing an actual wheelchair-user moving on screen for 90 minutes.  Beautiful authentic movement.  Effortless gliding on linoleum floors.  Lovely turns.  Representation galore, right down to the way we close doors.


***

Where (if anywhere) do you feel there were missed opportunities? 

In my opinion, there were missed opportunities everywhere but the authentic casting.  Specifically in regard to the storyline.

I've seen at least two or three versions of "the good mother" trope courtesy of Munchausen by Proxy in a parent. I was so hopeful that this was not the case, especially when we see in the opening that the mother gives birth to a preemie.  I was thinking, "Finally! We'll get a story of someone disabled from birth!"

Instead, we got a story of a mother abducting a nondisabled baby and making her disabled.  So right there (somehow, even with the authentic portrayal) it's inauthentic in its own way.  Chloe's sensation and movement begins to come back and by the end she's able to walk a little independently.

"Overcoming Disability?" Check.

I feel there were so many missed opportunities here - not the least of which - the opportunity to represent the lived reality of many disabled people who live with parents or caregivers who refuse to make their home accessible, who abuse their disabled children not because of mental illness but because they can.

Yes, we do live in the reality where we have to escape toxic and dangerous situations.  But most of us are not being poisoned.  Most of us do not get intercepted by the kind mailman who wants to help us because most of us?  Live in a world where absolutely everyone believes the people who harm us are "so nice."

More often than not, we must save ourselves - with help by other disabled people.  And there are plenty of us who cannot escape.  Who end up murdered by caregivers' hands.

Maybe I set my hopes too high seeing the trailer and expecting we might see a movie where the main character saves herself and goes onto live the life she wants.

***

What was your least favorite aspect of or scene in the movie?

In the previews, the moments of Chloe escaping and rushing away from her house struck me as empowering, and I felt seen and represented by it.  But in the movie itself, I found myself feeling like I was watching exploitation.  There was like, copious scenes where Chloe was without her chair, suffering, crawling, dragging herself around and being abused for a full 90 minutes.

It was just not worth it to me.

I also really, really disliked the ending.  It was in no way satisfying to me, and again, reinforces the idea that to be disabled is the worst thing ever.  

***

Do you feel the benefit to disabled people outweighs the harm with regard to seeing this movie?

I honestly don't know how to answer this.  I think it's down to personal choice.  It's clear progress is being made, and it's notable, but painfully slow.

***

Trigger Warnings (for those who need them)
- Munchausen by proxy.
- Forced medication (injection and by pill)
- asthma attacks
- restricted access (phone internet mail school)
- restricted mobility (chair lift disabled, wheelchair chained, locked in bedroom)
- falling down stairs
- vomit
- premature birth / infant death
- implied kidnapping
- disability due to abuse
- suicide attempt (ingesting chemicals)
- implied murder
- attempted kidnapping
- forced extubation
- so much gaslighting

***

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Monday, November 16, 2020

Writing Disabled Characters in My 20's

1,246 words
10 minute read


Today's post is a post I'm feeling slightly better about.  Because even though my disability attitudes were far from evolved - by my 20's - at least my disabled characters stopped dying by the end of the stories.  They were also growing older.

MOVING SLOWLY AWAY FROM ABLEISM:

I think the primary reason for this shift was due to my own.  In the summer of 2003, Tara and I moved in with our aunt and uncle.  By early 2006, we moved into our own accessible apartment and had our own space.

Moving away from ableism helped my mindset tremendously.  While my writing was far from perfect (trust me, sometimes it was still downright gross), it was growing slowly toward something better than disabled characters exclusively hating themselves and their lives all the time.

My characters grew older because I was also growing older.  As I tended to write characters that were largely my own age or younger, there was a trend for my disabled characters to get a little older, too.  It's also something I attribute to the tide slowly shifting in regards to disability representation in the media.

