Stylish Negotiations: How a Blind Writer Finds the Right Journals

My essay “Stylish Negotiations” was shared on BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog today! This piece analyzes the stories in an unlikely place — a journal’s submission guidelines — and suggests that many journals aggressively mold and filter the stories of disability they claim to promote. It offers a solution to such frustrating re-shaping: honest dialogue between writers and editors about the subjects that matter to us.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Emily K. Micheal TEDx promo photo 9.2016By Emily K. Michael

Submission guidelines rarely make me angry. Because I seek publications that share my interests – ecology, feminism, disability, music – all the specifications can start to look the same. Most journals want a well-rounded submission, free from religious agendas, offensive stereotypes, and one-dimensional fables of inspiration.

When I find a publication that seems promising, I scroll through the journal’s “About” page and submission guidelines. Here’s where I can make some serious assessments. Journals lose my interest if they proclaim, “send us your best work” or “we only publish good poetry.” I won’t let my students use “good” and “bad” as standalone terms, so I hesitate to send my work to a journal that won’t express its own agenda in more vibrant language.

Among publications that promote the work of disabled writers, the guidelines evince a similar aesthetic. Here are excerpts from three journals committed to sharing the…

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#InternationalGuideDogDay

April 26 is International Guide Dog Day, a chance to celebrate the countless beautiful handler-guide dog teams around the world. It is a day to honor not only the hard work we do with our companions but the circle of loving support that makes this work possible. From the families that encourage us to go in for training to the trainers, volunteers, and administrators who get our pups ready to work with us, we are surrounded by a web of kindness and commitment.

No handler can reach for her guide dog’s harness without realizing the power of collaboration. None of us could do this alone.

So, to celebrate guide dogs, I’m sharing a few of my favorite posts about York. Some of these have only lived on the blog while others have gone far afield into literary journals. Each piece immortalizes the intense gratitude and love I have for my brown-eyed boy, and for everyone who helped bring him into my life.

  • Working For Love (Guide Dog Training Part 1)” was the first essay I ever wrote about York, in June of 2014. Little did I know how often York would inspire me to literary action.
  • Quartet Beyond Measure” details how my barbershop quartet came together and adapted to our furry fifth member.
  • Of Dogs and Dragons” examines the beautiful and rewarding inter-species partnership in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series — and makes the case that her fantasy world of talking dragons and epic battles reflects our powerful real-world collaboration with service animals.
  • Working Resonance: Concerto for Guide Dog, Handler, and World“: I wrote this piece last April and it was published in The Hopper, an eco-literary journal from Green Writers Press in Vermont. To this day, “Working Resonance” is one of my favorite essays, a piece I am incredibly proud of. I reread it often because I believe it has a larger message than I even understood at the time. It expresses so much of what I want to achieve in the world.
  • How My Life Changed With a Guide Dog” started out as an open letter to the generous donors of Southeastern Guide Dogs, and it was picked up by a Jacksonville newspaper — further evidence that sincere gratitude cannot be contained.

I hope you enjoy these pieces and take a moment to thank your furry companions, even if they are not working dogs. If you want more wordsmithing about my adventures with York, just click the “guide dog” entry in the tag cloud on the right.

Happy International Guide Dog Day to all!

Sacred Space Interview: Meditating on the Great Universe

After a long hiatus, I’m excited to rekindle my Sacred Space series with the thoughtful words of my friend and literary colleague, Sohrab Homi Fracis. Sohrab is a fiction writer currently living in Jacksonville, FL. He is the author of Ticket to Minto: Stories of India and America and the timely new novel Go Home. He has visited my classes several times to read for my students and lead fantastic discussions on the power of culture and literature. In this interview, he discusses his inherited faith and his current spiritual beliefs.

Do you believe in a God, gods, or other spiritual forces? If so, what name(s) does your spiritual force have? Where does the name come from?

I was born into a Zoroastrian family in India and taught prayers in the ancient-Persian language Avestan to Ahura Mazda, the spirit of light / creator / God. But as an adult, while I respect my ancestry, I’m not religious, in a traditional sense. I don’t practice “blind faith.” I can only “believe in” what is established fact. In the words of the narrator of my story “All right, now, Cupid,” forthcoming in an anthology from Burrow Press: “I’m agnostic myself, happy to believe in the incredible yet credible universe.” That requires no “faith”: the universe (from the Latin universus: combined into one, whole) that spawned all of life quite evidently exists, in all its vast magnificence. There is much we factually know about it and much we don’t, with the former slowly but steadily making gains on the latter. Why invent something beyond that?

Sum up your faith in three words. Why did you choose these words?

The Zoroastrian prayers in Avestan do a good job of this: “Manashni, Gavashni, Kunashni.” That means “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds.” That pretty much covers it, right? It’s also pretty much impossible to pull off all the time. Other than that, I’m good with it, pun intended.

My three words, on the other hand, would be “Nobody really knows.” And the more people who realize and/or acknowledge this around the world, instead of insisting on their particular religion’s fiction (I’m a fiction writer, so I recognize it when I see it), the less divided and more peaceful that world will be.

How do you practice your faith? What kinds of prayer, texts, service, or other rituals do you use?

