Calling all writers: do you dare to be different?

ruth Please welcome this week’s guest blogger, Ruth  Hunt. Ruth lives in West Lancashire and is a writer and artist. She is also a Trustee and Non-Executive Director of a mental health charity. After completing the novel writing course at www.writingclasses.co.uk, Ruth has written her first book ‘The Single Feather’. This is currently being edited and features ‘Rachel’ a 31year old paraplegic narrator. (Her second book will feature Anne as narrator, who is 71 years old.)  Whether you are a reader or writer, Ruth would love to hear what you think about “daring to be different”, so do leave a comment :)

 

“Dana felt a shiver run up and down her body as the accountant, the man she had adored from afar was sitting in the pub. He gazed at her and smiled.

She walked up to him and after he tapped two times on the empty stool next to him, she sat down.

‘You look great,’ he whispered. He turned his upper body towards her.

She leant, first holding onto his wheelchair and then…”

Anything seem strange about the passage above? It shouldn’t do. After all, why shouldn’t we, as fiction writers, describe how this couple met? Why shouldn’t our character, ‘Dan’, a successful accountant, use a wheelchair and fall in love with ‘Dana’? After all, in the real world, just as we live interesting and sometimes extraordinary lives, so do people with disabilities.

Why then do fiction writers often omit to have characters or protagonists with disabilities? Somehow they are missing from the world the novelist has so carefully created.

Where is the disabled character?

As an avid reader (and writer), with spinal cord injuries, I love to read about characters who take me on a journey and out of my normal day-to-day experiences. Sometimes, it is also important to be able to identify with characters and perhaps even imagine them living in the real world.

According to The Disabled Living Foundation, there are 6.9 million adults of working age in the UK who have a disability. This means 19% of working age adults have disabilities. This number rises to 10 million if you include people who are over the state pension age. With children under the age of 16, 1 in 20 has a disability, 770, 00 in total.

This means disability is not rare, and as life expectancy increases there will be more and more people will be living with a disability or serious illness.

Surely no writer would want to alienate 10 million possible readers with the stroke of a pen?

It is likely, that one reason which could explain the lack of disabled characters in books is that before the 1960’s disability wasn’t something that was viewed in a positive way. Even after the ‘60s attitudes have been slow to change.

Some of you may remember ‘The Spastics Society’ which had as a fundraising tactic, models of callipered children, which were used for collecting money. This is how disability was viewed – something in need of charity and something to be pitied. Even the term ‘spastic’, which is now considered to be derogatory, was in use on ‘Blue Peter’ in 1981.  This was the year the United Nations declared as the International Year of Disabled Persons. It wasn’t until 1994 that ‘The Spastics Society’ changed its name to ‘Scope’.

This example helps to illustrate the changing attitudes towards disability that have taken place in society as a whole. Despite major improvements, there are still today examples where people with disabilities are treated as second-rate citizens, the subject of cruel and degrading treatment. The ‘Winterbourne View’/ ‘Castlebeck’ care homes scandal which was featured on BBC’s Panorama programme in 2011 is just one example.

So, attitudes have been slow to change, but the good news is that they are changing and mostly improving. There is no real reason why a character with disabilities wouldn’t be interesting or glamorous for use in fiction. After all these days a person with disabilities may be independent and self sufficient and will definitely have lives which are rich in experience.

Have fiction writers been blinkered to what is changing in front of their eyes? We learn in writing classes not to use stereotypes or clichés but does the omission of characters with a disability form a stereotype in itself? Books for young people and children have adapted so why are other areas of fiction lagging behind?

In The Guardian newspaper on 15th June 2011 Katherine Quarmby, a journalist, film maker and disability rights campaigner, produced a top ten list of books which featured disability, some of them in a positive light and some of them negatively. In this article, Katherine writes:

‘It’s also interesting to note that there are fewer disabled characters in the canon nowadays, except in children’s literature, where there has been a deliberate attempt to promote positive images of disabled children and adults…’

9781846273223

Katherine Quarmby wrote a book called ‘Scapegoat: Why We Are Failing Disabled People, which is published by Portobello Books.

 

When you are next drawing up your character profiles for your award winning book and you decide that ‘Dan’ needs to be ‘desirable’, would you dare to be different and add ‘disabled’? If you do, then just imagine the 10 million possible readers all urging you on!

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128 Responses to Calling all writers: do you dare to be different?

  1. Mole Chapman says:

    A thought provoking blog!! As stereotypes affect how we behave towards certain groups, using them with positive intention could prove hugely powerful in promoting a better view of, and therefore more positive attitudes towards, disabled people.

  2. John says:

    I think that the general public should meet with people with disabilities so that they can understand the challenges they face. I can’t wait to read your book when it is published.

  3. Ruth says:

    Thanks John, I will make sure you get a signed copy!
    I agree that if people with disabilities can mix with able bodied people, especially when at school, then attitudes may improve.
    Thanks for commenting on my blog.

  4. Kendra says:

    Hi Ruth,
    What an important topic to write about. It leaves so much for us writers to think about. You’re right that as writers we should think about our characters and if they are reflective of the range of people we meet in real life, and how we are presenting those characters. It is so important to be able to ‘meet’ a full range of characters in a story. You’ve raised an important discussion point here which I hope people will pay attention to. It reminds me of when stories/tv shows/movies etc only showed middle class, ‘white’ people and failed to reflect the ethnic diversity which actually existed in society. I’m really glad to hear that you have finished your novel and I very much look forward to reading it.

  5. Ruth says:

    Hello Kendra,
    Thanks for your comment. I think minority groups in general are under represented in media, including tv, film, books etc.
    I’m looking forward to reading your novel too!
    Thanks again,
    Ruthx

  6. Joyce says:

    A really informative and thought provoking blog!

  7. Thought provoking post! I think most writers who don’t themselves have disabilities might worry that their portrayal of a disabled character might be inaccurate or unintentionally negative. There was an interesting article in the latest issue of Mslexia magazine asking whether white people should write black characters and I think the same sensitivities are involved.

