A Very Grave Matter
It's official: the U.S. Census's Survey of Income and Program Participation reports that disabled pe . . . er, the specially challenged are sinking in the rising tide of the job market.
Now we've got to figure out what to do about it. The solution to the related problems of unemployment, underemployment, and misemployment of the specially challenged will be complex. They'll require the overemployment of many nondisabled specialists.
But despite my lack of appropriate credentials, I'd like to point out a wonderful opportunity: writing. And, in particular, writing in a genre for which we are well-equipped: Inspirational nonfiction.
I grew up believing that one was inspired to action. But today inspiration is more a feeling, an orgasmic moral high, best savored in relative quiet, privacy and luxury.
Inspiration requires a certain one-way intimacy (or imagined intimacy), and books are a wonderful way to provide intimacy without actually getting too close.
The inspirational genre is familiar to most of us -- if you've missed it, head over to your local bookstore and ask for the Chicken Soup section. (If you end up in cookbooks, ask a different clerk.)
In The Evidence of Things Not Seen, James Baldwin says, "It is a very grave matter to be forced to imitate a people for whom you know -- which is the price of your performance and survival -- you do not exist. It is hard to imitate a people whose existence appears, mainly, to be made tolerable by their bottomless gratitude that they are not, thank heaven, you."
A grave thing certainly; a hard thing without doubt. But potentially lucrative. And in these lean times, our dignity must not interfere with our grab for the quick buck.
Appeal to people's sense of innate superiority, remind them of that bottomless grattitude, encourage them to feel good about it all: instant inspiration. Junkies needing their next fix will race to the mall, credit cards at the ready.
Three Rules of Inspiration
Apparently my writing inspires people. I'm curious by nature: I've worked to discern the secrets of my success. Let me tell you what I've learned.
First, don't kill yourself. Killing yourself before the book is launched might depress your audience. It's all right to die of natural causes (after the manuscript is mostly done: authors who ghostwrite for ghosts are working in a different genre, though your survivors can add lengthy postscripts if absolutely necessary).
Readers will be amazed, of course, that you haven't killed yourself ("I would," they'll think), but that's what makes for inspiration.
Killing other people is entirely out of the question. For one thing, it suggests an ability to plan. For another, it mars the image of vacuous cheer.
Second, achieve things. Fortunately, the bar is set very low on this one: you don't have to achieve much. My own impressive achievements include the ability to live alone and the ability to dress myself all by myself. I have often presented at conferences only to find audience members veering off the topic at hand (assistive technology, the social model of disability, things like that) to press me for the details of learning to dress myself. I am proud to say that my underpants have been inside my trousers on every such occasion.
A small confession: I haven't actually mastered living alone yet. But people tend to assume I have (even when I tell them otherwise), so the effect is the same. And if they do get it through their thi . . . er, if they understand what special challenges I face, that'll only mean that dressing myself is all the more impressive.
Are you potty-trained? Can you do your own laundry? Have you ever done a hand-over-hand fingerpainting of the numeral "1"? That's the sort of thing I mean. (Best of all, those things you haven't achieved only heighten the impact of what you have done.)
In particular, you must master sitting in a chair long enough to hit a keyboard many times in a row. A little M&M® break between paragraphs is all right, but don't tell anyone about it.
Naturally, "good sitting" is less impressive if you are confined to a wheelchair. The wheelchair-bound might want to stress how difficult it is to move, rather than how difficult it is to sit still. The point is that it takes tremendous discipline to write anything longer than a newspaper horoscope.
It's all the better if, when you hit the keyboard, you make actual words in the English language (or whatever language you're writing in). It's especially nice if you can punctuate and use some close-to-standard grammar. But lapses will be forgiven you, as evidence of the struggle or as poetry. Editors are likely not to fix typographical errors, preferring that your "authentic voice" be available to readers. (Double check for double entendres that might be so "cute" as to be embarrassing.)
Third, get up in the morning on the day you write your book. This seems obvious (although today, with laptop computers, it's not strictly necessary) but hiding out all day under the blankets is one of those "I would" things. Refusing to do so both impresses and inspires.
You must plunge headlong into the fray, no matter how hopeless the fray is. Remember: your readers also have problems, and your goal is to make their struggles look easy.
These important inspirational basics should all be highlighted on the book cover or in your bioline. If a photo is taken, make sure to look pathetic. If a blurb is written about you by someone else, check it to ensure that it does not make you look too competent. Attention to small details is what separates works of inspirational genius from the merely maudlin.
Three Approaches to the Subject Matter
Inspiration today is absorbed by osmosis, as if through the skin. No one has to actually read your work in order to be inspired by it. (You don't need them to read it anyway. You only need them to buy it.) If they do read it, they are as likely to be awed by your amazing use of capitalization as to notice what your point is.