Well, once I came to the somewhat obvious conclusion that there was no traditional God, I stopped praying for many years. And they were tough years in which I felt the absence all the more, because prayer and faith can be a comfort, of course. But I saw it as false comfort, and didn’t want that. So I toughed it out. When I finally realized that the entirely credible universe was “God” enough for me, I felt I could reconnect with it, in a sense pray to it again. This was my logic in a literary-studies manuscript called The Game Against Death that I’ve worked on, off and on, over the years: “One does not need blind faith to believe in the great universe—no wonder more and more people invoke it directly in their prayers. It is an evident, verifiable, omnipresent, magnificent, awe-inspiring ‘God,’ a constant and powerful presence in and influence on all our lives. It is even, in at least one sense (and possibly also at its primal core), conscious: its living creatures, to which it gave birth, are a conscious part of it. One should not instead insist on a hypothetical consciously creative and interventionist being to blindly believe in.” And/or pray to, I might add.

Describe a moment when you felt that your god was real, that your faith was making a difference in your life.

Once I began to feel reconnected with the universe at large, there was a huge feeling of relief that came with that, and a lasting one of being more at peace with life/existence.

Have you had any spiritual mentors or teachers? If so, describe their role in your life. How did they help you find your faith?

I found cumulative epiphanies over the years, often when reading insightful books such as The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins, and Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse. And those epiphanies consolidated themselves in my mind during more years spent reading and researching for The Game Against Death.

Where and when do you feel most in tune with your faith or spirituality?

Probably when finding some slight success meditating, which is when I can get beyond/behind my chattering mind and separated-out human consciousness/persona to catch serene glimmers of reassimilation into the larger universe.

What is one misconception that others have expressed about your faith? How would you correct it?

Well, if we’re talking about Zoroastrianism, then it’s the Western world’s label of it being a “dualistic” faith instead of (along with Judaism) one of the earliest monotheistic faiths in history, introducing to civilization the concepts of a supreme creator/God (Ahura Mazda, the spirit of light) who prevails over an evil antagonist/devil (Ahriman, the spirit of darkness), of a judgment day, and of Paradise, thus strongly influencing other monotheistic faiths and scriptures that came later, including Christianity.

If, however, we’re talking about my personal agnostic philosophy, it’s sometimes misconstrued to mean that I believe in at least the possibility of the traditional religious God. But, as you can see from my earlier answers, I have no belief in such a figure other than as an invention of humans. By “agnostic” I only mean that, as I said earlier, nobody fully knows what forces or powers or phenomena underlie/underpin our known universe. I certainly trust science more than I do religion, but even the best of science crosses over from verified fact to theoretical conjecture at some point along both the macro and micro scales of existence.

Assign some “spiritual homework” for our readers. What is one practice, prayer, or lesson you’d like to share?

Extended mass meditations conducted by the Transcendental Meditation folk in troubled areas have resulted in lowered violence/crime rates recorded officially over the period. That supports their belief that the more people there are around the world who practice meditation the more in tune and at peace the global population will be. So my assignment is twofold. Find 10-20 minutes a day, for a start, to seat yourself comfortably, close your eyes, still your mind to whatever extent you can, and find some inner quiet. Enjoy the release from stress and the peaceful feeling. Secondly, encourage others to try it for themselves.

Temple Grandin Live at FSCJ!

Last night, I attended the final event of FSCJ’s 2016-2017 Author Series:  a live presentation by Dr. Temple Grandin! If you’re not familiar with Dr Grandin, she is an autistic animal scientist, famous for her humane redesign of U.S. slaughter plants. She has written several books on animal behavior, such as Animals Make Us Human and Animals in Translation. She has also written several books on living with autism—her latest being The Autistic Brain. My FSCJ students have been reading her book Thinking in Pictures, and it has inspired the best discussions of the semester!

Dr. Grandin’s presentation was an utter delight. She lectured on autism and learning differences and answered audience questions with patience and forthrightness. Her honesty had the audience laughing, nodding, and applauding the whole time.

Grandin began her presentation by profiling famous innovators such as Thomas Edison and Jane Goodall—and her refrain was, “What would happen to this person in our current educational system today?” Whether it was a designer of rockets, an inventor of light bulbs, or a famous film director, Grandin emphasized the commonalities among these extraordinary minds: early exposure to career interests, questionable performance in formal academic environments, and an indirect, “through the back door” entry into their field. The most compelling fact for me was that Dr. Goodall was originally hired to be another researcher’s secretary. A secretary! It’s thrilling to think of how she overturned this archetype of female exclusion!

Another of Dr. Grandin’s emphatic repetitions was the phrase “work skills”: she passionately insisted that autistic people need to be doing meaningful work where they can learn to collaborate, be on time, and complete routine tasks. To almost every parent who approached her with a question, she asked, “What does your child do? What do you do?” To help individuals on the spectrum, Grandin holds everyone accountable.

Despite her work as an autism advocate, Grandin declared her desire to “break out of the autism box.” She told us that her  priority, the identity she considers first, is her work with animals. This is a powerful statement for all disability activists who are often encouraged to work only with their population. People see a successful blind person and they say, “You should teach at the blind school.” They see a woman like Dr. Grandin, and they seem surprised that she doesn’t devote 100% of her time to autism lectures. But in putting her career first, Dr. Grandin is emphasizing the very privilege that some nondisabled people take for granted: the freedom to build your life around the passions and causes that you value most. Dr. Grandin’s outspoken career ambitions remind us what we’re all advocating for: increased self-determination for all members of society, regardless of their medical labels.