  8. Ruth Hunt says:

    Hello, thanks for commenting on my blog,
    I understand this nervousness about writing about disability. However if readers are told Dan is disabled and uses a wheelchair, readers will understand. As long as Dan doesn’t run a marathon then really you don’t have to put a lot in about how he became disabled or the ins and outs of his disability. For example if a character had a limp you wouldn’t need to put a lot of back story as the readers just think ‘ah yes a limp.’
    I don’t know if I’ve explained this in the most straightforward way, does anyone else feel they can add to this?
    Thanks craftygreenpoet! Ruth

    • Kendra says:

      Hi Ruth,
      That’s interesting and I understand what you are saying. It would seem that perhaps there is a fear on the part of writers to having characters who are disabled in their stories, as though being disabled means that those characters would think differently or be different in some way other than their disability? I think that having disabled characters would actually be quite different than a writer having characters who are from different ethnic groups, religions etc because a character from a different culture than the writer might have a different way of seeing the world but a character who is disabled is “just” disabled. That is not to say that all different cultures and ethnicity shouldn’t be represented in fiction but simply that not everyone is best placed to represent all characters. Hope that makes sense. Thanks again!

      • Ruth Hunt says:

        Hello Kendra,
        Sorry I missed your response here, yes you put it better than I did! Thanks for your comments! You’re right.

  9. Katie says:

    Hi Ruth, and Marianne

    Wow, a very thought provoking blog post. I think there should be more disabled characters in books. I think that the reason there isn’t is because writers don’t want to offend people by writing something that themselves haven’t been through. However, I do think it can be done and done well with a bit of research into the disability.

    When I did creative writing in CW 1 I choose to do a room scene for a paraplegic and drawed on when I volunteered with someone that was in a wheelchair . So, why not give it a go there’s, so many people in the world it would be lovely as a writer to be able to capture some of them in all kinds of stories.

    Ruth, I can’t wait to see your book out there one day you are a very talented writer.
    Marianne- hope your well and had a great weekend.

    Take care
    Katie.

  10. Ruth Hunt says:

    Hi Katie
    Thanks! Yes there is a charity or organisation for pretty much every condition, disability or illness so as Katie says a search online will find out what you need to know. Volunteering is also a great way of doing research as you are not only adding depth to your story you are also helping someone less fortunate than yourself!
    Good point Katie, thanks,
    I’m looking forward to seeing your work in print too!
    Ruthx

    • Katie says:

      Hi Ruth
      Thanks for a very thought provoking read. You are right there’s lots of online info on so much these days.
      Aw thanks Ruth- same back at you!
      Take care
      Katie.

      • Ruth Hunt says:

        So much so I was wondering if there was a charity for writers who were sick of finding yet more typos! Sorry, just a joke!
        Thanks Katie

  11. Hi Ruth, thanks for responding to my comment. i agree just having a character in a wheelchair is a very positive statement but as well as nervousness about getting disabled characters wrong there’s also a nervousness about being seen to be tokenistic. Although yes a character can just be in a wheelchair (just as a character can just be black) there are a lot of issues around the wheelchair (eg issues around access, discrimination and personal care) that might come up in a story for it to be most realistic and for many writers who don’t use a wheelchair and don’t know people who use wheelchairs they may feel they don’t know enough about these issues.

    I’ve done voluntary work with disabled people and I would know some of the issues and could look up the rest (as a previous commentator said there are plenty of support agencies who would be sources of information). But then there’s an issue of confidentiality – you don’t want people you’ve worked with feeling that you’ve used their experiences

    I totally agree it would be wonderful to see loads of disabled characters in books, on the tv and in films, I just think that many writers may feel they have real reasons not to write disabled characters into their works.

    • Ruth Hunt says:

      Hello craftygreenpoet
      I agree you don’t want to be tokenistic but if you are doing a novel which is say set in the present day, there are people with disabilities about so why not include them. I think on the confidentiality point as long as you don’t divulge information that would lead to the individual and you take out or change settings, sex, occupation etc then you are not breaking confidentiality. The other way is simply to ask someone with a disability if they would help you. I know I would so I’m sure others would too. Thanks for the debate, and for your comments.

  12. Ruth Hunt says:

    Maybe my next venture….
    I read on the twitter feed that people don’t want to cause offence if they get something wrong or say something wrong about disability. If writers didn’t take risks, and didn’t aim to challenge society in anyway shape or form, we wouldn’t have so many great books. If you want to check out your language speak to someone with a disability or who work with disabilities and you can get guidance. Websites will offer the same.
    Thanks again Katie!

    • Katie says:

      I agree sometime writer have to take risks in there books. And asking someone with the disability is a great way to start Ruth.

      looking it up online/ reading isn’t that the way people incorporate war and history into there story’s they research and read up on the subject. So why not read up on disability and try your best to have many different people in your books.

      Ps I wasn’t suggesting breaching confidentiality just in general you can draw on experiences you’ve had being around other.

      Take care
      Katie.

  13. Ruth Hunt says:

    Hi Katie
    I agree.
    A lot of writing is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. Research, done properly can mean your story has resonance as well as depth.
    Thanks again.
    Have you ever read anything which featured disability?

    • Katie says:

      Very true Ruth- I read a story called loving Eliza that had a mute character in it, it was one of the most beautiful story I read when I got my kindle.

      And.. Once Jilted also has disabled character in her story and it one of my fave books.

      Them tow books come to my mind away.

      Take care
      Katie.

      • Ruth Hunt says:

        Thanks Katie
        Maybe we could do our own top ten one day!
        Roberto Balano 2666 has a character who is a wheelchair user.
        Any more anyone?

        • Katie says:

          That would be a good Idea- I don’t know if this counts The secret garden and Christmas carol both had disabled characters in them.