JOAN OF ARCADIA:

For a couple years in my early 20's, I became a fan of the CBS show Joan of Arcadia, where Jason Ritter (yes, nondisabled) portrayed a disabled character, Kevin Girardi, who was nineteen years old.  But Jason, at least, did his research.  He learned about ableism, and as much as possible, absorbed what it could feel like to be disabled.

This, coupled with the way the writers portrayed him and his family (at least in the first season) was a revelation.  Kevin's mother, Helen, blew my mind when Kevin misunderstood a question she asked about early on in his recovery.  Hurt, Kevin rattles off that he remembers all the personal-care things his mom helped him with.  Helen says, "That's just mother stuff.  You don't owe me anything for that.  Not even thank you."

Seeing moments like these on TV made it possible for me to start exploring disability on a different level - and - exploring how isolated and alienated I often felt in church...all I needed was an outlet.

NATIONAL NOVEL WRITING MONTH:

I discovered National Novel Writing Month on October 29, 2004.  It began on November 1st, leaving me with only two days to come up with characters, backstories and a plot.  I was 23.  Writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days sounded like a fun challenge.  I had no idea if I'd be able to do it, but I was game to try.

Little did I know that getting involved in this writing adventure would lead to the imagination and creation of so many more disabled characters.  The first three (Alex, Elise and Jared) you can read about - if you dare - in my 2004 NaNo novel: Belief.

First Series:

Alex:

The first character I ended up delving into in my very first novel was Alex.  (Different from the previous Alex, thank goodness.)  This Alex was female, 20 or so and super fun.  But she quickly discovers that she may have something going on medically.

Elise:

The second character I delved into was Elise.  She'd survived a recent head-injury due to abuse.  At seventeen, she deals with a lot of Post-Traumatic Stress, not to mention, TBI-related symptoms.  Her struggle to fit in to a college-age Bible study as a high school senior dealing with so much is heartbreaking.

Jared:

Jared was the character I unashamedly based around Kevin Girardi.  Somewhat newly injured, Jared is the antithesis of the stereotypical, feel-good, disabled character who is happy all the time.  He's cynical.  He's skeptical (which makes him an interesting fit among all of the Christian kids) and he deals with quite a few of the real, actual situations I dealt with in church and / or Bible study myself as a wheelchair-user.

Ryan:

In 2005, I continued to explore these characters in Mercy, where I introduced a few new ones to the mix.  First was Ryan, a recovering addict, who finds solace in the church late at night when no one else is around. I loved writing Ryan - not like that, I am asexual - but he was super complex, and interesting.  I enjoyed writing him so much.

Josh:

The second newbie to be added was Josh, a fourteen-year-old who 'had  a stroke in utero.'  (So, basically, he has CP, but it's never explicitly stated.)  Josh was a bit more of a stereotypical 'kid-in-a-wheelchair' where he was super smart, super sweet and just all around adorable.  A very 'palatable' disabled kid.

Belle:

And in the last of the books that explored this particular cast of characters, Faith took the reader on a painful journey.  Belle (one of the original characters, who was previously very happy and smiling) slowly begins unraveling and dealing with mental health issues after putting the pieces together about her own past trauma.  (TW: domestic abuse and suicide attempt.)

Second Series:

By 2007 (age 26) I had moved away from church and my writing reflected that. I wanted a new set of characters to explore.  I found them in some college roommates that all meet each other via the on-campus Bible study (which one of the characters lovingly calls, "BS.")

Fall Rising was written in 2008, but sets the scene for my 2007 novel, once I realized I wanted to find out what the characters were like before a massive trauma hit all of them at once.

Jess:

Young single mother to a four-year-old son, Jess must first survive her injuries and then figure out how to adjust to living with a brain injury.

This is because 2007's Community Watch (TWs for gun violence, sexual assault, gay slurs, just a lot of terrible things.  Read with caution) told the story of this group of college kids being targeted in a mass shooting.  The disability representation in this one is actually pretty despicable, as the person responsible for the violence is able to get close to the college kids by long-conning them into believing he is disabled when he actually is not.

Regardless, this is the story where nearly the entire college Bible study is collectively traumatized, and one comes away with lifelong disability.

