Interview with Eileen Cronin and T. K. Dalton

Question #1
WG: Tim and Eileen, the two of you are working together on a project called "Writer to Writer" for AWP. Can you describe the project for readers who are not aware of it?

EC: Writer to Writer is a project within AWP which matches mentors with applicants looking to be mentored. My understanding is that people looking to be mentored will submit a short manuscript and fill out an application. Mentors fill out an application only. The guidelines are on the AWP website. In many cases, the mentorship pairs stay in contact after the mentorship ends. I know that T.K. and I will stay in touch because we have many common interests as writers.

I've been thrilled with T.K.'s work, and I believe that it may have helped him to have a mentor who has written about life with a physical disability. In 2014, I published a memoir called Mermaid with Norton. It's about growing up without lower legs. My birth defect is due to a drug called thalidomide given to my mother while pregnant with me.

T.K. is working on a creative nonfiction project that is similar to my memoir project in the sense that we are both writers with disabilities, who have family members with different disabilities. My writing style, even in nonfiction, is to recreate scenes from life in much the same way that Mary Karr has done in her memoirs, but I prefer to add humor in the same way that David Sedaris writes about his family. I believe T.K. was able to go deeper into his chapters by trying to do some of this. Aside from the fact that we are both writing about disability in our nonfiction work, both T.K. and I have been fiction writers as well. In fact, I'm now at work on a novel. This project does not involve the issue of disability.

TD: The one thing I'd add is that AWP seems to define 'mentee' broadly. I have an MFA, and peer and faculty mentorship was a big part of my program. Certainly, having a smart reader who 'got' disability as I dove deeper into this new genre has been crucial. I'd recommend Writer to Writer to anyone, especially writers from the disability community.

I mentioned the MFA, which I earned at the University of Oregon. There, I really started coming to terms with the ways my two brain surgeries (at age 9 and age 15, to remove tumors) have shaped my thinking and reasoning. I hadn't had to confront that before graduate school, mostly through my own avoidance. In Oregon, I also started presenting more characters with disabilities in fiction, drawing on my family life with a late-deafened father and a brother on the autism spectrum. I started negotiating where my experience of the body interacted with my attempts to render it on the page. I also realized that my own neurodivergence inflects the voices of my characters. Certainly the experience of coming to terms with what my own personal brain is and what it isn't shaped the content of the fiction I wrote.

In nonfiction, which is a newer genre for me, I have noticed the way my brain can sometimes dictate the form something emerges in. Working with a mentor, especially one with a background in disability, has helped me figure out when to harness that wild form, and when to let it loose.

Question #2
WG: Tim, I am interested in your perspective on how the Writer to Writer project has helped you to develop as a writer, especially to portraying your own experience with disability and creating characters that convey a sense of what that experience is like. You say that Eileen 'got' it. In what way did she get it and how did that help you?

TD: When I say Eileen 'got it,' obviously I don't mean that she had literally experienced my literal experiences–dentists scolding me for what my anti-seizure medication did to my gums, yoga teachers cracking a kind joke when I crash to the floor doing tree pose on the left side. What she 'got' was what I hadn't yet understood, which is how terrifying it can be to rely on another being, a reader, to understand what I have written about a true experience that is singularly my own.

When I present writing for constructive criticism, I always hope that the feedback will enlarge the work. That hasn't always been my experience presenting work related to disability. Especially with fiction about characters with autism, the reception of my work has often been shaped by my readers' fixed notions of disability, notions that almost always tend to sentimentalize. In the past, I'd get defensive about the characters, imply more and reveal less. In a sense I was protecting them from what I perceived as the readers' ignorance. In fact, my lack of invitation to the reader and my intolerance of where they were at in their process of understanding probably hurt the work I was trying to create. I burned those bridges, I guess you could say.

The importance of an invitation–of bridge building between writer and reader–is what working with Eileen has helped me understand and start to develop. Now, when I sit down to compose or revise a section of this nonfiction manuscript, which is quite personal, I try to find ways to invite the reader in, even at the risk of them not understanding everything, even if it requires what feels to me like radical vulnerability.

