By A. T. Greenblatt | July 6, 2021
At first, I didn’t plan on writing stories with disabled characters. I didn’t even plan on writing science fiction and fantasy. When I tell people this now, it sometimes surprises them because these days my work often has one or both of these elements. But when I signed up for my first fiction class all those years ago, my only objective was to learn how to tell good stories. All the things that are distinctly me in my work, that is to say my artistic voice, I didn’t have yet. That grew with me.
Artistic voice is something that is in every art form. It’s that style or flare that makes your body of work distinctly yours – like how Van Gogh’s paintings and Aretha Franklin’s singing are instantly recognizable. It’s your signature, your curiosity, drive, and talent molded into a distinct expression.
But I didn’t consider any of this when I wrote my first stories. Instead I did what most budding artists do – consciously or not – I tried to imitate what I read and admired. So I wrote about the internal struggles of men in failing relationships, nervous women and vengeful murderers. Characters who were nothing like me, but similar to so many of the ones I’ve read and watched. At the time, the idea of having a diverse cast of characters was a daunting idea. And to make some of those characters disabled? Never even occurred to me.
The thing about my writing in those days was I knew that my stories weren’t good yet. I was often told in critique sessions that my imagination exceeded my skill, that my fictional worlds were hard to picture and my “what if” questions weren’t believable. I would read stories in professional, highly competitive magazines and see the vastness of the gap between the quality of those stories and mine.
I didn’t find this disheartening though. If there’s one thing that going to physical therapy for years has taught me it’s that progress is sometimes slow, but if you’re stubborn, you’ll get there eventually. So I kept taking local classes, going to monthly writing gatherings, and meeting other writers. I slowly began telling more and more science fiction and fantasy stories because it has always been my favorite genre and I liked the other writers I met who were writing it too. They saw what I was trying to do with my stories and they took my work seriously, even though my stories were still not particularly good. (I’m still friends with most of these writers today and they have amazing careers of their own too.) I began going to speculative fiction conventions and without realizing it, I joined an artistic community.
And finding your community is just as important as finding your artistic voice.
It was through this community that I was introduced to the discussion about race, gender, and class in stories and how we need more diverse stories. It was here that I started listening to the discourse about disability representation in fiction, movies, and video games. At the time, most of the discourse was critiques on what mainstream media got wrong about disability and the harm it was doing to the people with those disabilities.
Stories about disability from disabled writers are extremely important. They offer a way for audiences who may not know about a particular condition to learn what it’s like to live with it, such as Mishell Baker’s Borderline and its descriptions of borderline personality disorder. By meeting and connecting with fictional characters that are different from ourselves, we learn to be receptive of similar people in real life.
I believe this wholeheartedly. Except I didn’t want me or my work to be defined by my cerebral palsy. I still don’t. Up to this point, I resisted the idea that I needed to write about disability just because I myself was disabled. I am many, many things besides my diagnosis and I disliked how people automatically assumed that the character with a limp in one of my stories was a reflection of myself. I never was interested in explaining what it was like to have cerebral palsy to a faceless audience.
However, I couldn’t shake the sense that there was a void in the disability stories I was reading, but I couldn’t put my finger on what was missing until I was asked to write a personal essay for Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction.
By writing “The Stories We Find Ourselves In”, I realized what I was looking for was stories that sent disabled protagonists on adventures, stories that treated disability like just another facet of their character, where disability wasn’t their motivation or something to be overcome, explained, or changed.
It was only after finishing that essay that I realized that if I wanted to see the stories I asked for I needed to write them myself.
In recent years, there’s been more movies, video games, comic books, and novels that have disabled characters that are complex and autonomous. Sometimes they are depicted successfully, sometimes not. The upward trend though, is exciting to see. But there’s still so much farther we need to come to normalize disabled characters.
And I want to add my voice to help shift the tides of storytelling.
Sometimes it takes awhile to find the type of art you want to create and the message you want to send out into the world. Sometimes you don’t realize you’re missing something until it’s pointed out to you. Sometimes, you are a disabled writer who wants to promote a specific idea about disability representation.
And sometimes you’re not.
My artistic voice has grown, developed, and changed over the years and I hope it continues to do so many years to come. These days I’m mostly known for writing speculative fiction with disabled representation, but not all my stories feature protagonists with disabilities, just like my life is not centered around my own disability. Sometimes, I’m concerned that having a disabled character in a story where none of the characters are particularly likable or moral, will feed into harmful sterotypes, but people with disabilities can be complicated, and our representation should be too. Sometimes I just want to try a new style of writing that doesn’t rely on the fantastical. But every story I write is part of my growing body of work, they are contributing to the conversation within the science fiction and fantasy community about diversity and inclusion.
The thing about artistic voice is it can be anything you want it to be. It’s a summation of your artistic exploration, curiosity, community, and perseverance. There are a million and one different ways to be an artist and billions of different expressions of that art. In the end, finding your artistic voice comes down to creating the art that you want to see in the world which no one else has made yet.
A.T. Greenblatt is a Nebula Award winning writer and mechanical engineer. She lives in Philadelphia where she’s known to frequently subject her friends to various cooking and home brewing experiments. Her work has been nominated for a Hugo, Locus, and Sturgeon Award, has been in multiple Year’s Best anthologies, and has appeared in Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed, and Clarkesworld, as well as other fine publications. You can find her online at http://atgreenblatt.com and on Twitter at @AtGreenblatt