Morgan:

2009's Smoke & Mirrors takes us through my favorite character, Morgan's downward spiral following her own sexual assault in Community Watch.  She is rightfully traumatized, struggling and without adequate support.  She ends up in the grip of addiction with only her friends there to help.

Libby:

Finally, in 2010's Stowaway, Libby deals with some hardcore domestic violence (serious TW for that) as the friends deal with one of their own going public with their struggle.  (If you read, you'll notice Liam cropping up again here.  Same physical features as in the stories I wrote at nineteen, but an entirely different character here.)

[Image: Me with Dudley, the famous lab-beagle mix at Christimas, 2010, a month after writing Stowaway.  Dudley makes appearances in so many of my upcoming novels - 2015 and 2017 - 2019]

In all honesty, my writing at this point still had major issues.  How I wrote about disabled people was problematic, but also just...bad...was my writing of characters of color in this decade.

So apologies for that.

There are definitely aspects of these stories and characters I enjoy, and writing was still a much-needed outlet for me.

Tune in next week for Writing Disabled Characters in My Early-Mid 30s.

***

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Monday, November 9, 2020

Writing Disabled Characters as a Teen

1,558 words
12 minute read


Today, I'm cringing.  Because now it's time for me to talk about my writing disabled characters as a teenager.  It wasn't pretty, friends.  I offer no excuses, but let me see if I can give some context into the world I was living in at the time.

WHERE DID ALL THE OLDER DISABLED PEOPLE GO?

The summer after seventh grade, I went to camp for kids with disabilities for the first time, which meant that I got to be around other disabled kids like me for the first time.  I saw kids with other disabilities, and we all got to hang out together and things were naturally adapted for us so that nobody felt left out.

But...all of our counselors (18-24 on average) were nondisabled - or if they were - us campers never knew about it.  That meant the only person older than me (with any disability) was a fellow camper, who was just three years older than me.

Older people with disabilities simply did not appear to exist.  They were, at most, a few years older than myself.  They were not in helping roles.

***

On television, kids with disabilities, chronic illnesses, etc, were plot devices to further a nondisabled character's story.  They rarely had a speaking part.  If they did, they almost certainly died by the end.  Not to mention that they were nearly exclusively portrayed by nondisabled actors.

Offhand, I can remember Fred Savage playing Mike Mills, a disabled teenager who was moved into a care home when his family could no longer take care of him.  Anna Chlumsky as a teenage girl dying of cancer.  Lukas Haas played Ryan White who died of AIDS. Not to mention my most favorite miniseries as a child and a teenager was Switched at Birth, where chronically ill child Arlena Twigg - who dies midway through the movie - was played by Erika Flores.

In 1997, I saw a single representation of authentic CP.  Marisa Velez played a (from what I recall) nonverbal girl with CP who was paired with an older troubled youth the angels were trying to rehabilitate.  As I recall, Marisa's character, Kelly had no lines.  She also went uncredited when the episode aired.

This was the world I was growing up in in the mid to late 90's.

Most of the stories I wrote still did not feature disabled characters.

Slowly, after attending that camp a second year in a row, I began incorporating disabled characters into my writing...but not in a good way.  The majority of my writing from this period in time was full of toxic tropes about disability.

I was still living around intense levels of ableism daily, at home, school and even absorbing it from the media.  I internalized the ableism I was surrounded by, and those damaging attitudes and beliefs came through in the disabled characters in my teenage years.

[Image: Me as a 9th grader.  I was super excited about my new short haircut and jean vest]


Shealynn:

Shealynn was the first chronically ill / disabled character I can find evidence of having written in my teen years.  I was fourteen, and four-year-old Shealynn  was nothing more than a plot device, honestly.  She had cancer and died by the end of the story, feeling happy that she got to celebrate Christmas "with everybody in Heaven!"

In all honesty, though, this one was written as my mom was pregnant with my youngest brother.  I was terrified of losing him.  Of something going drastically wrong during his birth.