EC: The one thing I would add to what Tim is saying is that when I write about disability, there will often be these invisible perceptual barriers surrounding the subject, and the best way to get through them is to ask for feedback. Then I use that feedback to address these false perceptions in ways that don't alienate readers. (I'm not always successful, but I cut myself a lot of slack by allowing that the learning curve is extremely steep for this subject matter.) I find that humor works well, and while I'm not shy of turning that humor on myself as a protagonist, I will also poke fun at other people's ignorance.

Question #3
WG: One of the main goals of Wordgathering is to try to provide a forum for literature that counters stereotypes of disability, whether it is through language choice, character portrayals or narrative arcs. To what extent do you think that attempts to overcome stereotypes plays a role in your writing? Is a major component, a bi-product or not even on the radar?

EC: In writing fiction or literary memoir, I almost have to force myself to acknowledge disabilities, mine or anyone else's. This strange perception of reality was what I knew as a child so it informs my voice. I come from a family of Irish Catholic dreamers. We weren't on friendly terms with reality, but we were awfully good at creating our own ideas of it.

For me that awareness of reality could only break through in thunderous waves. As a result I don't write elegiacal prose with characters who are incredibly self aware. Instead I see most of humanity stumbling around in their own fantasies of who they are and where they fit in. Invariably they meet reality. That's the sweet spot. It helps to shape the narrative arc, for me, and this recognition is where I will go deeper as a writer. Or I will stop at that. Maybe that's the Irish in me too, but I can't stand to see those heart-aching moments spoiled by over-analysis. I think of James Joyce's "Araby." This to me is one of the greatest endings in literature. It's perplexing, haunting, and yet simple.

TD: Stereotypes can be a real kickstarter for me. Literature is riddled with a particular kind of unbelievable and flat disabled character–Deaf people, to cite a famous example, as mere "angels" or "outcasts." Continuing to encounter portrayals like this often does irritate me into starting new work, usually by ranting into a notebook. Occasionally, though not often, those rants develop enough of an ecosystem that they create actually round characters.

Like Eileen, my family's notions about disability shaped my relationship to it, maybe in a more affirming way. My dad is late-deafened and my brother is on the autism spectrum, so the fact of disability was omnipresent, even as the three of us shaped our own very different relationships with the facts of our own bodies. The experience of growing up in a home where disability set the contours of our particular family system probably informs the way I react to misconceptions and stereotypes: the ignorance of others is a catalyst that burns out while the real chemistry of storytelling happens.

So yes, encountering misconceptions in the world generates work for me. But, I don't think the goal of a finished piece is to overcome them, at least not directly. I think the witness of the stereotype, or the firsthand experience of it, is only the beginning of attempting to confront it through story. To me, the real work of writing any narrative that originates in dehumanization is a two-fold task. First, the piece needs to both capture and see beyond the limited imagination of the bigot. Second, it has to transform the limiting anger of the witness into some kind of energy or momentum that makes sense in the story being told. Only once that's done can a story get beyond flatness and stereotype–for both the stereotyped and stereotyper–to something real about the characters themselves.

Question #4
WG: You both mention the importance of family as well as the role of disability in shaping your writing. Undoubtedly that is going to help to keep your writing grounded, but I want to ask you as a further question as writers of memoir, since as Tim put it "the firsthand experience is only the beginning." What do you consider the purpose of memoir to be? When you sit down to write do feel you are offering something that needs to be heard or is it just about personal expression. Eileen spoke of developing a narrative arc but, other than strict chronology, what underlies that arc?

EC: For years I avoided writing memoir because I thought that I would be pushed into writing an "inspirational memoir." Then I started reading memoirists whom I have come to love: Lucy Grealy, Tobias Wolff, Mary Karr, David Sedaris, Patricia Hampl, among others. I came to see that memoir can be written in a voice similar to one's fictional voice. The memoir doesn't have to be chronological. It should tell a particular story about one's life. As a novelist, I'm used to creating whole worlds from bits and pieces of my own world. It's like taking balls of clay and building a village. To me, memoir starts from a huge chunk of clay that has a story inside of it, and my job is to carve it out.

All writing is self expression. As I see it, my job is to keep asking myself, what is the universal story here? This is true of fiction and nonfiction. On the face of things, my family story is not at all universal. Few people grow up without legs because of a pill their mother might have been given. But what could be a more challenging situation in a relationship between mother and daughter? Doesn't love often always include some level of betrayal? No two people can be always striving for the same goal. Invariably we come into conflict. That conflict is at the heart of all storytelling.