Dr. Grandin argued that medical labels can only stretch so far in helping us understand and accommodate individuals on the autism spectrum. She encouraged us to abandon the inflexible (and often confusing) medical jargon of diagnosis, to pick up the precise language of engineering in its place. She emphasized the need to “troubleshoot” each individual case, to look for “site specific” problems, and to avoid over-generalizations and abstraction. She described her own thinking as “bottom up,” and her comments and questions showcased a precise determination to sort out every issue.

Dr. Grandin’s presentation highlighted the importance of creativity and collaboration with all kinds of minds. She emphasized the importance of specifics, of treating each individual as an individual. For some in the disability community, the diagnosis is the necessary step to services and inclusion, but for others, it’s an unhelpful label that people get hung up on. If the label doesn’t serve you, she said, stop using it.

Grandin left the audience with a few guiding principles, applicable to people on and off the spectrum: less screen time, more hands-on activities, and greater exposure to different things. She reminded us that the most successful innovators have been exposed to art, theater, or hands-on work.  She reiterated how she made friends: through shared interests. For anyone who has been bullied or ostracized, she emphasized the importance of what Seth Godin would call “finding your tribe”—the people who are willing to work just as hard for the things you love.

An Open Letter to the Donors of Southeastern Guide Dogs

I am excited to begin the new year in a spirit of gratitude. Your gift to Southeastern Guide Dogs blesses all future guides and graduates—but it also touches every member of the Southeastern community.

I graduated with my first guide dog from Southeastern Guide Dogs in July 2014. I had been matched with York, an 18-month-old black Lab whose large brown eyes shone with intelligence and determination. After a month of training in Palmetto, FL, I was ready to take my pup home, but I had only a faint understanding of how he would change my life.

The training process was not easy. Before York, I had used a white cane for safe and independent travel: independent being the key word. I knew how to trust myself, but I had to learn to trust York. On our third day of training, we paused at the edge of a curb, ready to step down. With my cane, I could have judged the depth easily—using the cane to touch the step and the sidewalk below. But with York, I wouldn’t feel the change in elevation until we stepped off the curb. I knew it was only one step, but I stood there for several minutes, afraid to trust another creature with my safety. I thought I could do it better. I thought we would stumble. I thought I would step down wrong and twist an ankle.

My trainer stood quietly beside me. She repeated, “Whenever you’re ready, tell him to go forward.”

When I finally gave York the command to step down, we moved so fluidly that my moments of worry dissolved in an instant. I was already several feet along the path before I could process what had held me back. Once I decided to trust, the obstacles disappeared. Steps up and down, crowded sidewalks, random signposts—these are now just arbitrary pieces of a world that York and I travel smoothly and confidently together.

York and I are an inseparable team in the most mundane and extraordinary places. From our favorite coffeeshops to the university campus where I teach, from the symphony and art museum to the regional stage at an a cappella singing competition, York is my constant companion. This year, we made our debut on the TEDx stage, giving a talk on disability and collaboration—and as far as I can tell, he is the first guide dog to grace this famous venue.

I knew that York would bring me a greater sense of independence and adventure, but I had no idea how his presence would transform my heart. It is not just that York helps me or that he has given me a way to express deep love and affection. York, like any partner worth having, challenges me to be the best version of myself.

When I would rather choose a quiet well-known path, York demands a crowded sidewalk full of obstacles. When I would rather stay on the sidelines, York demands attention. People stop to ask about his training or tell me how beautiful he is. On one memorable occasion, a woman sprinted across a hotel restaurant to meet us: she turned out to be a former puppy raiser for Southeastern and she was thrilled to see a guide dog team in action!

Perhaps what is most exciting for me is the picture York and I present when we work together. York and I are often the first blind woman-guide dog duo to appear on the conference panel, at the competition stage, in the coffeeshop. Though it seems like service dogs are everywhere, disabled people are still woefully underrepresented in professional and social settings. York and I get to show people that inclusion isn’t “special” or “exceptional”: we get to set a new norm, raise the bar for disabled people everywhere. With the simple act of walking up to a counter and ordering coffee, we teach the world that blind people can be just as competent and worthy of respect as anyone else.

But with York, it never stops at respect. He works so hard with me because he loves me, and this is a love that completely overwhelms me. It is as powerful as a symphony, as beautiful as a night full of stars. It’s a love I can never hope to measure or comprehend. But it’s a love I will spend my whole life trying to return.

Every time I grab my purse or put on my shoes, York runs to his special rug and waits for his harness, tail wagging. Every time we step out of the car, his nose sniffs the air, exploring. He sees the harness, and he turns from a wiggly explorer into a serious, focused companion. The harness slips on, and his body language says, “I’m ready for this.”

If you’ve never wrapped your fingers around the square end of a guide dog’s harness, if you’ve never needed to place your trust in a furry four-legged genius, it can be difficult to fathom the impact a guide dog has on the life of a blind or visually impaired person. Our dogs help us find independence, confidence, and self-worth. By extending an incredible network of dedicated humans, they teach us that our lives have value.