The only way I knew how to exorcise this fear was to write about it.

Aspen:

A month or so later, I wrote a hideous short story about a supremely unlikable nondisabled main character, whose family fosters a fourteen-year-old with Muscular Dystrophy named Aspen.  Aspen is put in a room close to the bio daughter so she can "help" Aspen and of course the bio daughter resents this.

Bio daughter's best friend becomes attracted to Aspen - or rather - "to her chair and her disease" - and this has nondisabled MC hating her even more.

There's a moment where Aspen wakes from a nightmare and only the MC is there to listen.  Aspen shares about her home life - full of loss and tragedy - for which she blames herself.  "I feel like I drove him to it," she says of her father's death, post driving drunk.

By the end of the story, Aspen is at death's door and the MC is contemplating if it was for better or worse if they'd met at all.  She decides it was for the better.

But holy cow, how gross.  I'm sorry I wrote this one, guys.

Alex:

The last story I wrote as a fourteen year old was about a teenager named Alex who was paralyzed in a car accident as a little boy.  It's...really bad.  Alex's mom is super infantilizing.  His best friend's mom is super terrifying.  In fact, in the end, Alex's best friend ends up defending Alex from being attacked by his mom...and going to jail.

There's nothing redeeming in this one, guys.

Fourteen-year-old me even dropped the R-word in it.

I'll just be over here continually apologizing.

Rebekah:

By the time I was sixteen, I took my one and only creative writing class as a sophomore in high school.  We had various writing assignments and in one, I told the story of Rebekah, who (wow!) actually had Cerebral Palsy.

I had forgotten all about her.

It's a short piece, where Rebekah ends up confronting her dad about holding onto his unfulfilled dream for his firstborn - that she'd be a gymnast.  (Now, I wonder if this wasn't my way of processing the reality that my childhood dream of being a gymnast would not happen...)

Rebekah challenges her dad to pay attention to her dreams, and realize that she's been prepping for the Special Olympics at her school.  Her dad realizes the error of his ways and lets go of his dream for her, vowing to support Rebekah in her own.

Ashlie:

In the same creative writing class, I wrote a short story about a girl named Ashlie, who was in a car accident and becomes paralyzed.  Her reaction is likely realistic for a previously nondisabled character faced with a life-changing injury, but she definitely says the words: "I'd rather die than live the rest of my life like this!  You can't say that everything is all right or that you know how it is because it didn't happen to you! You don't know!  I don't want to live like this!"

Later, she says more cringeworthy things like, "The crash didn't make me illiterate.  I don't have brain damage.  I can read."

Ashlie's best friend (the nondisabled main character) leaves the hospital at the end of the story feeling confused and let down because "The hospital is supposed to be where suffering ends.  How ironic it seemed that hers wasn't cured, but instead felt stronger than ever."

So, we had a brief glimmer of hope in the early teenage years, but just like that it's back to super-problematic.  Yikes.

Liam:

Thankfully, by nineteen, things were slightly better.  I had worked on a trilogy of stories since the previous year.  In the second, I introduced Liam, a character I had based off of a friend I had gotten to know briefly, who died of HIV/AIDS-related complications in early 2000.  (This was around the same time I started going to church as an adult, so my writing reflected this culture.)

For the first time, I really delved into a disabled character.  Having gotten to know my friend so well, and him having shared with me his deepest thoughts around living with a chronic / terminal illness, this led me to take steps (thank goodness) to humanize Liam.

An excerpt reads:  Liam remained in "his" spot at the very front.  She had begun to see that many of Liam's actions in worship had hidden motives.  He dropped to his knees when he couldn't stand any longer.  He shut his eyes when he was being stared at.  But when Liam sang, Julia knew he went all out for one reason and that was God.

Liam's actions in this excerpt mirrored my own when I was in church.  Because of that, I feel there's the first glimmer of authenticity and depth via Liam's character that the previous ones lack up to this point.