In my memoir I had to face honestly the layers of betrayal that I felt about my relationship with my mother, who withheld the information about the pill from me. The need for that information had serious consequences in my life–aside from affecting my ability to trust–because I never knew if I could safely have children of my own. In a Catholic family of eleven kids, the goal of becoming a parent is sort of the whole point. But in the end, the point of life is about defining love and redefining love for ourselves. We have to keep asking ourselves, "What is love?" In my case the search for my own identity threatened my family's idea of its identity. In the end I invested in my own need for truth, which in a way is a betrayal of my family's truth. To write something so personal about my own family, I had to be willing to dissect my own motives and to point to myself as the villain in the story, as well as the heroine. I had to bring out the best qualities in the other "characters" in my story, even though their actions at times were villainous.

Right now I'm writing a novel that includes a Catholic family with a secret (sexual abuse). It's not my family, and sexual abuse is not my story, but the same questions apply here. I'm asking myself again and again, "What is at stake for these people? How can we be made to understand them? What is their definition of love? How are they redefining their definitions of love? Are they redefining them?" One of the sad misinterpretations of faith, in my opinion, is the notion that we should never question our faith. How can we have faith or how can we know love, if we haven't challenged the notions of faith and love that we were handed. These are the questions that come up in King Lear or Hamlet. They cross all faiths, all races, all generations.

TD: I'd more comfortably identify as an essayist working on a project that might fit more comfortably into the admittedly squishy category of creative nonfiction than traditional memoir. Eileen is definitely the expert on all things memoir in this conversation!

When I said "the witness of the stereotype, or the firsthand experience of it, is only the beginning of attempting to confront it through story," I don't mean to devalue experiences being stereotyped or undergoing vicarious trauma, the latter being a common hazard in sign language interpreting. My purpose in writing an essay about such a personal experience is explicitly to confront the power imbalances underlying that experience. How that's done varies greatly, but I'll talk about two aspects of the process as I understand it: meaning-making and finding a form.

For me, meaning-making through the recreation of an unjust moment in an essay requires understanding the moment's meaning and its root causes, and then re-presenting the moment in a way that allows an open-minded, critical reader to see beyond the drama of that moment to the power dynamics that govern it. Here I think of Claudia Rankine's amazing book of poetry/criticism Citizen, especially the second section. Rankine describes witnessing Serena Williams' blackness being "thrown against a sharp white background" (to use the Zora Neale Hurston line Rankine quotes), in this case the background of racist tennis umpires. To compose a text like that requires time, psychological distance, some calm and clarity–but also enough residual, cooled anger that the story is worth telling to both writer and reader. Rankine wasn't on the court with a racket, but she had an emotional reaction to witnessing a drama so flagrantly racist that the TV commentators couldn't ignore it. For me, both witness and firsthand experience spark that search for meaning; the writer's composition process is the long middle; the reader's experience of the text marks an end of the writer's meaning-making, passing it along to the reader to start a new line of inquiry. The firsthand experience or witness begins that life cycle, but it inevitably evolves through the process of composition.

You asked about what underlies the arc of an essay. For me, the search for meaning is simultaneously a search for form. The longer I write, the more clear it becomes that my early ideas emerge in a particularly herky-jerky fashion . My finished first drafts have very jagged jumps in logic, whether fiction or nonfiction. I like the essay because it almost requires me to find a structure or form that suits the idea while also honoring the way said idea emerged in my funky little brain. If I can be honest and real and accurate about the jagged-ness of my actual composition, that will probably help the essay hang together better, paragraph by blocky paragraph, sentence by egregiously elongated sentence. Essay writing helps me convey ideas, and the process of finding a form helps me understand my brain and its quirks. More to the point of your earlier question, though, finding a form that honors the way my brain creates and expresses ideas is a small way of countering stereotype about how neurodivergent folks can think. It's a show rather than tell sort of confrontation, a means of confrontation that has moved from the surface text to the marrow of the piece, to its form, and become so implicit that readers who aren't looking for it might miss it altogether.

Question #5
WG: As you have both mentioned, form can be as important as content in communicating the experience of disability. Tim, you say "my early ideas emerge in a particularly herky-jerky fashion." How do you use form in what you write to convey that experience to readers, as opposed to merely telling them about it?