Your gift does not just help us be more independent. It helps blind people reclaim their dignity and their self-determination. Your generosity reminds us that people believe in us and that we should believe in ourselves—that our greatest joys and successes derive from profound collaboration. None of us is meant to strive alone: we all need to hold onto someone. I am honored to be working with York—and with the community of trainers, sponsors, and puppy raisers that made this brilliant partnership possible.

Sincerely,

Emily K. Michael, with York

10-14-16-em-york

45 in 2016: What I read this year.

It’s been a busy year for me, but I’m proud to say I met my Goodreads goal: 45 books! Check ’em out! Some were duds, but most were wonderful. I’ve written brief reviews beneath the ones I really enjoyed.

  1. Provence, 1970:M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste by Luke Barr
  2. Must Love Dogs by Claire Cook
  3. A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage
    Fun, fascinating, and entertaining! If you love food and history, you’ll enjoy this book!
  4. Gratitude by Oliver Sacks
  5. Letters on Life by Rainer Maria Rilke (trans. Ulrich Baer)
    A meditative and delightful collection of Rilke’s prose thoughts on love, death, nature, art, and so many other wonderful topics.
  6. Yes Please by Amy Poehler
    Funny, thoughtful, and surprising—I loved listening to Amy Poehler read this audiobook. There is real substance here.
  7. Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson
    Though this book is a bit slow in places, it is fascinating and thorough! Wilson begins before pots and pans, travels through French renaissance kitchens, and explores molecular gastronomy.
  8. Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry by Stephen Dobyns
    Incredible! Thorough, down-to-earth, and detailed. I underlined something on every page and stopped mid-chapter to write my own poetry. I recommend this book for all poets! I especially loved his final chapter on linguistics.
  9. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?  (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
  10. Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds by Bernd Heinrich
    An outstanding narrative exploration of ravens! Compelling stories, philosophical observations, and exciting discoveries—all expertly written.
  11. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World by David Abram
    Completely absorbing! Abram traces the evolution of the alphabet, the debate between oral and writing cultures, and the effects of the alphabet on our relationship to the wild world. Absolutely extraordinary.
  12. e.e. cummings: A life by Susan Cheever
    A perceptive and captivating literary biography interspersed with the poet’s work.
  13. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
  14. Heartburn by Nora Ephron
    Listen to Meryl Streep read the audiobook. Totally worth it! It’s a cute, well written story.
  15. Welcome to Subirdia: Sharing Our Neighborhoods with Wrens, Robins, Woodpeckers, and Other Wildlife by John M. Marzluff
  16. Object Lessons: The Life of the Woman and the Poet In Our Time by Eavan Boland
    Boland explores the struggles of being a female poet in the very male tradition of Irish poetry. This is a fascinating contemplation of a writer’s motivation and origin—how she can build something value from a tradition that has excluded her.
  17. Essays in Love by Alain de Button
  18. Writing Wild: Forming a Creative Partnership With Nature by Tina Welling
  19. Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom by John O’Donohue
  20. When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
  21. A Writer’s Diary by Virginia Woolf
  22. Planet of the Blind by Stephen Kuusisto
  23. The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers by Betsy Lerner
  24. Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller by Georgina Kleege
    Kleege is a reflective, capable writer. This book is a fantastic meditation on Keller’s life and cultural legacy!
  25. Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write by Gayle Brandeis
  26. Doctors: The History of Scientific Medicine Revealed Through Biography by Sherwin Nuland
  27. On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks
    I’ve always enjoyed Sacks’s writing, and his autobiography was no exception. I appreciated hearing about his own struggles as a physician and writer, but I didn’t enjoy the overall structure of the book.
  28. The Practice of the Wild by Gary Snyder
  29. Eavesdropping: A Memoir of Blindness and Listening by Stephen Kuusisto
  30. Happiness Is an Inside Job: Practicing for a Joyful Life by Sylvia Boorstein
    Warm, inviting, and practical.
  31. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
  32. The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload by Daniel Levitin
  33. The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction by Neil Gaiman
    I have a soft spot for poets writing prose and sci-fi/fantasy writers writing nonfiction, and this collection does not disappoint! Gaiman covers everything from journalism and film festivals to his favorite influences in science fiction and fantasy.
  34. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Love, Live, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown
    Encouraging, systematic, and fortifying! I loved reading this book—it’s way too good to be called “self help.”
  35. Acquired Tastes by Peter Mayle
  36. Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?: . . . and Other Questions from the Astronomers’ In-box at the Vatican Observatory by Guy Consolmagno and Paul Mueller
  37. The Geek Feminist Revolution: Essays by Kameron Hurley
    Ardent, biting, and analytical! Hurley’s collection of essays is full of passion and personality!
  38. The Glamour of Grammar: A Guide to the Magic and Mystery of English by Roy Peter Clark
    A lovely light read on English grammar and writing. I learned a lot and would love to assign this book to a class!
  39. The Three Marriages: Reimaginating Work, Self, and Relationship by David Whyte
    A rich and rewarding combination of personal history and literary biography.
  40. The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman
  41. Beauty: The Invisible Embrace by John O’Donohue
    This is a lovely collection of meditations on sensory experience. Though I enjoyed Anam Cara, I found Beauty much more engaging.
  42. TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking by Chris Anderson
    An engaging introduction to presentation literacy. Anderson covers many of the how-to’s of setting up and delivering a TED Talk—as well as profiling several of the best TED speakers and talks.
  43. League of Dragons (Temeraire #9) by Naomi Novik
    A not-terribly-thrilling end to the fabulous Temeraire series. Solid but unremarkable.
  44. How to Be a Tudor: A Dawn to Dusk Guide to Tudor Life by Ruth Goodman
    Utterly fantastic! Goodman covers Tudor fashion, food, living arrangements, and so much more! The book is well researched and well written! I enjoyed the meticulous details!
  45. More Home Cooking: A Writer Returns to the Kitchen by Laurie Colwin
    Another book of fun and pithy kitchen essays. I love reading Colwin’s strong opinions on everything from picnic fare to gingerbread.