          Take care
          Katie

          • Ruth Hunt says:

            Sure, this is a top ten which can include any book with disability in it in some form. The Most Beautiful Thing by Fiona Robyn which had an autistic boy as lead character….any more, anyone?

  14. This is a comment from twitter from @seldomseenben:

    “Because don’t want to get it wrong? Get a detail about Paris in 1786 wrong, oh well. Get disability wrong, potential to offend.”

  15. Ruth Hunt says:

    I think personally and I stress personally that people who have disabilities are more offended about the lack of disabled characters in books than a writer who includes disability.
    As long as the research is thorough and intentions good, what is their that could cause offence. Disability is something most of us will experience either in our own lives or through the lives of family and friends. Be brave writers, be brave!

  16. Ruth Hunt says:

    I think personally and I stress personally that people who have disabilities are more offended about the lack of disabled characters in books than a writer who includes disability.
    As long as the research is thorough and intentions good, what could cause offence?Disability is something most of us will experience either in our own lives or through the lives of family and friends. Be brave writers, be brave!

  17. Ruth Hunt says:

    Ooops repeated the comment sorry!

  18. The Curious Incident of The Dog In The Night?

  19. Ruth Hunt says:

    Sure, this is a top ten which can include any book with disability in it in some form. The Most Beautiful Thing by Fiona Robyn which had an autistic boy as lead character….any more, anyone?

  20. Ruth Hunt says:

    David Foster Wallace used depression and characters with depression in his short stories and longer novels.

  21. Ruth Hunt says:

    In infinite Jest by DFW he had a group called the wheelchair assassins, he managed to get away with it due to the good writing and it was very very funny!

    • Katie says:

      Jane Eyre, his first wife had mental problems and he ended up blind at the end.
      What a Scoundrel Wants – has a character that lost her sight.

  22. Ruth Hunt says:

    Well done Katie,
    Anyone trying to think up books, do you think it’s hard to find books which feature physical disability?
    Anyone got anymore?

    • Katie says:

      Bid for a Bride by Ruth Ann Norden the main character is blind – do think it is harder to think up books with disable characters in.

      Take care
      Katie

      • Ruth Hunt says:

        Hello Katie
        Another good suggestions, when I try to think of books that feature disabled characters and disabled protagonists I get to about 3 or 4 then I’m struggling. I wonder whether a reader walking into a bookshop( I’m sure some people still do!) would be put off from buying a book if they knew the main character was disabled? What do you think? Anyone else, what do you think?
        Thanks again, Katie

        • Katie says:

          Hi Ruth

          Me too, that a great question- for myself it doesn’t put me off at all in fact I likely chose a book with a main character with a disability because it add new life and a different prospective to go on a reading journey with.

          But with all thing that are controversial in people minds could make them think twice about reading a book with a disabled person in it. I think it comes down to what people like to read maybe.

          I think that book adult and children’s books lack disable hero’s and I hope as writing grows with the time that there are more books out that tells the readers about all sorts of people that are in the world.

          Great question, very thought provoking again.
          Take care
          Katie..

  23. Ruth Hunt says:

    Hello,
    Thanks for your comment Katie. In an ideal world, having disabled characters and protagonists in both books for adults and children, wouldn’t be seen any differently from any other character or protagonists.
    I wonder if 100 years from now people will look back on the books we had now and wonder why our fiction was so limited?
    What do other people think? What about older people eg over 65 can you think of books where older characters are protagonists or feature in the book?

    • Katie says:

      Hi Ruth

      I totally agree, and I think in years to come people will look back a wounder why book were limited at times. I think also people will look back with more of an everyone special and different and yet the same and that’s what makes ever character/ person in the world/ books unique and interesting and the more writer and TV put all kinds of characters out there the more people will see every one as being unique and equal.

      Take care
      Kate

      ps – Hi Marianne – aww thanks , hope your well.

  24. I wouldn’t be put off, no. But I think a lot of what you say in your blog post about disabled people being “stigmatised” and negative stereotyping still holds true, especially of people who are physically disabled. The author Pat Barker, in her novel Toby’s Room, looks at issues to do with the government censorship (which still exists today) of images of grossly disfigured soldiers. She argues that until the government stops doing this society will never accept disfigured and people who “look” different as normal and we are doing such disfigured people a huge injustice. I think she is right. We need a new approach to disfigurement and any people who look in any way “different”. The more disabled and/or disfigured characters there are in books/films, and the more disabled/disfigured people there are in the media and in our daily life – by making it easier for disabled people to access public transport/shops/restaurants/cinemas//schools/universities/collegses/churches etc, the sooner society will stop differentiating.
    Thanks for a great blog post, Ruth. As for older people in society … my aunt who is 88 talks of sometimes feeling “invisible” at bus stops and in shops – although at the same time, she acknowledges some people are very helpful, especially in her local library. I wonder if “rich” older people ever feel invisible like this?

    ps – hello Katie! Great to read your comments, which are as insightful as ever :)

  25. Ruth Hunt says:

    Hello Marianne and Katie,
    Yes you raise an interesting point, sometimes I do feel some older people feel that way and it is such a shame. They have so much to offer our society, as do disabled people, yet are often overlooked. I think Margaret Forster writes well about social issues. One of her books which for some reason I can’t bring to mind really deals well with the subject of being elderly in society today. As writers I do think we all have a responsibility to be sensitive to the needs of all people in society. Not treat such a subject with kid gloves or simply to think, oh I don’t want to offend anyone. Do research thoroughly and you will be rewarded for being brave and dare I say by daring to be different!
    Thanks Marianne, by the way I would love to meet your Aunt she sounds really interesting tell her I say hello albeit virtually!

  26. Ruth Hunt says:

    Had the Men had Enough by Margaret Forster is the book I was talking about.
    I haven’t read Toby’s Room by Pat Barker but will try and get hold of it ( shhh! I’m meant to be saving money at the moment, haha, some chance!)
    On your point on whether the experience of being rich or poor affects how elderly and disabled are treated is very valid. The difference between private provision and council or NHS provision can be huge. I wonder if the ‘loss of self/ identity’ is universal? Or does money make a difference, very interesting point!