TD: The short answer to that question is that until recently I didn't really do either. Instead, I strove to fit what had come out in early drafts into a conventional shell: chronological plot, an epiphany-driven piece, or some other kind of frame like a retrospective narrator in the present reconstructing the past in a logical, somewhat overt way. Not honoring the herky-jerkiness, imposing order where there maybe should have been less of it, is probably one of the bad decisions that led to me shelving the novel I'd been working on for seven years, and turning to essays a little over a year ago.

Since turning to the essay form, I've noticed two patterns in my attempts to recognize and represent this tendency of my mind. One observation is that in pieces that don't directly relate to disability, it's easier to let the jaggedness stay as it is, to present the final piece as something much closer to what it was in original composition. I wrote one piece, ostensibly about children's books but actually about gender and unintended imitation. There is a way to read the essay carelessly and think, "Oh, cool book recs" and not deal with any of the more implicit points about gender, socialization, and masculinity. But the jaggedness, left as is, could make a thoughtful reader go back and see that implicit point in the structure, the logic.

My other observation is that when I do write about disability and the piece develops best with broad, varied evidence, the jaggedness stays and I am comfortable challenging the reader to deal with it and make sense of it. There's this anthology coming out soon, Pariahs Anthology, which I am so very excited about. I contributed a piece about the institution of the creative writing workshop and the ways that neurodivergent writers can be better incorporated into it, not just for their benefit but for the benefit of the whole workshop, the critical structure of which ("What worked, what didn't?") can get a bit staid. This piece bounces around a lot, incorporating autobiographical information, pedagogical arguments, and lines of argument from writers of color about their own exclusion from full participation in this institution. There are some long sentences in that essay, and some blocky paragraphs, but I think the length and intensity shows the speed and force with which my mind produces these ideas, because I am so tired of not expressing them, of looking for and not finding the words.

Question #6
WG: You have both mentioned your work in writing fiction. You probably both know David Mitchell and Sharon Snyder's concept of narrative prosthesis, but for the sake of readers I want to briefly describe it because it is an important concept in disability studies. Mitchell and Snyder assert that because of its middle class origins, the traditional narrative arch of fiction is constructed to return a situation to a normal status. What this means for protagonists with disabilities is that somehow they are either "fixed" or eliminated in order for the story to resolve. This fix can come in the form of cure, overcoming or epiphany but all of these moves essentially deny a life with disability as valuable in itself. What do you do in your fiction to keep the forms from forcing you into this narrative trap?

TD: I am not familiar with that particular term, but I do recognize the gravity that 'enforced normalcy' (to borrow Lennard Davis' phrase) exerts on my characters with disabilities. Reading a little of Mitchell & Snyder's book, which looks excellent, I am struck by two ideas. One is their notion that disability is a "mutable and ambivalent category of cultural and literary investment." This is a useful reframing of more traditional characterizations of disability in literature. In the canon, disability has often been fixed–not just 'fixed' as in cured by the saintly able-bodied people who get the bulk of the story's energy, but 'fixed' in its social value within the fictional text's world and 'fixed' in its interpretive value outside that text. I don't think it's possible for me to characterize someone with a disability without considering the "mutable and ambivalent" social matrix within and around any disability. To a degree, such a matrix probably orbits all characters, disabled or not, central or secondary. But characterization is a big way I think my work does avoid the trap of narrative prosthesis, even without an articulated theoretical framework. The other way I avoid the trap is thoughtfully constructing a plot.

My favorite definition of plot comes from a John Barth essay: "the incremental perturbation of an unstable homeostatic system and its catastrophic restoration to a complexified equilibrium." This is a mouthful, but its intersection with narrative prosthesis is a productive one. His "perturbation", especially the initial one, seems analogous to the notion of an "interruptive force" in the other line of Mitchell and Snyder I really liked: "Within literary narratives, disability serves as an interruptive force that confronts cultural truisms." In other words, most of the time, disability has presented an opportunity to explore a convenient theme. But that's not the only use of that interruption, of the perturbations of a story's system. My narratives are far from perfect but they do avoid the narrative prosthesis trap, I think, because their plots put disability front and center, disability does not represent the "interruptive force," not as I understand it anyway. Even disease, itself, which is an understandably common interruptive force in literary fiction, is rarely the primary interruption, but rather an underlying threat to the system with other primary features and concerns.