So what’s on the list for 2017? Probably more of the same. Books on poetry, food, language, birds.

Have a recommendation? A favorite book or a recent read? Share in the comments below!

Poet’s Mind

If you want to understand what it is to be a poet, spend time with people who consider themselves unpoetic—people who feel defeated or confused by poetry. You will keep bumping up against that thing that separates you. It feels like a low cement wall.

The essential separation borders a world where every question has one answer, where every effect has one cause. And that’s decidedly different from the world you believe in, the world you want to live in, the world you know is true. In the poet’s world, everything has multiple answers— not because everything is relative, but because discovery and learning help you see what you thought you understood in a novel light. A new way. You understand that the truth you took for granted is now being filtered differently. It is still true, but it is more true. It is true in a way that envelops more of your experience.

You write because you want to dwell in possibilities, to step over a threshold of autobiography and facts and into a place of identity and soul-making. A place where souls can touch other souls outside of time. A place where an epiphany from 200 or 2000 years ago may still have something to teach you. A place where “right” is not the same as “finite.”

You realize that as a poet working and writing in the world, you have the chance to be extended, lifted up and out, expanded. You realize that when you step into that bigger “I”—not your “I” that agonizes over what to wear to work or whether to stop for coffee—when you take the hand of the big “I,” give your talents over to it, you’re taking the hand of your God. That your work might speak to thousands beyond yourself, that it might reach farther than your physical hands could actually reach. And what other name could there be for such expansion than the name of God? Of a force that brings meaning to a mass of atoms and stardust?

So you wonder how others can be closed off to this feeling, this invitation to an expansive self, this response to an initial Creator and creative spark. You ask, did I invite God or did God invite me? You wonder whether, in a search for the finite rightness of things, others are shutting out the sacred.

Because the sacred is unruly. It’s not facts and lists and statistics. It’s a network of finely spun vitality, and once you accept it, you’re in. You’re there. You can’t abandon the sacred. Recognizing the sacred invites you to reconsider all life. You accept the sacred, you accept responsibility.

A poet accepts responsibility.

Watch my presentation: “Creative Activism: The Poetry of Disability and Disclosure”

In November, I participated in the Brown Bag Series hosted by UNF’s Sigma Tau Delta (English Honor Society). I had the opportunity to read my work and discuss the challenges and joys of writing as a blind poet. Here’s what it’s about:

As a blind poet, Emily K. Michael understands the politics of disclosure. Publishing in disability journals and mainstream literary magazines, she hopes her work will introduce a new story of blindness into genres where disability is seen as irrevocable tragedy or simplistic blessing-in-disguise. But this activism requires a sense of balance, a poem that doesn’t preach. Michael discusses the decisions that shape her process—from creating a poem to seeing it published. She outlines the pressures facing disabled writers and develops her poetics of protest.

Check it out!

Watch my TEDx Talk, “The confluence of disability and imagination”

About a month ago, I gave a talk as part of TEDxFSCJ: Engage. The process involved a lot of work—rehearsals, revisions, workshops—but it was an incredible experience. I was blessed with the TEDxFSCJ crew to guide me, including a test audience and awesome speech coach!

Here’s how the video is described on YouTube:

Today one hears a lot about disabilities and about how best to talk about persons with disabilities, but Emily Michael believes there is no one term, definition, or “right way” that makes every disabled person feel comfortable, included and worthy. Drawing on her experience living and working as a blind poet, Michael urges us to resist simple dichotomies, whereby disabilities are either downplayed as mere inconveniences or magnified into epic tragedies. Instead, we should learn to negotiate one another’s disabilities as we do any other fact about a person—through dialogue, openness and understanding.

Now for the big reveal…You can watch my TEDx Talk below! Enjoy!

Guest Post: On Writing a Film Review

Jacob Lusk is a Jacksonville, Florida native, a high school English teacher, and an amateur film critic, who writes about movies on his blog,  The Panned Review. You can follow him on Twitter. Check out his tips and suggestions for composing a film review.