Unfortunately, to the toxic belief in my particular church at the time, the third story in the trilogy ends not only with Liam dying, but with him and all his friends believing that to die was his destiny (because in this church death was freedom from chronic illness, terminal illness or disability.)

Despite all of the intensely problematic tropes in my writing, it remained a coping mechanism for me.  Writing through Liam's death helped me cope with the very real death of my friend, from the same illness.  So, while I'm not necessarily proud of any writing I did as a teenager as it relates to disability, I am glad I had writing as an outlet, to process what was going on in my everyday life.

Tune in next week, when we explore writing disabled characters in my 20s - also known as - the decade I discovered National Novel Writing Month.

***

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Monday, November 2, 2020

Writing Disabled Characters in Childhood

1,431 words
11 minute read


As I really enjoyed resurrecting the summer blog series a few months ago, I thought a fall blog series might be fun.  Since November is National Novel Writing Month, I thought it might be interesting to look back on my journey in writing disabled characters.  (Especially now that you've read We Belong.)

Growing up, I was steeped in ableism from every direction, so I (naturally) dealt with a good bit of internalized ableism.  Suffice it to say that most of my writing did not feature disabled characters at all.

ELEMENTARY SCHOOL: FUN WRITING PROMPTS?  WHAT ARE THOSE?

Before any attempts to write characters (disabled or not) I had to learn the structure of writing. Sentences, paragraphs, how to tell a story.  To do that, teachers often give prompt-driven writing assignments.

My second grade teacher once gave us the prompt "If I were 7 inches tall..." to fill.  No doubt, she wanted to encourage our imaginations, and consider all the adventures we might have if we were teeny tiny people.  I, instead wrote about my own premature birth, tiny size, and medical interventions I needed.

[Image: Tara (left) and Tonia (right) age 7]


In fifth grade, I was recovering from massive surgery and learning at home, when my teacher said I was to write a story from the perspective of a snowflake.

A snowflake, you guys.  I'd been cut open 13 times only weeks earlier.  The assignment sounded like an exercise in futility to my traumatized brain.  I struggled about where to even begin.  I wasn't a snowflake, obviously...

After some thought (through pain and serious dissociation) I figured I only had one option: to approach this silly assignment as realistically as possible.  It's the only way I could reconcile writing it at all.

So, naturally, my snowflake had a two-month life span as a snowflake.  Her experience falling from the sky at six months old (summer birthday) was traumatic, as she landed on Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer's nose and immediately began melting away.   A gust of wind blew her off, where she found her sister (an identical snowflake!  No two snowflakes are alike, take that!)  The two snowflakes "played together every day and every night."  And then, "one day in February, they melted right outside the reindeer house."

Intense, right?

That was the name of the game for my early writing.  I didn't know how not to be serious.  I'm sure being steeped in various traumatizing circumstances (medical and otherwise) contributed.


EARLIEST ATTEMPTS AT WRITING DISABLED CHARACTERS:

I was in middle school (sixth grade) when I discovered The Babysitter's Club: Little Sister series by Ann M. Martin. The discovery of these books was life-changing for me as a writer.  I loved Martin's characterizations. I loved each character's dialogue and the real situations the characters were in.  Reading these books inspired me to write my own.

Yes, at eleven years old, I wrote my first book, featuring fictional characters.  Kayla was eleven years old like me.  The third-oldest of 12 siblings.  Unlike me, Kayla was nondisabled.  So were every single one of her siblings.

Kayla:

Memorably, though, when Kayla called for help when one of her younger sisters was injured, she flipped out on the 911 operator for talking to her as if she were a baby.  As a sixth grader, I was regularly condescended to, and spoken to like I was an infant by strangers.  I resented it.  And it felt good to let Kayla verbalize my anger at the unfairness of it all.

Kevin:

It's worth noting, also, that in the same story, Kayla's younger brother (7-year-old Kevin) is horribly injured in a household accident.  He's hospitalized for an extended time and eventually the family comes to take him home.  Before that happens, though, Kevin is told the nurses need to "check his arm one more time."