When my work includes cancer patients and survivors, as it often has, the main conflict in the story is rarely about the disease itself, the ups and downs of treatment, and so on. I was not not-sick early enough to really have anything but patient as a default frame anyway; people who were healthy and then became sick can better represent that experience than I can. My interest in writing fiction about illness is in presenting the enduring impact of having been seriously ill as a particularly young person. For example, in two of the earliest stories I published, "the interruptive force" is not related to epilepsy or cancer, but rather to a queer romance between a survivor and non-survivor during a time when the survivor is shifting from a definition as a pediatric patient to an adult patient. That the conflict is coming-of-age or a "What's Up With Us?" talk between young, new boyfriends divorces that conflict from disease even as the characters are immersed in it. Even when I think about other, shorter and more experimental pieces, the narrating voice examines other characters closely. I think, in hindsight, that penchant for examination is connected to these characters' lifetime of physical examination and difference and threat. That gaze turned outward subjects the default, able body to examination, transfers the examining eye to the examined in a way that I hope is subversive.

EC: Curing the character with a disability is a symptom of cultural prejudice. I hear it and see it everywhere. I'm frustrated that it isn't being examined in enough courses on literature. One of the most disappointing examples from contemporary literature that comes to mind is in the Poisonwood Bible when a character with a childhood neurological disorder grows up and somehow outgrows her hemiparesis. Her character transforms from a needier person to an admirable, intelligent physician.

I have written fiction about characters with disabilities and had no luck getting those stories published. I suspect that writers without disabilities are granted more license to write fiction about disability because they are deemed "more objective" on the topic. Writers with disabilities are steered toward memoir. This is why it took me decades to finally write a memoir.

Question #7
WG: I hadn't heard the Barth definition before and it would be interesting to see how it would work out when applied to disability fiction. Tim, I was impressed with your description of the piece that you wrote for Pariahs Anthology. Obviously, there is lot to be said in favor of a piece of disability fiction that is simply a well written tale that avoids stereotypes, but one of the functions of disability lit is to be able to make contributions to form as well so I think the kind of considerations you mention are important. I want to turn back to Eileen's work in the Writer to Writer project and ask if other than Tim, you have been involved with other writers with disabilities and if you can mention something about those experiences or how you feel disabled writers might benefit from the program?

EC: I was not involved previously, but we were only the second group. I've let the W2W staff know that I'm willing to be a mentor again. And this is particularly applicable for writers with disabilities.

Tim and I were interviewed by W2W and our interview is on the AWP website. In that interview I pointed to the mechanisms that discriminate against writers with disabilities, which are a function of the publishing industry and some institutions. It would be great if writers with disabilities could come together and raise more awareness as a group. I don't know that institutions intend to discriminate but they do. For example, there are summer workshops that offer scholarships in return for work as waiters. What exactly are the options for those who are deemed incapable of waiting tables? Are these institutions compensating by seeking out writers with disabilities. Do they find ways of integrating them into their scholarship programs so they can interact and bond with those who are performing physical tasks? That's important because those bonds create alliances for writers to share resources. Is universal design being implemented? Are stories by and/or about people with disabilities valued?

Question #8
WG: Can you elaborate on the idea of "mechanism that discriminate against writers with disabilities." This seems to be a theme that we frequently hear from writers submitting to Wordgathering.

EC: I'm focused more on the attitudinal barriers than the physical ones. Our country has taken a while to embrace the notion of universal design. But as we are changing our environments to accommodate all people, we are slow to change our attitudes.

Writers see themselves as progressive and open-minded people, but most writers grew up with those barriers. They couldn't see them because physical barriers don't usually exist for them so they believe that only a few people out there on the fringes have problems with access. They don't realize that it is a not a given that everyone got to play on the softball team, for example. We are taught that the goal in writing is to explore those themes that are universal. Many writers assume that people who exist on the fringes don't have stories with universal value. But we don't have to exist on the fringes. If we want to become part of a universal voice, we have to raise awareness about this problem of perception. We can do this in writing by constantly bringing our stories back to the experiences that we all share.

On a more active level, we could help ourselves if we embrace each other's work and find ways to jointly confront those barriers. We can jointly praise the institutions that embrace universal design and which embrace writers with disabilities. We can jointly expose those institutions who don't honor universal design. It would be tragic if we just gave up. Not only would we be robbing ourselves of our own value, but the writing community and our country would lose out on our valuable perspective. As writers with disabilities we have skills and abilities that others lack. We need to expose the narrow-mindedness of institutions which only promote young, able-bodied writers. We need to point out that "diversity" includes writers with disabilities, not only ethnic, gender, and other minorities.