Some Suggestions for Writing a Good Film Review

  1. Watch the film actively. Even if you’re writing about a movie you’ve seen before, watch it again and take notes. Taking notes while watching a movie may seem strange, but it helps. When it comes to note-taking, there are no bad notes. Write down any thoughts that come into your mind as you watch, write down dialogue that stands out, write down observations, no matter how slight: the color of someone’s scarf, the dim lighting in a room and the way that lighting exposes a character’s silhouette; the way a scene goes from sad to funny and back to sad again. These notes may or may not be useful later, but taking them ensures that you’re giving the film your full attention.
  2. Getting Started: Finding a Through-Line. With a review, you may find yourself scrambling to think of something to say other than, “I liked it,” or “I didn’t like it.” So ask yourself, “What about this film jumps out at me as the most interesting or noteworthy element?” Maybe the movie itself was junk, but a particular actor’s performance was so good you didn’t mind; maybe the film was a mess, but you admired that it tried so hard to break from conventions; maybe the writing felt incoherent, and that ruined the whole movie for you. Find the specific thing that speaks to you, and you’ll have a place to start.
  3. Getting Started: Just write something. If you’re struggling to “start” your review, try writing about any aspect of the movie, and remind yourself that you can always re-arrange paragraphs later. Maybe you don’t know how to begin your review, but you can likely write about specific elements of the film that would go in the middle of it. You can worry about the introduction later. And in the process of writing the middle, you may find all kinds of new insights you didn’t know you had.
  4. The review vs. the summary. If you’re putting on the critic hat, remember that plot summary shouldn’t be your primary goal. Yes, a few details about the movie are helpful for readers who haven’t seen the film–or even those of us who have, and might have forgotten them–but the bigger, more important, and more interesting job is making connections and judgments about the movie that are sharp and thoughtful and that give the reader a fresh perspective on the movie. As Pauline Kael says, the job of the critic is to help the reader see something about the work that s/he didn’t see before. And of course, you should try to persuade the reader why the movie is worth seeing (or skipping).
  5. Find fresh, vigorous, specific ways to describe the movie. Cliches like “roller-coaster ride” and “on the edge of my seat” have lost any power that they might have once had. They’re vague and dull anyway, so don’t use them. Instead, be specific. Try to get at the heart of what makes a movie work or not work. If a movie was genuinely suspenseful, talk about a specific scene that exhibits this quality; talk about your own response, and if you saw the film with others, you may even want to write about their reactions: did the audience jump in unison during a terrifying moment? Did everyone jeer at the screen when a character did something stupid (like walk up the stairs of the dark, spooky house, when she ought to know better)? Find a way to make the experience of watching the movie come alive to the reader who wasn’t there in the theater/living room with you.
  6. Don’t read other reviews of the movie you’re reviewing. The opinions of other critics will likely influence you whether you want them to or not, and you want your work to be original.
  7. Exception to #6. One way to write a strong review is to forcefully disagree with another critic. Perhaps you thought Owen Gleiberman’s review of The Martian was all wrong, and you’re here to set the record straight. That could make for a compelling through line.
  8. But what should I write about? How should my review look? There is no one right way to write a film review. There are so many elements in play: your own response will dictate the nature of your review; in addition to that are all the elements of a film: the acting, directing, writing, editing, cinematography, makeup and effects, music, costumes and sets; there’s also the structure of the film, the themes at work in the film, the conversations being had about the film by filmmakers, critics, industry people, and regular moviegoers. If the movie is part of a particular genre, you may want to evaluate it in the context of other horror movies or comedies; if it’s a sequel, you might want to compare it to its predecessor(s); if it’s a comic book movie, you’ll likely be thinking of it within the greater comic book universe. If it’s an adaptation of a book, and you’ve read the book, you may want to compare the two. (Although please avoid saying “the book is always better” because that is a cliche; give specific reasons instead.)
  9. Write to a general, educated movie-going public. No matter what, make sure what you’re saying makes sense and is specific. Using pompous language–especially lots of film jargon–often impedes these two goals. It’s one thing to describe a particular shot of a film, it’s another thing to overuse words and phrases like “tracking shot” or “foley mixing.” (Occasionally a phrase like that might be necessary, but usually it’s not.) Most readers won’t be familiar with these terms, and your goal should be to invite readers into your review rather than alienate them from it. Also, assume your reader is intelligent enough to come along with you for the ride.
  10. Analyze, don’t moralize. You may have been taught that analyzing literature and film is ultimately about identifying the moral of the story. But boiling texts down to a one-sentence bumper sticker statement like “Be careful what you wish for” or “Don’t take anything for granted” is a simplistic reduction. If a movie really is that simplistic, it’s often a sign that the movie has been overly compromised by studio heads wanting to appeal to a global audience. (This happens a lot.) It’s not a cause for celebration when a movie bravely reminds us to “see the glass as half full.” A movie should illuminate something about the human experience, and it certainly might criticize injustice or other social problems, and as a critical writer, you want to discern between trite moral lessons and complicated depictions of real life. Even fantasy films have something to say about reality (calling Doctor Strange). How does a movie speak to us about real life? Is its tone poetic? Angry? Curious? Terrified? Explore these avenues, and resist the urge to oversimplify.