    • Thanks for this, I’ll look the book up. Toby’s room is the second ion a trilogy of books by Pat Barker – the third is yet to be published. I interviewed her last year at the Edinburgh Book Festival and then blogged about it here: http://www.mariannewheelaghan.co.uk/?p=3635

      I think the loss of self/identity may be a universal thing … but I do also think that having money/being better off can make a difference to your feeling of self worth, especially if you feel that as a consequence of having very little, society doesn’t value you. Interesting stuff – as ever :)

      • Ruth Hunt says:

        Hi Marianne
        Am interesting blog, I will have a look at those books, I’m sure I have a Pat Barker book somewhere, but can’t find it as yet. One of my aims is to one day go to the Edinburgh book festival, I always hear of Authors and talks that I would like to have seen myself.
        Money can make a huge difference, on a slightly seperate point, I have had to have my lower leg amputated and having very little money means I have to make do with NHS legs. The difference between these and the ones you get through the private health companies is massive. Recently I watched something on tv about people in Afghanistan who have lost limbs and the limbs they have are much more basic than what I have. Actually made me think that I was fortunate…..

        • hi Ruth, I meant to comment on this sooner, I wanted to say that I was sorry to hear about your operation and that you had to have your lower leg amputated. Coming to terms with having to remove a part of your body must be very difficult, never mind having to put up with NHS legs!
          I am glad you can be positive about it.

      • Ruth Hunt says:

        In The Guardian newspaper today headline ‘more hospitals fail elderly patients’ one fifth not treating older people with dignity. If older people were treated in society better, recognising their experience and value, then maybe such headlines would be rare. Instead, today it almost seems like articles like this appear every week.

        • it’s very worrying, or maybe we should see it as a good sign – maybe such articles being in the paper means the editors recognise the public are not ready to let this happen any longer, that there is a shift in attitude coming?

          • Ruth Hunt says:

            I hope that’s the case, though I tend to stick to The Guardian so don’t know what other papers are saying. It has got to the point of deaths through neglect to get this attention. This seems like a high price to pay. I know that in learning disabilities there are many cases that never get coverage. The more people though that talk about these issue in platforms such as this the more the message might get through. I like the fact I’m not the only person that likes a good rant every now and again!

  27. Louisa says:

    Thanks for this discussion, Ruth and Marianne! I have a partially completed mystery novel where the protagonist is a woman in a wheelchair. I wanted to write about someone who has physical limitations but still manages to overcome a crisis and even help solve a murder. My concern, as another commenter pointed out, is that I won’t portray her accurately and will inadvertently offend readers who are in wheelchairs. I suppose I don’t feel confident in my ability to see from that perspective. But reading your post, Ruth, has helped me see that maybe, in thinking I need to write to a “special” audience, I am doing the very thing I fear! Thanks for a thought-provoking read and reality check!

    • Ruth Hunt says:

      Hello Louisa
      Well done and keep going!
      You have nothing to fear from what sounds already like a gripping story. Remember that these days publishers are looking for original and ‘different’ voices in fiction, which your book will be. Let me know how you are doing, and do keep at it. Thanks so much for getting in touch and thanks for your comments!

    • Hi Louisa
      it’s a tricky one but, like you, I think Ruth is right on this one. And, yes, I agree with you, by excluding certain types of people from or writing, we are doing the very thing we fear. Be great to read your finished mystery novel :)

  28. Ruth Hunt says:

    Has anyone else tackled disability in a novel or short story or have you had elderly characters? (By disability, I mean, physical and learning disabilities as well as mental ill health)

    • Ruth Hunt says:

      I should add visual and hearing and speech impairments as well as serious illness and neurological disabilities. If I’ve missed any out I apologise.
      I have heard of quite a few short stories that have used characters with disabilities, have any of you? What about longer works, such as novels? What could be the benefit of having such a character, Louisa’s novel sounds like a brilliant example…..

  29. two comments from twitter from @velogubbed:
    “My autobiographical novel The State of Me (HarperCollins 2008) is abt the neuroimmune illness ME, which the main character has.”

    “Have also blogged on the narrative of illness: velo-gubbed-legs.blogspot.co.uk/search/label/n… @scottishbktrust”

  30. Ruth Hunt says:

    Will look both of those up thanks!

  31. Further twitter comment from @MiriamHalahmy

    “I have written about an elective mute in my novel ILLEGAL.”

  32. Ruth Hunt says:

    Hey, they are coming in thick and fast, another one to look up! Thanks. Just shows that it can be an interesting subject matter, in whatever form.

  33. I’ve lost this thread a little but I think there is nothing wrong and everything right about having a good rant every now and then :)

  34. Ruth Hunt says:

    Too true!
    Did I remember correctly that you wrote a short story which had mental illness as a subject or a mentally ill character? I know you might not want to plug your own stuff, but….

  35. Ruth Hunt says:

    A good memoir I read recently was by Susannah Cahalan ‘my month of madness’. I will look at The State of Me as I have a friend that has ME. I will also look at the blog and will look up ILLEGAL. Thank you, that will by reading list for this week. Can anyone give me some good books for the next week, hopefully on the same theme….

  36. Ruth Hunt says:

    I’m a writer with a disability, what other writers are out there with a disability? Do you write about your disability or disability issues or would you avoid writing about it?

  37. Hi Ruth, i tweeted your comment on twitter, just to remind people the discussion is still going on :) That’s the good thing about twitter, you can let spread the world about what is happening on the blog :)

    And, yes, I did write about a woman who had a breakdown, gosh, how did you remember that – and when did I mention it? I was thinking about it redoing it recently …hm?!?!

