Visual Disability and the Muse
My name is Jeff Moyer. I am a 64-year-old songwriting and producing musician, poet, author, and Disability Rights advocate. I began losing my vision when I was five, and began writing poetry when I was seven. I wrote my first song and my first poem was published in a little teen poetry magazine when I was sixteen. Then with time, on and on my creative development went. It took 50 years for my vision loss to become total, by which time I had also lost enough hearing to be a fine candidate for new, open fit digital hearing aids. By the way, I injured my hands 22 years ago, so I can’t use a standard keyboard. But technology came to my aid through powerful Braille-keyboard, speech output computers. I gave a kidney to save a friend’s daughter’s life three years ago, which has left me in chronic pain and therefore a sometimes reclining wheel chair user. My disabilities don’t define me, but they are an integral and permanent part of my identity and certainly frame my life experience.
The question that this essay will address is how my visual disability affects my relationship with my muse. I say my muse, because every artist must develop an intimate relationship with his or her inner voice, that point of consciousness that whispers inspiration, feeds and filters ideas and serves as the critic that helps one smooth and polish pieces before they are offered to the world.
Visual disability in all of its varied forms demands accommodations—in this case, accessible technology, aids, or materials that make the process of reading and writing an independent act. Perhaps it is large print that you use, or optical aids, Braille, or assistive technology in its many forms. The writer or composer must be able to write, at best, independently.
That is, both read and write, and read one’s own writing without assistance. This is not as obvious as it sounds. If a student reads through listening and only writes by dictating, then he or she can’t write and edit independently. It is best if one has a literate medium that serves as the conduit for creative engagement with words and ideas. When I was growing up, that meant either print or Braille. I didn’t have any psychological support to help me embrace Braille when it was offered to me during a year in a rural school district that offered classes for kids with visual disabilities—although we never referred to them in that nomenclature back then. As a result, I refused to use Braille, and lessons were stopped with my return to my local public school. I only began to use wonderful Braille to identify prescriptions, spices, and music when I had to when my vision ran out. But Braille would have been a great medium if I had had the sense to use it. For many years, I didn’t really have much of a writing medium.
Today, literate media includes accessible technology. I read through listening, and write using my Braille Note. For me, the great breakthrough came in two stages. First, the innovation of video magnifiers, invented in the early 1970s, gave me a dramatic improvement in my ability to write and then read my own handwriting. This was 20 years before the personal computer hit the streets. I was fortunate to be the first college student in California to have the department of rehab buy me one of the early video magnifiers after I presented a cost/benefit analysis to them. The unit was for my studies when I finally got to Berkeley, after the three schools and six year crawl of my lower division work. What a joy to be able to read my own notes and scratch down outlines for papers while sitting comfortably upright at my desk, instead of being cramped, face flat on the desk over a magnifier, as I had for many years.
The second stage of my evolved writing life came in 1984 when I gained my first accessible word processor—a heavy briefcase-encased device called a ViewScan. My lightning fast typing skills and those giant scanning orange letters on a black background really gave me the keys to the highway, allowing me to easily see to write and edit my wordsmithery. Today’s accessible computers make those systems seem primitive. But that early device gave me the freedom to create since I could easily type and then read jumbo high contrast, low glare text, rather than struggling as I had with magic marker print on heavily lined paper and my trusty video magnifier.
Now comes the matter of how and what we create. Writing requires writing skill, developed as an athlete develops, by daily practice. The same is true for a musician. You must practice to learn your instrument, and ultimately become able to play it beautifully. I couldn’t see the piano music during my lessons when I was six and seven. The piano teacher had been told by my parents, who had been advised by an optometrist, that I was pretending I couldn’t see. In fact, I was going blind from a rare form of Retinitis Pigmentosa that would not be diagnosed until I was 36. I mention this only because there is a great benefit hidden in the experience of those piano lessons. Although I had to struggle to memorize every piece, rather than relying on the score, I ultimately learned that I could play new instruments by ear, intuitively figuring out how instruments were played by trial error and practice. Hence, I have taught myself 20 instruments, although I am first and foremost a guitarist. I play at least one of my instruments every day, and I freely admit that I am not a skilled musician on most of my collection. But it is true that only practice makes perfect and as the old chestnut goes, the way to Carnegie Hall is years of practice.
I wrangle words every day and have for decades. Perhaps it is a little haiku, or the lyric to a song. Maybe it is just a fragment of an idea. Perhaps it is a carefully-crafted thank-you note, or an essay, or even a chapter in a book. It could be just a precisely-written email. All of these are examples of writing, if one approaches each task as an exercise in clear, accurate wordwork. But the important thing is to write something every day.