Other Random Tips

  • Use active verbs in the present tense [fashions, jolts, arranges, redeems, scowls, frets, maneuvers, obliterates, renounces].
  • Avoid seems and appears. They tend to weaken our writing. [“Director Sam Mendes seems aware of our culture’s current need to psychoanalyze movie heroes to death.” → “Director Sam Mendes understands our current need to psychoanalyze heroes to death, and he subverts this impulse at every turn.”]
  • Avoid very and extremely and other intensifiers. Very scary? Terrifying. Very slow? Sluggish. Very serious? Morose. Somber. Extremely dark? Dark.
  • Avoid phrases such as “Chris Evans does a good job playing Captain America.” You’re not giving Chris Evans his job evaluation. Instead, describe specific characteristics that stand out about a performance or any other element of the movie.

My interview with the Eyes On Success podcast!

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed by Nancy and Peter Torpey from the Eyes On Success podcast. Eyes on Success interviews blind people from all over the world about their careers, passions, hobbies, and challenges. I had a blast doing my interview! I was excited to discuss teaching, writing, and publishing!

My interview was released in today’s episode. Listen here. You can also subscribe to Eyes on Success in iTunes.

Presentation Notes for SAMLA 88!

On Saturday, November 5, my colleague Michele Boyette and I will present the workshop “Insensible Paradise, Invisible Nightmare: Complicating Embodiment in the 21st Century Classroom” at the 88th SAMLA conference! We’re looking forward to an exciting 90 minutes of analyzing disabled character tropes, evaluating accessibility statements, and brainstorming effective communication strategies. Want to see what we’ll be doing? Check out our handout!

Click this link to download the PDF: samla88handout_michael

October Interview: Spark, Startle, Enlighten!

Dr. Sheri Wells-Jensen, age 53, is an  associate professor in the Department of English at Bowling Green State University (in Bowling Green, Ohio).  She teaches technical linguistics courses for people who wish to teach English to speakers of other languages.  She says it’s a marvelous job: “I sort of love it.”

She has a scattering of background hobbies such as bread baking, knitting, whittling, and reading good science fiction and nonfiction science books.  And she likes standing on beaches feeling simultaneously small and exalted.

But music is what takes up most of her free time and makes a good try at her non-free time as well.  She’s one of the Grande Royale Ükulelists of the Black Swamp, a strumming, picking, harmonizing, rock-and-rolling, song-writing, carrying-on quartet which is maybe the most fun she’s ever had; go to http://www.grubsmusic.com for all the happy details. Find her and her band on Facebook and iTunes!

How would you describe your vision or blindness? Is it congenital or has it developed recently?

I have been blind since birth.  I could perceive a little light and color as a small child, but lost all light perception more or less around age 12.  Although I have no external light perception whatsoever, what I perceive visually now — perhaps due to some ongoing random stimulation of my retina — is unpatterned brightness in a variety of colors which I can no longer accurately name but which I have learned to control to some extent.  This is sometimes very disorienting and sometimes moderately interesting.

Do you use a cane, guide dog, or other mobility aid to get around? Why have you chosen this aid?

I use a cane.  Always and only a cane.  Although I love dogs, I prefer to get into my own mischief.  I can also tolerate the foolish things sighted people say to cane travelers better than I could tolerate the foolish things they say to dog guide users.  The cane is so much a part of my identity that I sometimes find myself stopping when reading an action sequence in a book thinking: “Wait! If he’s running down the hall, and he’s got the alien artifact in one hand and his laser rifle in the other, how is he holding his cane?” Yeah … I know.

What is the most consistent challenge or frustration you experience with your blindness? How do you handle it?

To start, I’m going to sound like a very broken record here — or perhaps today we say a skipping CD — the most consistent frustrations I face related to blindness are the public’s bizarre, distorted ideas about blindness, and their perverse inability to notice, examine, and discard those ideas. They are fiercely ingrained, and anything that contradicts them is dismissed as an “exception to the rule” rather than evidence that the rule itself is faulty.

For example, I was appalled by the dependent blind character in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light we Cannot  See, but many of my sighted friends had no trouble with her passivity or her literal inability to put on her own shoes. What I read as destructive stereotypes went unnoticed by most of them.

If, to take another example, I talk to my students about prejudice against disabled people and negative stereotypes about blindness in particular, the majority regularly inform me happily that these no longer exist: “You have a good job,” they say, and that finishes the deal for them. I become silent. What am I supposed to say?

So, I suppose my problem is that the harmful stereotypes that keep 70 percent of blind folks unemployed … simply do not exist in the minds of sighted people. They are omnipresent and thus invisible.

How do I handle it? Increasingly, I write. I try to let the experiences which enrage or frighten or dismay me flow in and out through my fingers.  I feel like … I hope that … it helps. And, maybe, if I keep doing it, these little sparks born of frustration will fly out and startle, or enlighten, or bring hope … or set fires. Here, for example, is a YouTube video I recently made in response to the destructive yet perversely popular #HowEyeSeeIt campaign from the Foundation Fighting Blindness:

 

What resources have helped you to handle your blindness best, either in everyday matters or in moments of crisis?

There are, of course, my indispensable friends who hold space for me in the ordinary/extraordinary way that people can do for each other. (I hope that this is everybody’s answer to this question.) Beyond this, my very own front line defense against despair, rage, and exhaustion is dropping into wordless music. It’s planless: I don’t know if it’s the playing or the waiting to hear what will be played, but a space is cleared around me when I pick up an instrument to play and let go of whatever else I’m carrying. I can feel the day receding and the space opening, and afterward, I’m both more distant from, and more entirely a part of, whatever it was that set me off. It’s a connection that gives me courage and serenity, and inspires musings that are sometimes inexpressibly sacred and sometimes very satisfyingly profane. It is my power source.

