Letter to the Editor: what’s it like writing fiction when you are blind or partially sighted?

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Members of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) Scotland recently organised a series of writing workshops for visually impaired people. Here they share some reflections on the process and whether sight loss offers a different perspective on fiction writing.

A white visually imapired man in his 50s looks at a computer screen with enlarged writing on it

William Horsburgh

The creative mechanics – character development, plot and story structure, choosing whether to write from a subjective or objective perspective – may be the same for all authors. But the practicalities, such as accessing research materials, what medium to write in – braille, audio, print – can be more difficult when you have a vision impairment.

And how does sight loss impact on writing style? It’s hard to generalise given there’s such a wide spectrum of sight loss, and many people lose sight later on so may have had fuller vision for much of their life. But how does someone who’s severely sight impaired depict a person or a setting they haven’t seen? Do they rely more on dialogue, on describing sounds, smell, touch? Does this offer a different take on narrative?

It all makes for interesting discussions among two online social groups that have brought together a community of would-be writers with sight loss in Scotland, all eager to share their literary endeavours and discuss how to get their work published.

Set up by national charity RNIB Scotland, both groups run fortnightly on alternate weeks. The Aspiring Writers group focuses on discussion about upcoming events, resources to improve members’ writing, networking with external organisations and other writers, and finding opportunities to highlight their work to a wider audience.

The second group, facilitated by Billy Horsburgh from Anstruther is more about sharing, with members reading their work aloud to the others.

Billy (39) self-published an autobiography of the first 26 years of his life growing up with cerebral palsy and glaucoma, and in 2018 completed another book, ‘On the Road Again’, about a European road trip with two friends to a music festival in Hungary. “I am currently writing a further two memoirs alongside the master’s degree I’m doing in creative writing. I plan to include all three books in my own trilogy of memoirs,” he says.

“The Aspiring Writers was my idea but, with my writing experience, some people encouraged me to lead and teach a Creative Writing group as well.

“Each writer develops their own particular style. But I can relate to someone who has never had sight. I was short-sighted until I was a teenager before losing a fair bit of sight, to later very little sight at all.

“For someone who is blind, using their other senses often helps. Dialogue is a useful tool, as well. You don’t need to see what someone looks like to create a character. For example, I often create a character based on someone I know or hear in the street.”

Photograph of an older white woman sits typing at a computer

Charlotte Bennie

Charlotte Bennie (67) from Newton Stewart thinks sight loss makes for a difference in approach. She has had the eye condition gyrate atrophy since her early forties. “On a good day, I can tell my laptop screen is on and see vague blobs as I walk around,” she explains. “On a bad day, I bumble around in a mist, which can be golden, lilac or a range of pretty colours. Pretty but not very useful!

“I certainly think what I write is different to what I would produce if I could see. In my case, I can remember being able to see fairly well and use those memories. When writing, I can see perfectly well in my head, which is one reason writing is such fun.

“But I have problems if I have to include something which I have never seen clearly, such as newer designs of cars, or bits of tech, or people who have become celebrities since the nineties. Then I ask for sighted assistance from those who know.

“Another problem, and this might seem odd, is knowing how much a person can see from a distance. When your vision is limited to only a few inches in front of your nose and even that is fuzzy, it is difficult to know what someone will see from the top of a hill. To some extent, I use memory but also, ask advice from the sighted.

“I have an unpublished Aga Saga-type novel and am now writing fantasy fiction aimed at teenagers. However, these tales are partly set in our world, the town loosely based on where I live.

“I think writing and editing is more difficult for those of us who rely totally on technology. It annoys me that I can only listen to my work when my screen-reading Supernova software speaks it back to me. Occasionally I ask a sighted person to read a piece, but it isn’t me! I suspect using the screen reader does means I write in shorter paragraphs. And I would love to know how my work actually looks on a page. Often I write in Scots dialect – so what I really want is a Scottish Supernova with a Galloway Irish accent!

“Research can be difficult. That’s why I write about where I live; even when writing fantasy. However, even this needs some research. If I have to put characters in some other part of the UK or the planet, I make sure it is a place I’ve visited, or a place which has been visited by someone I know well so I can pick their brains.

“In my fantasy works, the characters attend a school in this world very like the one in which I once taught. The fantasy world bears a similarity to Roman Britain, because this is an area of history I know something about. And it’s fun  creating a world where the Romans never left but continued in power.

“But I do ensure my fantasy world isn’t just a rehash of well-known fantasy worlds. Hobbits are out; dragons, yes, but subtly different in detail and behaviour to those already well known. Certainly, no character called Harry!”

Janette Scott from Stirling said: “I’ve been blind all of my life and have learned to adapt my style of writing to suit me. I write for mainly sighted audiences so I don’t over-describe things, but I do like to describe what they smell like or if something is quite tactile.

“I often struggle with describing people though, especially eye and hair colouring or skin type. Body language is something I might forget about but it often helps me to develop the characters further. I’ve often asked friends for help here, as well as having to look up information regarding scenery, descriptions of animals and people, etc.

“I write fiction and fantasy and rarely have visually impaired characters. Perhaps my writing does needs to become more inclusive regarding disabilities. Recently, I did write a short story for the Scottish Book Trust based on myself on a bus and losing my artificial eye during the journey.

“To be able to write independently using my screen-reading software is one of the things I feel has influenced my life. Without this I would have had to use Braille all the time and I much prefer my screen-reader. It also gave me the ability to go to college and gain employment.

“Being able to write is a skill that should be encouraged in all walks of life.”