The medical trauma I poured into this scared little boy was real, you guys.  He lost his hold on self-control.  He cried, and screamed, and called for his mom to help him.  (The family - all 13 of them - stood back and watched.)  The kids' dad, offered a perfunctory, "It's okay, Kev."

Six-year-old Kari asked, in shock, "What did they do, torture him or something?"

Kayla responded matter-of-fact: "No, they just checked his arm."

All of this was notable - even autobiographical - having just had my last surgery earlier that year, and the biggest and most terrible one in fifth grade.  Kevin's incredible injuries, his trauma, his utter aloneness in the hospital and in the midst of painful treatment.

Kari's use of the word torture was not accidental.  Neither was Kayla's matter-of-fact explanation.  Because I had often felt tortured in the surgery and recovery process.  And simultaneously, I had to learn to internalize what was happening and take it anyway.  Because there was no escaping it.

Abbie:

In seventh grade, something amazing happened: my English teacher that year had a 22-year-old daughter with CP!  My teacher discussed her daughter with CP the same as she discussed her other kids.  Made no secret that if somebody came over to their house and was disrespectful seeing her daughter with CP eating a meal, then that guest was not welcome again.

I had never known anyone older than me who had CP.  And though I never met my teacher's daughter, I reveled in the experience my teacher brought with her in the classroom.  She knew I, like her daughter, might need accommodations.  But also that I, like her daughter deserved to be treated with the same respect as other kids.

When my grades all dropped (even in English) she was the teacher who pulled no punches:  "Do I think you're doing your best?  If I'm being honest, no.  I know you can do better than this."

Her belief in me, and her lived experience near someone with my same disability gave me the courage to explore the topic when it came time to tackle a final English project.  There were options.  One was to write a children's book, on a subject we felt was relevant, or that we wanted to see covered in children's literature.

I wrote Why Am I So Different?, featuring Abbie, a 5-year-old just starting Kindergarten in her wheelchair and facing ableism in school.   However, I did not learn the term ableism until my 30's, so while my book definitely addressed ableism, it did not use the term.

The title is a bit misleading as, really, throughout the book, Abbie is wondering why she's treated so differently from her nondisabled peers.  Abbie knows that her wheelchair is a part of her.  She also knows she deserves to be treated with the same dignity and respect as everyone else in her class.

Tara copied most of the words I'd written on blank printer-paper and illustrated my story with adorable colored-pencil art.  (This was the 90's, and our home would not have a computer of its own until the following year.)  Handwritten rough drafts went on ruled notebook paper.  Final drafts did not.

I relied on ruled paper to know where I was on the page.  Without lines guiding me, my handwriting drifted, becoming illegible, and I could not even begin to draw.  Tara accommodating me allowed me to turn in a solid final project at the end of seventh grade.

The children's book was so well-received, I was asked if it could be featured on some kind of larger scale.  (The specifics are lost to me now.)  

I said no.  

I still had residual Imposter's Syndrome, thanks to being consistently patronized for mundane things.  This made me positive that my writing was not as great as everyone said it was.  That teachers must be just being nice to me because I had a disability.  (In my mind, Tara had done most of the work to make my project possible to even hand in.  It felt wrong to take credit for it.)  And besides that, I was scared to get attention for writing about disability, when it was clear from my daily life on all fronts that having a disability was not acceptable.

Today, though, I am proud of my early writing.  I'm glad I had it as an outlet to let out some of my own pain.  And I am stunned that I was able to make the decision to write about disability at a time when it was so taboo.

Tune in next week for more of the Writing Disabled Characters series, where I'll talk about my teenage years and experiences writing disabled characters.

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Sunday, November 1, 2020

NaNoWriMo Tag

1,044 words
8 minute read

Those who know me personally know that November is one of those months.  It's hard - for a myriad of reasons - most of them trauma-related.

National Novel Writing Month has been there for me as a rare light in these dark winter months.  It's distraction.  It's joy.  It's something to pour myself into, and a way to get representation out there that I feel is sorely lacking.