TD: I'm so glad you brought up John Lee Clark. One piece in his excellent essay collection, Where I Stand, describes the inaccessibility to the blind of almost every literary journal and poses what he calls "a question that's harder than it should be": Should Clark-the-poet send his work to magazines that Clark-the-reader cannot physically read? It's a Catch-22. Any writer should be familiar with the magazines to which they contribute work, but if the magazine is inaccessible, the poet either can't ethically submit or must submitting without any information. Either way, that's a blanket disadvantage.

(John Lee being brilliant, he accommodates by reading a steady diet what he thinks is favorite period, 18th century British poetry, because that's what's on Project Gutenberg, whose text files can be easily read by his preferred accessibility device. He told Divedapper, "I sometimes wonder if I'm not a better reader precisely because I cannot always choose," and I marvel at his ability to be so sanguine. I'd just rage.)

Most of my thinking about mechanisms of discrimination have to do with the attitudinal issues that Eileen describes. Attitudes have real-life impacts–jobs for instance. Sarah Katz, an excellent essayist who is also Deaf, remarked the other day on how underemployment for people with disabilities is barely mentioned in a Presidential campaign where much of the substantive talk (when it has happened) has focused on economic inequality. And I thought of a job interview I'd had in a university-based creative writing setting. I was asked a pointed question about my "problems with organization" by the same person who had helped me accommodate those same problems a few years earlier. Suddenly there was no interest in accommodating the tasks. It wasn't necessarily that this person refused to work with anyone with a disability, but they were certainly willing to let the expression of my disability conflate with a negative trait of any employee so that they could pick a different person. I have never requested accommodation in a teaching setting since. That hasn't always served me, but since I have only ever adjuncted, it's never come back to haunt me in the same way.

The other mechanism aside from employment issues is creative writing workshops are often governed by curricular choices that are pretty neurotypical. (Or, more pointedly, typical to the neurobiology of the professor, which your average neurotypical student can adapt without having to ask the professor to change his or her approach.) In at least one instance, I witnessed one professor suggest to another that a student on the autism spectrum be "advised away" from creative writing courses. That's obvious discrimination, and inexcusable, but it still happens a lot. When it does, I think we all need to take a page out of the book of Karrie Higgins and use every tool available to dismantle the attitudinal and institutional mechanisms that any of us face, to do it like she does, with force and beauty.

There's one other mechanism after employment and education that I want to touch on, and that's community space. Recently, the conversations Eileen and I have had got me thinking a lot about the physical part of literary community. The waiter example she mentions is so apt. Here in New York, where I live, readings often happen in poorly lit, loud bars which are often up or down long flights of narrow stairs. None of that is disability-friendly. Attendance at AWP and other conferences is made more difficult by a range of physical and logistical mechanisms that I have seen described best by Stephen Kuusisto in a blog called "The AWP and Disability Inclusion". AWP recently took a positive step forward by declining to promote off-site events that did not meet accessibility requirement. Now literary entities organizing those events need to follow suit, and AWP probably needs to consider the availability of off-site accessibility early in its planning of future conferences

The organization accepted a Disability Caucus (it's listed as happening at Friday at 6pm) and individual writers with disabilities will be represented through the Dis Lit Consortium booth (#1031, according to the AWP website). That's great, but it is still really painful to see zero literature-focused disability panels after a year when there were at least two really excellent ones. I am myself normally mobile and that has its privileges, among them that it's easier for me to get across the country and crash on my cousin's couch and not worry about anything but traffic in terms of how I'll get across LA. Other writers with disabilities are not as privileged, but they all have a civil right to reasonable accommodation and space needs to be allowed for that. I am optimistic that if we are physically present and vocally persistent, places like the creative writing academy can be re-engineered, Macgyvered from something that can at times misunderstand and oppress into something that works for us, something to which we contribute ideas and voices that get acknowledged as valuable.