Many special writers therefore get away with political critique or cultural analysis or even topics wholly unrelated to disability (also known as "mainstream work"), without sacrificing inspiration to communication. Even Marta Russell can inspire people in a warm fuzzy way, so long as they haven't too much time to read.
Therefore, the beginning writer should not worry too much about what is written. There's time for that when you are comfortable with your specially challenged persona.
If you do go for a double-whammy (a book that will broadcast inspiration by sitting on a coffee table but produce even greater rushes by being read), I suggest choosing one of three common approaches.
First, rejoice in the small things. The simple things, the things other people wouldn't see the wonder in. Tolerate -- hell, celebrate -- what no one else would think tolerable.
Not making a living wage, for example. It's truly inspirational to see people working 30 hours a week at a sheltered workshop for $11.50, especially when they light up at the thought of all the things they can do with that money. A paratransit trip to someplace free. An outing to the store to pick out their very own shaving cream. A soda for a beloved staff person.
Nondisabled people cannot be expected to be thrilled over minimum wage, much less $11.50 a week. And picking out your own shaving cream has lost its allure for most people well before they're old enough to shave. Remind them how much they take for granted.
Or you can be thrilled that you can use the toilets at the train station. Not everyone finds the toilets at the train station thrilling, but your special circumstances may allow you to notice the wide-enough door before the piss-flooded floor. You can offer a whole new perspective.
Every time you cheerfully accept what other people would think degrading, every time you revel in what society has dealt you, you can awaken in others that "bottomless gratitude that they are not, thank heaven, you," and broadcast inspiration like a radio tower.
Second, rise to meet your special challenges and overcome them. Don't be handicapped, be handi-capable: get those things everybody else wants. A job with your very own cubicle. The fancy kind of frozen dinners. Digital cable. If you can do it, then absolutely anyone can!
Do something amazing. Learn to drive. Take up gardening. Cross the street without a crossing guard.
Remind people that no matter how hard they work, you work harder. That no matter how slow their progress, yours is slower. Remind them that they are not you.
But be careful: you must not succumb to self-pity. In inspirational nonfiction, readers do the pitying.
Third, achieve some kind of normal role by having everyone else "throw the game."
(This is a tough one to pull off in the first person. Maybe your parents or siblings or friends could write this one for you and split the royalties.)
Hang in there when you have no reason to hang in there, and maybe someone will be unexpectedly nice. Your coworkers may refrain from whining to the supervisor about how incompetent you are. Your sister may let you hold your baby nephew (for a moment, anyway). Your church may decide they desperately need someone to alphabetize the bibles.
If these stories are well-enough written, they will be put into email and eternally forwarded from acquaintance to acquaintance. Viral inspiration. What more could you ask for (besides royalties)?
The key (this is why it's tricky in the first person) is that the specially challenged person must be completely unaware that the fix is in.
This way, readers can be reminded that they have a right to the roles that are handed to us as charity. That their place in society is not as shaky as ours, that they are not as dependent on the good will of others.
It goes a step further. Readers can be reassured that, as long as they tolerate our presence, we will be so overjoyed that we won't have time to agitate for change. All the first baseman has to do is bobble the ball once every couple of seasons, and peace is assured.
The Dangers of Activism
The entire basis of disability inspiration is this: it is inspirational to defy expectation. We are not expected to accomplish much; the horrendous unemployment rates in our community, the lack of education, the many people who are packed off to institutions are accepted as "natural." We are not expected to be happy; we are not expected to think our lives are worth living. We are not expected to hang in there; who would?
In inspirational nonfiction, we defy expectation as individuals. We are the exceptions that prove the rules. Through defying expectation in inspirational liturature in this individual way, we can reinforce the expectation that we are "naturally" beyond the social roles others believe are theirs by right. This will set up the opportunity for the next generation of inspirational writers.
Some of us are tempted to fight expectation as a group. Some are tempted to challenge work disincentives, or barriers to education, transportation, housing, and jobs. Some are tempted to challenge the assumption that we "naturally" belong at the bottom of society, or entirely outside it, that we "naturally" hold unenviable positions if we hold any at all.
I am not immune to the desire for political change. I understand the allure of activism. But real political change will inevitably reduce the prejudice on which inspirational nonfiction is based. We cannot do that to those in the next generation who are working, even now, toward their Very Special diplomas and preparing to inspire all those around them.
I hope my readers will firmly resist the call to activism and turn, instead, to pen and paper and the distant intimacy of inspiration.
Cal Montgomery, who dresses herself independently with no verbal prompts and can operate the remote control for her television, lives in Chicago. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Other articles by Cal Montgomery for Ragged Edge include Critic of the Dawn, May, 2001, A Hard Look at Invisible Disability, March, 2001 and The Tactics of Survival, May, 1998.
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