To gear up for my writing-related miniseries, which I'll be posting all month, I thought I'd answer some NaNoWriMo Tag questions originally from Natalia Leigh - but seen and borrowed from Gin & Lemonade.

[NANOWRIMO 2020 WRITER square badge]

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1.  How many times have you participated in NaNoWriMo? How many times have you won?

I first discovered NaNoWriMo thanks to a mutual on LiveJournal (yes, I'm dating myself, holy cow.)  The thing is, it was like 11 PM on October 29th, 2004.  I had exactly two days to come up with characters and a plot.

I did it.

And I've done it every November since then.  (I've also successfully completely Camp NaNoWriMo every April since 2017.)

After a lot of counting on my fingers, I can tell you I've participated and won November NaNoWriMo 16 times.  I've spent over a third of my life doing this.

Here's to number 17...


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2.  Are you a pantser or a plotter?

It depends!

If it's a new project / series, I do quite a bit of planning!  Through 2015, I had a notebook dedicated to each project, with sections like, characters, chapters, plot, and questions. 

In 2011, I found my favorite character survey that I still use.

In 2016, there were several Google Docs, diagrams, and timelines...  It was a whole thing.  By now (several stories into a series)  I tend to have a Google Doc that has plot points that I want to hit.  Since I know the characters pretty well, I find I need to plan less.  (I did start keeping notebooks again in 2018 just to document the process.)

(Just kidding...this year I have a 30-page timeline and a 25-page character survey in addition to enneagram and Myers Briggs tests for my new character...and a notebook for encouragement / ideas.)


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3. What are the titles of the projects that you have attempted/completed for past NaNos?

Belief (2004), Mercy (2005), Faith (2006)

Community Watch (2007), Fall Rising (2008), Smoke & Mirrors (2009), Stowaway (2010)

Brave New Life (2011)

We Are Who We Were (2012 & 2014)

Tear Down All The Walls (2013)

Don't Look Down (2015)

Disuphere (2016) Blink (Camp NaNo, April, 2017) The Crossing (2017), Somewhere Inside (Camp NaNo, April, 2018) Found (2018; CampNaNo April, 2019), History (2019), Out of the Blue (Camp NaNo, April, 2020)

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4.  What are you working on for NaNo this year?

The eighth story in my current series, entitled Windows.

Francesca (one of my favorite characters from the Disuphere universe) is going to summer camp for the first time!  With Lexie and Jesse (from the We Belong universe.)  Windows will also be the introduction for a brand new character - Weston - who will be working at the camp Fran attends.

This will be a dual POV story.  We'll see camp through Fran's eyes (as a first time camper) and also through Weston's eyes (as a first-time counselor.)

Having had experience on both sides of this (having been both a camper at one camp and a counselor at another) I'm excited to explore these dynamics and situations.


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5.  What is one tip that you’d give to someone else that is participating in NaNo?

Write every day.  Know there are plenty of us out here who want to encourage and help you.  Do it because you love it, because you love the story you're telling.


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6.  What was the inspiration for this novel? Do you remember when the inspiration hit you?

Inspiration for the current series I'm writing came to me via a dream a couple months before NaNo in 2016.  I tried going with a couple of other ideas before Tara finally encouraged me to go with the story I most wanted to tell, which was the one that came to me in the dream.

I'll get more into this in my writing miniseries this month...

The idea for my current story (Francesca at summer camp) came to me courtesy of a friend who requested it for their birthday as a short story (in July.)  I asked if they'd mind waiting because this was something I wanted to explore in a longer form - as a NaNo story - and I hope they're not disappointed!


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7. Read us the first sentence from your NaNo novel last year?


My most recent NaNo novel I started in April of 2020 and finished at the end of October.  Its first sentence is this:

It’s been two whole days since Francesca has gotten to see Giselle - her new bestie. 

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8.  What do you plan to do with your manuscript after NaNo?



Hope people somewhere read it, and get the heart behind it...