  38. Ruth Hunt says:

    I think it was in the very early early days when I was doing the course, I remembered it when I was writing the post. I know! I’m not a stalker, don’t worry!!

  39. I am coming to this late, sorry, I could not find the comments thread, Marianne just directed me! There is also chronic illness, where there is no obvious visible disability. In my autobiographical novel The State of Me (HarperCollins 2008), the main character Helen Fleet has ME. I’m passionate about educating people about ME as there has been so much misinformation, and conflation with ‘unexplained fatigue’ over the years (I was diagnosed by consultant neurologist in early 1984 after an enterovirus) but I had no interest in writing a memoir as sick lit had been done to death in late nineties, so I fictionalised my own experiences. You can also get to the truth more easily with fiction. My novel also has a character with learning disabilities. I had a very close relative with Down’s Syndrome, and have done voluntary work with people with learning disabilities over the years, so both of these informed for writing that particular character, gave me a springboard. I also think there are more fictional narratives where the main character has a mental illness than physical illness, another reason I wanted a main character with a disabling physical illness . I have explored this issue on my blog under ‘narratives of illness’ label if anyone is interested! I could write much more here but am pretty wrecked, so will sign off.

    • Ruth Hunt says:

      Hello Nasim
      Thank you for commenting on this post. I’m sorry because at first I thought your book was a memoir but I have looked it up and stand corrected. You’re right using fiction can reveal the emotion in a story in an interesting way and I’m going to put your book on my ‘must read’ list. I will also check out your blog in the morning. It’s great that you incorporated learning disability into your story as learning disability is very neglected in mainstream fiction(as you will know.) Im also loving that the thread re voluntary work is in your comment. I think writers could offer charities and the voluntary sector so much and vice versa. Also, before I go to bed, I just want to wish you luck for your lecture in May as well as my thanks to you for joining the debate.

  40. …I’m actually speaking at Dissecting Edinburgh series, Surgeon’s Hall, May 2, ‘Medicine and Literature’ alongside Tracey Rosenberg and Alison Summers

    https://sites.google.com/site/dissectingedinburgh/events/writing-medicine

    • Ruth Hunt says:

      Just checked out the website for this! Very impressive, I was a bundle of nerves reading out a sheet of my writing to 4 people on Monday so I really am impressed that you are delivering a lecture. Let me know how you get on.

  41. Hey Ruth, The event will really be reading an extract from my book and talking about the process of ‘writing medicine’, I think it will be less formal than a lecture, I hope so. And there are another two writers. I have done a few readings before, but not many, I find it so exhausting, just preparing and then afterwards, but it is good to be able to do occasionally. I hope you enjoy the novel when you get a chance to read, do let me know, you can contact me through blog. warm wishes, NASIM

    • Ruth Hunt says:

      Hello Nasim,
      Yes that does sound like a better format, I hope you are able to enjoy the experience. Are you going blog about the event?
      I have got your book from my kindle, so yes I will contact you when I have finished it! Your story ( you and your book) made me think about The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, who did a fiction book about her depression.
      Are you doing writing another book? Do you find, like me, that writing helps your illness? Sorry for all these questions! Sorry as well if you had answer these questions in your blog. I haven’t looked at that yet….
      Thank you again for your comments and for being in this debate!
      Good luck for the event in May, I will get in contact soon.

  42. Ruth Hunt says:

    Has anyone written a memoir about their disability or illness? Would you consider writing a novel that featured a disabled character? Or have you written a fictional story that deals with your experience of having a disability or illnessess? What about non fiction or posts/ blogs? Have you written or blogged about disability or illness?

  43. Hello to Nasim and all newcomers – will try and get to your event, Nasim, sounds really interesting!

    Ruth, just shared your last comment on twitter :)

  44. Ruth Hunt says:

    Thanks Marianne.
    If I wasn’t so far south, I would have liked to have gone to Nasims events! I hope she will blog about it!

  45. Ruth, you ask me elsewhere about a short story I wrote about a woman having a breakdown. It occurs to me that someone suffers a mental breakdown in The Blue Suitcase, and DS Louisa Townsend in Food of Ghosts suffers from OCD, which is a form of mental illness. I am interested in exploring themes in my writing to do with place and identity (even in my two very different novels), but there are also shared connections with mental illness – in my books the illnesses are to do with issues around identity and home and place. I was not fully conscious of these connections in my work. So, thank you for indirectly making me see my own writing in a fresh way :) ( if that makes sense!)

  46. Katie says:

    Hi Ruth

    I was talking to my dads mum about this on the phone last night. She said she thinks its a good point, and that in years to come she thinks; that there are going to be more people with different mind sets.

    She said its nice to hear a young person staring to change peoples thoughts or making people think. She also thinks that there should be more older people in books that have more of a leading role. 😉 I read her your blog piece- gave me something to natter to her about.

    Take Care
    Katie , (Dads mum)

    • Ruth Hunt says:

      Hi Katie
      Do say hello to your Dads Mum from me!
      I think there is a real need for more books with older characters in and not all about nursing homes or dementia etc. I know plenty of people over 65 and older who, like people with disabilities, are contributing fully into society. We are generally living longer and working longer. So we should alter our mindset and think of how older people have rich experience and value and have more older protagonists in novels.
      Thanks again Katie, for your comments and joining in with the debate.
      Does anyone know of books where older people are protagonists?

      • Katie says:

        Hi Ruth

        I shall its her birthday tomorrow so I shall tell her then. :) I agree there should be more older characters that break the steoptic older person.

        I think it be great to add older values into story’s mixed with the get up and go factor, My dads mum always reminds me she walk every where (well did until she got really ill) I think she love to see older romance or detective or even a normal older person in her flat solving the age old quest of a magic broach that turned up on the 13 in her collection and now it has started to glow and each time she opens her box she see the stone forming a door. but does her kids believe her ‘nope’ will she go it ‘alone of course’ (she has to prove she not a made old lady even if her cat sitting in the corner with half an ear say other wise) 😉

        Thanks Ruth for a great some great talking points!