What would you say is the most harmful or annoying belief that people have about blindness? How would you change this belief?

The belief about blindness that harms me most often is that blind people are viewed as basically useless in most situations. If there is a table to be moved, or something that needs retrieved from a high shelf, or even a long line to stand in, I am offered a chair while the work goes on around me … “Because it’s easier.” When I hear “because it’s easier”, I also hear exclusion from responsibility and isolation from the community.

And, horribly, part of me has gotten used to it. I’m so conditioned to things being inaccessible that I am not the first to jump when someone yells, “Who can get this?” If I’m standing at the side of a soccer field, and a ball rolls my way, I often stand unmoving, unwilling to risk diving for it, even though diving for it would be the fun thing to do. And I know why. I grew up in the same culture as everyone else, absorbing spoken and unspoken information about race, gender, and ability along with my language and my style of dress. These beliefs are everywhere, and I know that my own little acts of education or compassion or assertiveness are not going to sweep them all away. But I’m still hopeful; as Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “You can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” So, that’s what I do: I spend my days birdwatching and tending my tresses.

What is a book that you could read over and over again? Why do you feel this way about it?

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. What can I say about this book? The blurb pulled me in: “Puerto Rican Jesuit linguist in space”. For real. Who would not love that?But the bit that fixes the attention is not the well-wrought story or the lovely prose; it’s a story about people who leap guts-first into life, struggling together with humor, compassion, grace, and dignity to do the right thing, and (quasi-spoiler alert!) when they fail, reassembling with courage and humility.  Ms. Russell asks the big questions, and the answers — when there are answers — are complex and beautiful. Rereading this book restores my faith that people are good, smart, and will work toward justice and peace … once they understand what that is.

What is one dream you hope to accomplish in the next 10 years?

The next ten years? I’m still sort of figuring out Saturday.

I would like to become a more precise and effective voice in the ongoing struggle for equality for disabled people, and in case that sounds too pretentious, I would also very very much like to become a more expressive and powerful musician and make more and better music. I would like to continue to simplify my life so that I can concentrate my attention on the things I can do that might make a difference. That, and please let me go back to Hawaii again where I can practice being small and exalted for several uninterrupted days!

What topics do sighted (or blind) interviewers usually ask you about? What topics would you prefer to discuss?

If you had asked me about interview questions when I was 25, I would have said that journalists are incapable of detecting any kind of complex human existence beneath the dazzling light that reflects off a white cane. Everything I did had to be about blindness. Now, though, I seem to have emerged into new cultural territory. The media feeds on young disabled people who they can present as inspiring or old disabled people who are either heroic or poignant. In the middle, blindness, at least, is less interesting. I stopped being a prototype around 30, I think: middle-aged blind women aren’t as useful for inspiration porn, and my children are old enough now that nobody thinks to ask me how I raised them. So, in many ways, I am freer now than I have ever been before to be a linguist, musician, or anything else I want to be … and maybe because of this freedom, I am now actually ready and willing to talk about blindness. However, it is often clearly communicated to me that what I want to say about blindness is not nearly as welcome as the things they want to ask about blindness. But I’m not a young woman just starting to sort through these things any more; now, I’m a much older and stronger woman … with a power source, and an increasing desire to swat birds out of the sky.

 

A sneak peek at my TEDx Talk and a radio spot for Blindness Awareness!

I’ve got some exciting things to share!

First up are two short promo videos I did for TEDxFSCJ: each one offers a sneak peek at my upcoming talk, “The Confluence of Disability and Imagination.”

Here’s the first promo:

And the second one:

If you’re interested in coming to my performance of the talk, I’ve got the details for you.

When: Tuesday, October 18, at 2:30PM

Where: FSCJ Downtown Campus, A1068 (the auditorium off the lobby)

In a similar vein, I spoke with a local reporter today about guide dog etiquette. My spot aired on the radio this afternoon. You can read and listen here: Jacksonville Blind Woman Talks About Service Dog Etiquette.

I’ll Be at TEDxFSCJ in an Unconventional Way!

My Dear Readers:

I was accepted to speak at TEDxFSCJ here in Jacksonville on October 8. However, Hurricane Matthew came to town (I guess he heard about our impressive lineup of speakers), so our event had to be postponed!

TEDxFSCJ has been rescheduled for Saturday, November 5, but I will be speaking at SAMLA 88 that day. As I’ve yet to find a way to occupy two places at once, I’ll be performing my TEDx talk ahead of time so it can be shown at the main event.

I’ve been given the opportunity to perform and record my TEDx talk on Tuesday, October 18 at 2:30pm at FSCJ’s Downtown Campus. My talk is called “The Confluence of Disability and Imagination.”

If you can come, I’d appreciate it! This is an awfully big auditorium, and I won’t have the benefit of all the enthusiasts who arrive to hear my fellow speakers. I’d love to give this talk to a live audience.

Please spread the word and come if you can!