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9.  Are you prepared for NaNo? Are you nervous?

I'm excited!  I really can't wait to explore Weston and also to see how Fran does at camp.  Filling my notebook with random scenes that just keep popping into my head.  I have my soundtrack, and my Pinterest board.

But this year is going to be a bit different as I legitimately sprained my finger about a month ago, rage-tweeting about Roll With It.  While it's healing, it has not fully healed yet.

And as I have no doubt in my ability to write 50K in a month - this year is going to be more about me trying to adhere to my goal of 25K.  

My goal this year is self care.

Which, I guess, is one more piece of advice.  NaNoWriMo is not meant to break your body or your spirit.  If your heart's not in it, don't sweat it.  If you're injured, take it easy.

Just do what you can.

Write because you love it.

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Is anybody else participating in NaNo this month?  As a writer?  A reader / editor / supporter?

What's your favorite part of NaNo?

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Monday, October 26, 2020

Trick-or -Treating in the 1991 Halloween Blizzard

603 words
5 minute read

The 1991 Halloween blizzard hit the upper-Midwest when I was ten years old.  It's legendary if you live anywhere the blizzard hit.  Each Halloween, I can count on at least one reference to it from fellow Midwesterners.

At ten, though, my main concern was getting to go Trick-or-Treating.  We couldn't not go.  Trick-or-Treating was Halloween as far as my siblings and I were concerned.  We were used to bundling up.  Halloween photos from years past show us seamlessly adapting to wearing costumes outside our winter jackets, so we could stay warm and Trick-or-Treat simultaneously.


Related:  Making Halloween Fun and Inclusive for Kids with Disabilities


But this was a different matter.

My sister's fairy costume (which I was wearing that year) was not made to don over a jacket.  It was appropriate for a summer night out, not a trek through treacherous icy, snowy conditions in the dark, on a quest to get candy.

[Image: As I can find no photos of Halloween 1991, here's one from the previous year, where Tara is dressed in her fairy costume and I'm dressed in my most favorite costume ever.  I loved my angel costume, but felt conflicted, even as I stood posing for this picture, because I had never seen an angel with crutches before.  I felt wrong in the costume, and therefore had no qualms about switching the following year, and dressing as a fairy myself.]

But we had no choice.  If we wanted to Trick-or-Treat, we had to bundle up.  So it was winter jackets, snowpants, and boots for all.  No costumes visible.

I was carried, piggyback, to the houses.  Freezing and wishing for the experience to be over as soon as possible so Tara and I and our two younger brothers could count and sort our candy (after it was checked for various unsafe items, as was the custom in the '90s...)

We made it home and counted up the candy we'd collected.  I was always on the lookout for Reese's Peanut Butter Cups - regular sized.  No one liked Almond Joys or Mounds bars, but somehow all of us ended up with some of those.  The next few days were filled with the tradition us kids had: where we bargained with each other in order to stock up on candy we favored.  (Tara liked Starbursts.  But they weren't my favorite, for example...so she'd offer me something chocolate in exchange.)

That was my last year Trick-or-Treating - less than two months before major surgery.  I've spent the last few years wondering if we were discouraged from Trick-or-Treating anymore because of all the work it took to get me from house to house, especially the year of the blizzard.

Now that I'm an adult, I'm shocked hearing about kids who are allowed to Trick-or-Treat into high school and beyond.  When our first year of middle school, we were told we were too old.  We had to stay home and hand out candy instead.

Halloweens now are lowkey and festive in their own way.  I'll most likely find my orange jack-o-lantern shirt, or the one that reads IT'S JUST A BUNCH OF HOCUS POCUS (because of course, we must watch Hocus Pocus on Halloween...)

We don't have to worry about not getting candy, either, as we have our own.  Kept in its very own drawer in our fridge, for optimal freshness.  (We don't have a vegetable drawer, we have a chocolate drawer.  So much better.)

Happy Halloween.

P.S.  We totally do eat vegetables by the way.  We just don't keep them in the chocolate drawer  ;)

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