        Take care
        Katie.

  47. Great, Marianne, if you can come along, sorry is too far for you, Ruth. Am linking to a post from 2008 on why I wrote my illness as fiction: http://velo-gubbed-legs.blogspot.co.uk/2007/04/thank-you-clare-caroline.html

    Other novels about illness I have enjoyed: The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey (dementia); The Spare Room by Helen Garner (cancer); Electricity by Ray Robinson (epilepsy).

    Obviously, when you are writing fiction from your own experience of illness you are not ‘daring to be different’, you are just writing what you know. Again, these novels I mention are dealing with illness rather than an obviously disabled main character (what is illness, what is disability, that is a question in itself – they overlap considerably but – often – not visibly or obviously), and I cannot think of a novel where the main character is a wheelchair user (in my own book Helen does use a wheelchair in her most severe times, but not permanently). I think we are more likely to see disability represented in film rather than fiction. I am not sure why, as an ill or disabled character will have as rich an interior life as someone who is healthy or able-bodied. Still, I would not read a novel just because the main character happened to be ill, what matters is the writing, always!

    • Ruth Hunt says:

      Hello Nasim,
      Thank you for those books and link.
      I suppose the post was aimed at fiction writers, I’m really appealing to people without an illness or disability, to think about including disability and disabled characters in their novels. I personally think that yes, good writing is very important and that the more disability and illness is discussed either in writing or in blogs like this, the less it will become something ‘different’.
      As for writing what we know I think all writers to a certain extent do this, some more so, some less so. I think discussing your own experiences or translating your experiences into fiction is just as worthwhile as any other form of writing. I, like you, value the writing, whether that be memoir, poem, short story or novels, fiction or nonfiction!
      (I am annoyed because in May we were going to go to Edinburgh for a week, but last minute changes mean we are now going to London. If the original plans were still in place, I would have been able to go to your event.)
      Thanks again for the debate, links and book suggestions.

    • Ruth Hunt says:

      I have just read your blog post and I just want to say how impressed I am. I think you did the right thing by making it into a story and the fact you got it published and with such great comments is inspiring.
      I too started off my journey writing Rachel’s story as more of a memoir, but then a story developed which means that the only links with me is that Rachel is physically disabled.
      I found that reading your post provoked an emotional reaction within me. I am going to pass it on to a friend of mine who may find it inspiring too and give her hope. Thanks so much for sharing your post here.

    • Hi Nasim, I agree, yes, the writing is what matters, always, because it’s only through the writing that you get tell the story you want to tell. I really hope I can make your event :)
      A while ago I was invited to talk at conference to do with “trans-generational memory”, it’s difficult for me to sum up what that means. Briefly, as I understand it, it’s to do with when people who have suffered a major trauma ( like being forcibly expelled from your home/holocaust victims) and survived but not had the opportunity to come to terms emotionally with what has happened top them. This can lead to mental illness in the traumatised person and he or she can subconsciously pass on suppressed feelings to the next generation, who in turn can suffer from guilt and related mental illnesses. That’s bit long winded but, basically, my mother was a displaced person (The Blue Suitcase is based on he life) and when I talk about the book there are always people in the audience who have stories to tell of people they know who suffered similarly and who identify with Mum’s story. I believe one in four people suffer from mental illness in the UK, it is very much part of our life.

      • Ruth Hunt says:

        Hello Marianne,
        Yes I have heard of that, and The Blue Suitcase is a brilliant book for not simply telling the story in a beautiful way but many people who have been through similar trauma, like those you mention in the audience will be helped by reading the book.
        Mental illness is something which is so prevalent yet still misunderstood. It can be devastating to all those affected as it often disrupts family life, careers any area of life.
        Unfortunately with what is happening nationally re: cuts people who suffer from ongoing mental illness are being hit in every way. Services are being cut, centres disappearing, local authority funding cuts and of course benefit changes.
        I really believe that we were on the road to a better understanding but due to ideological purposes this has stopped. The rhetoric of scrounges and skivers has a real impact on the lives of those with ongoing needs.
        Sorry I’m ranting again, a rant a day keeps the…..( fill in the blanks)

  48. Ruth Hunt says:

    You know I actually thought about the Food of Ghosts late last night, but forgot about the connection in The Blue Suitcase. Yes, you are right, the mind/ self and who we are/ see ourselves as is such a huge and interesting subject. As is mental illness, who can say what is true and what isn’t true?
    It is strange but when I wrote the novel, which is still under my bed! I made a conscious decision not to write about disability or mental illness. What did I end up writing about, dementia and buy character being in a nursing home!
    This time, I let myself write what I wanted to write!
    Did you do a lot of research on OCD, because I did think it was spot on. Yet not in a negative way, does that make sense?

  49. Ruth Hunt says:

    That should say my character not buy character! Typos!

  50. Ruth Hunt says:

    Does anyone know of books that feature older people as protagonists? ( over 65) or maybe you are an older writer, should older people feature more in mainstream fiction?

  51. Hi Ruth and Nasim, I did some research into OCD and I also know someone who has it, which helped. Regards whether you write fiction or memoir or a biography etc When I started to think about writing about my mum’s life I was sure I would write a biography or a history, using the diaries and letters etc as my source material. But I got really bogged down in trying to stick accurately to the facts of mum’s life. This was really difficult because there were lots of gaps in the diaries and letters and things I didn’t know. I could guess at what happened but I couldn’t know for sure. At the same time, I spent an awful lot of time researching the period and place and there were things that happened to other people’s families that I felt I wanted to also talk about. Anyway, I went to a talk by the fiction writer Philippa Gregory and someone asked her why she write fiction when she was a historian, and not factual histories. She replied that she believed more people read stories and histories and she wanted as many people as possible to read her books. A story has a shape to it by its very nature and it is easier to shape a fiction than a history. I had a light bulb moment. I wanted as many people as possible to know about my mum’s story and it is her story that counts, not what each individual family member did when at what time. By deciding to make my account of mum’s life a fiction, although based on what happened, i could shape the account into a story and make it engaging. What am i saying is i think fiction writers tell lies in order to reveal a truth and sometimes this is the best way to reveal this truth.