Many wise ones have advised us to write about what we know, our own, singular life experience. I write about my dog, my family’s history, life and death, politics, the world as I experience it. I write about this life, always seen through, in part, the lens of my disability. My progressive vision loss gave me extra time to create, since I didn’t engage in sports, and since I was growing up before inane and time-gobbling video games. With whatever time you can find, tune into the inner voice that is your forever desk mate, as it mumbles suggestions and leads you on, phrase by phrase. We know many aspects of life, some relate to and some understood because of the sensitivity we have developed by living with our disabilities. Blindness has been my hardest and my best teacher. Visual disability can open patience, compassion and keen inner awareness if we will allow it to do so. To get to that point, however, we must get through the emotional agony of accepting ourselves as we are—with our disability as part of our brand. That process took me many years—it wasn’t easy for me.
Part of the reason was that I knew no one else who shared my disability, low vision, and hence felt different, deviant, alone. But that’s for a different essay. The kaleidoscope of knowing ourselves and our content will identify, clarify, and sharpen the voice in our work. At times we will want to voice the particulars of life with our vision loss; at times we will write without thought to that matter at all. Many of the lyrics in my songs are highly visual images, because I draw on my visual memory and see things in my head that I can’t perceive with my eyes. But the sharply hewn emotional tone is always that sculpted by my life experience with loss, and the compassion that resulted.
We all need to learn a skill set in order to develop any artistic expression. That education can come from many sources and is not limited to one or two courses. Throughout our years of school, we study both grammar and composition as well as the reading of great works of literature and poetry, and if we are lucky, music and art. Through our mastery of language and the mechanics of English, we develop the means by which we can express ourselves clearly. Spelling, too, is a requirement of the effective artisan of words. Because we often learn through listening or reading contracted Braille, spelling may not come naturally. Use your spell check and proofreaders to catch your mistakes. Once we have those tools, we can begin to write. Then comes the matter of feedback on our work. I always share what I consider to be a working draft with trusted readers who will give me a serious critique.
If you choose to study writing in college, you will find the bar is raised considerably on everyone’s work. But even if you don’t take English as a major, in your undergraduate path, you will still need to be able to write clearly for all of those papers that will be required of you course after course. Seek mentors, friends or family or members of the cyber community to help you to become the best communicator you can possibly be. It never happens by chance.
Inspired and Crafted
There are basically two modes of engaging with the muse of your writing process. John Lennon once said that some songs are inspired and some are crafted. That can be said of any artistic expression. If you exercise your creative muscle every day, it will be ready to go when your muse starts dictating. There are times when an idea comes to me and I know that I had better sit down and start writing at once, because my muse is ready to dictate, or may already be spilling words into my head. I find blindness a terrific help as a writer. It opens my inner landscape, allowing me to focus thoroughly on the matter at hand. I go to a silent place, put my hands on my Braille/Speech computer and begin. When a piece is “inspired,” it almost writes itself in first-draft form. If it is being crafted, I may sit for minutes waiting for the next line, next paragraph, perfect rhyme, or next musical phrase or chord. Then comes the editing process, and the longer the piece, the longer the editing. I have just finished my first full-length book, and it has taken eight years and eight edits. My experience is that editing is the process through which I became a real writer. But being blind just makes that part easier. We bring the laser focus of no visual distractions to the task. If you have low vision, keep your eyes closed when you are working whenever possible. Go to that place where you can meet your muse. You’ll like her.
One of the dilemmas of this time in history is the increasing difficulty for an artistically-inclined person to plan for a career in the arts. Other cultures hold the arts in great esteem, but in this American culture, we have been devalued until making a career out of our writing, musical, photographic, or fine arts talent is a real moon shot. Of course, there are the very few exceptions to that truism, but one must consider the odds. I will give you the same advice that I follow. Give your work away for the sheer joy of the craft. If you are really a writer or a musician or artist of whatever stripe, you have to create, you have to work your art. There was a time that I made a good living as a publishing musician, but today there is little market for recorded music unless you are a superstar or have a niche fan base. I volunteer to play for hospice because I believe in the power of music to touch people’s hearts and help them to heal. I have provided 300 concerts and distributed many hundreds of CDs to grateful families. Find your passion and give forgotten audiences your work for free. The same is true for writing or any of the arts. Do it and give it away to someone who wants to receive it. Service is as meaningful as income. Seek a career that will pay the bills and then you and your muse can make you very happy.
Jeff Moyer is a songwriter, author, producer, public speaker, historian, and human rights advocate. His publishing company is called Music from the Heart, and his website is www.jeffmoyer.com.