Question #9
WG: Tim, I'm glad that you mentioned the Disability Caucus at this years AWP conference because one of the panelists on that caucus is from Wordgathering, and we would love to know what specific issues you and Eileen would like to see brought in that caucus? (I also note in the spirit of self-promotion that also at AWP this year Wordgathering has joined with several other small disability lit magazines – Kaleidoscope, Breath and Shadow , and Pentimento – to host a Dis Lit Consortium booth among the book vendors where we will be featuring books only by writers with disabilities so that writers with disabilities have a venue for their work and readers looking for work in that genre can come to one place to find a big selection.)

TKD: Personally, I would love to collaborate with others on small, achievable projects that would depersonalize the process of accommodation and facilitate the process of inclusion. This could take many forms, but here are two projects I've been toying with. Both have the same goal, to start a conversation in our community and then continue it outside.

One project I'd like to discuss at the Caucus is the possibility of creating one or more working groups focused on producing simple, useful materials for allies and advocates. The final product would be something akin to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf's Standard Practice Papers–a starting point for a conversation that students and faculty, or whomever, would have to get more detailed about. Each paper could relate to specific ways to accommodate specific disabilities in creative writing classrooms, and all of the papers would be produced by the people who have said disabilities. A similar group could and should focus on increasing access in other realms of the literary world, such as small web-based magazines, local venues that regularly host readings, and national venues that organize big-ticket events.

The other project I'd like to undertake with others is the creation (or expansion, if one exists) of a disability-specific annotated reading list. This would be primarily focused on contemporary writers who represent disability meaningfully. One site that does a lot of what I am describing, though for a younger audience, is, (which I came to after reading a fabulous essay by Kayla Whaley's "Nobody Catcalls the Woman in the Wheelchair"). Ideally, the list would include supplemental materials (interviews, reviews, links to work in any number of the journals concerned with disability you mention above) and maybe pedagogical resources– lesson plans, handouts, writing prompts, and the like.

The most meaningful conversations I have had recently about disability and writing started online or in social media. These projects would take a lot of work, patience, and cooperation, but they could be really successful as living documents, to the degree that they invite new readers and writers, disabled or not, into a continuing conversation.

EC: I was glad to find out there was a Disability Caucus, and I found it by searching on Facebook for Disability. It's important for us to come together as a group so that we can push as a group for Disability Awareness, Universal Design at Conferences and in workshops, and to ask every institution to include the words people or writers with disabilities in their affirmative action statements. We need to post our experiences in one place so that we can find out where the more open-minded publications exist, etc. My wish for the Disability Caucus at AWP is that it will confront the workshops and institutions that don't include disability in either their statements or in their programs. I don't know what is worse, to not even be included in the statement or to be in the statement but never seen on the ground. I'm particularly annoyed lately with women's institutions, programs, or publications that write extensively about equality while they completely ignore the topic of Disability.

I want to add that it is so important that Dis Lit is included at AWP. We need to gain recognition at AWP as a cultural minority. Dis Lit should be taught in MFA programs along with other marginalized groups. Disability forms its own culture.

Question # 10
WG: Tim and Eileen, I want to thank both of you not only for taking your time but for also for your suggestions and the thoughtful observations in your answers. Before we close, is there anything that either of you would like to add either about the Writer to Writer project or about your own writing?

EC: I strongly encourage people to apply to the Writer 2 Writer project. Whether or not you write about disability, we need writers with disabilities to be seen and heard by the greater community of writers. On a basic level, the program should help you expand your network, and it should help you to become a better writer or a better editor/teacher/mentor. On a deeper level, your presence in that network is going to make other writers and AWP more aware of the complexities of disability. In turn, the body of literature that addresses disability benefits.

As for my own writing, I'm always going to be drawn to characters whose voices are often muted or even excluded. Currently I'm writing a novel, and even though the characters are not real, I'm using my real life experiences of being marginalized to inform the experiences of my characters. In my memoir I was trying to show the outside world what it was like to be born without legs. Now as a writer with a disability I'm trying to understand how my characters who don't have disabilities experience alienation.

TD: This interview has been interesting and actually a lot of fun for me, so thank you! Writer-to-Writer is a great program, but a formal program like this one is not the only way to have intra-community dialogue between writers at different stages in their careers. (An interview is another way, as is social media, when it's accessible.) Intra-community dialogue is at the core of good mentorship, and such dialogue can drive more than our creative work. It can also help us refine the language we bring to advocacy, focus the lens we bring to what we read, and reveal and repair the blind spots we all have when we sit down to write.