    “Fiction is not a dream. nor is it guesswork. It is imagining based on facts, and the facts must be accurate or the work of imagining will not stand up.” Margaret Culkin Banning

  52. Ruth Hunt says:

    Hello Marianne,
    This is so true, so so true as well as being so well put. I can’t add anything except my admiration. Great quote too!

  53. here is @LouisaDang tweet regards your comment “should there be more older people represented in fiction”?

    “Absolutely! I think that is one reason Ms. Marple is so popular, someone unique…”

  54. Ruth Hunt says:

    Indeed, she is popular and it would be great to see a modern day Miss Marple or other older protagonist which would appeal not simply to older readers but readers of all ages. Recently there has been a few films ( one example being Quartet) which were hugely popular with young and older audiences. This should illustrate that there would be scope and plenty of readers for books which featured older people. I think a modern day Miss Marple would be great. Not to take anything away from the original of course!

  55. Wendy says:

    Hi Ruth. I shall tell you a little story. As Marianne knows, I have been a keen dancer for nearly two decades. A few years ago, my dance of choice was modern jive and I went to as many classes and dances as I could. At these dances, it is customary to swap dance partners during the evening and my favourite dance partner (let’s call him Ken) was in a wheel chair. This might seem strange to hear but he was a very popular dancer: he had perfect rhythm, he led the moves beautifully – making sure his partners didn’t catch themselves on his chair, did a mean spin on his back wheels and was friendly and curteous (something that couldn’t be said for all the dancers) I never knew what confined him to his wheel chair, in the same way that I didn’t know most people’s professions or where they lived. – we were all just there to dance and Ken would always be the person I would seek out. Having said all this, I’ve now lost the plot (excuse the pun) of why I was telling this story. I think that maybe it brings to the fore the question of whether we, as authors, should write about someone with a disability as just another character in our plot (as Ken was just another dancer at the jive dance) or whether we should weave the story around the disability. As a magazine writer, I have never written a story where my main character has had a disability but I have had many older protagonists (in answer to your question). I shall give this issue some thought before I write my next story. Thank you (and Marianne) for a post that has given us so much to think about.

    • Ruth Hunt says:

      Hello Wendy,
      Thanks for putting a mention of this post onto your blog. I tried to leave a comment but was unsuccessful, more to do with my lack of skill rather than your site! So a big thank you, tonight I will dream of Ken twisting the night away!

  56. Ruth Hunt says:

    Hi Wendy
    That is a great story! Ken sounds like a great dancer and friend!
    In writing I don’t think you need to make the focus of your writing the subject of disability, though it is an interesting subject to write about. However, as your story about Ken illustrates people with disabilities are around so why not have characters with disabilities in your novel or short story.
    Thanks so much for getting in touch Wendy, you would be onto a winner with a short story about Ken, adapting it to protect his identity of course, but it is a lovely story!
    Good luck with your writing and thanks again for joining in with the debate.

  57. Lovely story, Wendy! Thanks and lovely to hear from you.

  58. Ruth Hunt says:

    That sounds like the start of a very promising story Katie! When you finish your book, maybe this can be a short story of the start of a novel?
    Thanks for your comments Katie!

    • Katie says:

      Hi Ruth
      Ha, that’s not a bad idea. Thank-you again for a great read and thought provoking subject.

      Take care
      Katie..

  59. ‘What am i saying is i think fiction writers tell lies in order to reveal a truth and sometimes this is the best way to reveal this truth.’

    This is perfect, Marianne, and exactly what I meant when I say you can get to the truth more easily through fiction.I have not read The Blue Suitcase, but Crafty Green Poet (Juliet) has spoken highly of it.

  60. And thanks, Ruth, glad my post resonated for you, though I always wrote my story as ficiton (it started as a very long short story then slowly, slowly became the novel), it was never written or intended as memoir…yes, publishers wanted to market it as ‘fictionalised memoir’ rather than ‘autobiographical fiction’, and there is a difference (why it actually matters is bizarre, but that’s marketing for you). Also, memoir is driven more by time, and fiction by plot – or at least a semblance of narrative arc – and crafting the narrative arc in my novel was challenging, not just energy-wise, but creatively too, but there had to be more to it than just a girl being ill…

    • Ruth Hunt says:

      Hi
      Sorry I think I was talking about how my book started I didn’t mean your book started as a memoir. I was referring to when you have a story to tell and you are working out the best way to tell it. You started as a short story and I started in thinking that I might do a memoir. However when I got the idea for a story I changed my mind.
      I’m reading your novel now and am struck at how lovely your writing is! I’ve sent the link to your site to my friend who is feeling down at the moment and she may want to read your novel too. I’ve really valued your input in this post and thanks for your comments.

      • Happy to contribute, Ruth, and glad you are enjoying the novel. The Kindle version is *slightly* different in that it is missing asterisks that I used a lot for pace, to slow things down, but the e-formatting could not handle asterisks for some reason when it was converted and you will just have blank spaces instead (no asterisks). Readers tell me they have not not missed them, but for me the paperback version is the best.

        • Ruth Hunt says:

          I might get the paperback for my friend as part of a Christmas present. I prefer reading physical books but my house is bursting with books at present and I’m trying to get used to the kindle…

  61. Wendy, I love your story about ‘Ken’, the thing you noticed about him was his great dancing, his wheelchair just a detail – and that is how life is.

  62. Older protagonists: there is the recent big hit Swedish novel: ‘The Hundred-Year-Old Man who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared’ by Jonas Jonasson. I haven’t read it yet but my mum’s read the translation and various members of my Swedish stepfamily have read original and they all rave about it.

  63. I do sometimes write stories which include disabled characters. I don’t feel I’m being particularly daring or different in doing that though. I just write about characters who interest me and sometimes it happens that they have a disability of some kind.

    • Ruth Hunt says:

      Hello Patsy,
      First, I think that it’s great that you include disabled characters in your stories, I think that when you do write such stories it doesn’t feel different.
      However, if you google ‘disabled protagonists’ you may find a few in children’s or young peoples literature but only a tiny amount in mainstream books for adults.
      This is why I called this post dare to be different. As a lot of writers avoid writing about characters with disabilities or have disabled protagonists. So the post was about saying, why not give this a go…..
      I would really like to read some of your stories Patsy and the more I hear about writers who include disabled characters in their work, the more I feel hopeful for the future.
      I would love one day to be able to google ‘disabled protagonists’ and rather than lots of posts like mine, there would be plenty of examples of books and stories.
      Thanks so much for joining the discussion Patsy!

  64. Ruth Hunt says:

    I want to ask a slightly different question, since most ‘dramas’ on TV are originally adapted from books, what have you seen that had a disabled character featured ( or disabled lead character.) What about theatre productions or films?

  65. Ruth Hunt says:

    A story with a disabled character you have written is rejected by publishers?
    What would you do? What would you think?

  66. Ruth Hunt says:

    This is my quick guide to submitting stories/ novels with disabled characters or disabled protagonists

    I assume that you’ve had a great idea and written it!
    1) double check language and terms, as with most things language does change over time. Also a lot of disabled people call themselves names which would be offensive if used from abled bodied person to a disabled person. An up to date dictionary will provide all that you need on this front.
    2) ensure your agent knows why you are writing such a story, helping to change attitudes is as valid as any other reason. Your agent needs to believe in you.
    3) do research on other books with similar content and do your research on publishers.
    4) get a reading panel together include people with disabilities in this.
    5) if you’ve written about eg spinal cord injuries there are a few big charities in the Uk that have newsletters as well as websites. They often review books. Become a member then ask for your book to be reviewed and say you’d like to do an interview. Push for as much as you want, they can only say no. The charity and voluntary sector is suffering like most other sectors so you may be surprised at what happens…. Good luck!

  67. Ruth Hunt says:

    Other suggestions: if you don’t know anyone with a disability, contact any local disability groups and ask if anyone would be willing to spend some time with you. Alternatively volunteering with a charity or voluntary group will give you an insight into disability as well as helping the charity. Guaranteed to make you feel good as well!
    Finally, we have an MP’s, company directors, CEO’s, academics, teachers, elite athletes even authors with disabilities ( as well as other jobs/ roles) so your disabled character can be just like any other character. If you are not going to discuss how Dana goes to the toilet, why discuss how Dan, your disabled character, goes to the toilet?
    It’s now the end of my week as guest blogger, though this post will remain on Mariannes page. I want to thank everyone for their input and thank Marianne for giving me the chance to do a Post on this subject.
    I hope that I’ve provided enough encouragement here for writers able bodied and disabled to think about including disabled characters in their work.
    If anyone wants any other information, ask Marianne and she will in turn ask me.
    Good luck with your writing!!
    One last question, after this discussion, have you thought differently about disability? If so, would you dare to be different?

  68. Hi Ruth, thanks so much for all your really helpful advice and great suggestions and for an extremely stimulating blog post. It’s been lovely to have you as a guest blogger and I’m looking forward to reading your blog one day – and having you back as a guest blogger :)

    I certainly think of disability differently now. Thanks again :)

    • Ruth Hunt says:

      Thanks Marianne,
      I’ve enjoyed the experience, and I’m sure Twitter are happy that you’ve got me tweeting for the first time! Jonathan Franzen would be disappointed in me!
      Thanks again Marianne,
      Ruthx

  69. Ruth Hunt says:

    Hi Marianne,
    Hey don’t say that! He is one of my all time favourite authors! I love Freedom and The Corrections. Nevermind, I’m sure he is used to criticism, he got enough of that on Twitter!
    Looking forward to your post next week Marianne, I’m thinking of blogging perhaps as part of a group, to spread the load a little bit like you’ve done with guest bloggers.
    I’ve just read my book from start to finish and have spotted more typos and tweaks, so I’d better go or else it will never be done.
    Thanks once again to you and everyone who has contributed.
    Best wishes,
    Ruthx

  70. I do like his writing but I think we can admire someone’s work but still find them irritating as a person … i suppose, if he can’t stand the heat, he’d really better keep out of the kitchen etc etc ;o) Happy editing!!!

  71. Ruth Hunt says:

    Happy Editing?!

  72. Mike Jaega says:

    Speaking as a disabled person, I think it’s often true that people either ignore or think disabled people don’t have the same thoughts and feelings regarding relationships, sex, or even attraction. I think people often find it difficult to comprehend that anyone with a disability can and do have intimate relationships with either a disabled or non disabled person. Therefore, this subject is often avoided, almost at all costs, by society as a whole. This makes a fantastically refreshing change to see disabled people talked about as they should be – A person with thoughts, feelings and desires. Not to mention that the strength that many disabled people show I believe is also very attractive…. Strength of character is seen as attractive in anyone else so why not disabled people after all?? Brilliant piece Ruth and I just hope this is a subject that is now written about far more. As you say, we have come a long way with changing attitudes but there’s still work to be done…. Overall, very impressive.

  73. Ruth Hunt says:

    Hello,
    Thank you for reading my post and adding such good points.

  74. Pingback: Do writers have a social responsibility to contribute to and change the world they live in? | Marianne Wheelaghan

  75. AL says:

    Hi Ruth – its ALAN HALL here! Now a philosophy teacher.
    Good luck with the novel – send me a copy please.

  76. Ruth F. Hunt says:

    Thanks for your comment. When my book is out, I will let you know.
    Thanks again.

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