Entertainment & Culture

Disability and entertainment: is there any difference between a writer with a disability and one without?

Hayleigh has a Masters in Creative Media Practises and is currently undertaking a Doctorate of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and she’s going to use her expertise to open up the world of entertainment to Disability Horizon’s readers. This month, is there any difference between a writer with a disability and one without?


I never know how to start these introductions – which is odd for a writer. I’m supposed to be the word whisperer after all. I often have visions of other writers being locked away in a darkened garret, red wine in hand, typing away furiously until sparks are flying from the keys. Writer’s block daren’t knock on these people’s doors!

Of course these visions are based on egocentric hallucinations and every woman’s right to an identity crisis. Talking of which, I sometimes think of the labels that are often stamped upon disabled people in relation to their status or jobs. For example, am I a writer with a disability or a disabled writer? Does it even matter when it comes to my ability to write?

To fulfil my needs for answers I teamed up with fellow writer Sarah Tytler who I met five months ago in my first class at University. Sarah is in the middle of writing an absolutely amazing fantasy novel (under pain of death I can reveal no more!) so it seemed only natural to interview each other as our chosen genres coincide quite nicely.

Throughout our conversation we discuss our work methods and inspirations, how to annoy family and friends, and of course what to do when writer’s block turns up with a bunch of flowers.

Is there any difference between a writer with a disability and one without? I will let you decide for yourself.

ST: Do you go through cycles, as a writer (i.e. writing a lot, then researching a lot, then nothing, or some variation thereof), or does the research and writing and revision process happen concurrently?

HB: It depends on the deadline. For instance, if I have a chapter due for review I will probably write non-stop for a few weeks beforehand. Whether the stuff I am writing is good or bad is another story… It also depends on what I am writing. I can write a poem within a couple of hours but obviously a chapter of a novel or scenes from a script take significantly longer. I tend to research in bulk and then implement my findings into my writing. I have always had this thing about learning as much as I can on as many different topics as possible. Unfortunately, this can lead to a sort of frenzied overload of information – one area will lead onto another and somehow they end up connecting. Hopefully this will happen when it comes to writing the final thesis and as if by magic everything will intermingle to make sense. I think that’s called serendipity.

ST: Are you inspired more frequently by real-life events or fictional events, or both evenly?

HB: That’s a hard one. More often than not I write Gothic or Supernatural fiction so I can’t claim any real life events on that one. Of course I am still holding out for the whole sweeping vampire romance but so far there is nothing to report on that score. I think the most frequent questions writers get asked is “where do you get your ideas?” and “which character is you?” I am never able to answer either of these questions. If I could tap into whichever source is feeding my inspiration I would be bottling it and selling it to Hollywood. I suppose writing can be very cathartic and can help make sense of certain situations, even without being biographical. Sometimes things just have to come out of your head and writing it is the process of dealing with it. I don’t think the main character I am writing just now reflects me in any way. Then again, who knows? Right now in the story she has very questionable morals. I am choosing not to self-analyse on that one. I have stated before that I have more interest in finding out about bad girls and what made them turn out that way. Again, I’m not delving too much into that.

ST: When actively writing, do you prefer to read books within your current genre, outside your genre, or not at all?

HB: Right now I am gulping down every Gothic novel written by a woman that I can find, so if anyone has any suggestions feel free to pitch in! I will probably have to take a break at some point before I turn into some melodramatic heroine. Some people may say that has already happened but they have probably been poisoned and enslaved in an ancient castle by a religious fanatic, who is trying to send my good name to damnation.

ST: What role do other media, such as film, graphic novels, video games, and art, play in your writing process?

HB: I am definitely a visual person and so art and visual graphics can help to inspire me. Sometimes I might look up images to help build up a scene or to give me an idea of what my character might look like. When I am writing I see the story in my head, almost like a film and I write around the scene. My first degree at Uni was in Film and Television production so it kind of makes sense that after so many years of training, I would find this method of working the easiest. Right now I have a poster in my room where I write on my laptop. The person who is in it has provided some inspiration for the visual look of one of my characters. I’m just not telling anyone who it is…

I also listen to a hell of a lot of music. Sometimes listening to a certain piece can help me tap into a specific emotion that I have to invoke into my writing. At other times I just use it to wake up in the morning. Sometimes I get jealous that a musician can say everything they need within a three-minute song, and yet it can take me 1,000 words for a chapter to give a similar response. I am never quite sure if my writing can ever truly do justice to certain emotions. For example, how can happiness or despair ever be effectively described? I think music can do this in a way that I never can. Sometimes there are just things you need to feel.

ST: What do you do when you have no ideas, but you need to produce something?

HB: I whine – a lot! Whenever I get writer’s block or miss a day of writing I feel like a failure. I usually aim for 1,000 words a day and if I don’t meet it I go into this complete self-analysis mode where I question what the hell I’m doing and why can’t I string a sentence together when two days ago I could. Before starting Uni again I went for months without being able to write. I went all pseudo artistic and moody. I don’t know how my friends put up with me! I have learnt that as long as I keep my mind active I can pretty much behave as a sane person.

ST: Do you have a daily routine, when it comes to your writing?

HB: I usually write in the afternoon but the best ideas have a tendency to pop up just as I am about to fall asleep which is both rude and inconvenient of them. As I need support for most tasks including typing I also work around the times of my support hours. The days I don’t have support are my days off but from my answer above, you can probably guess that I have to still keep busy. Usually this means doing research on the internet via my phone or doing a bit of reading.

After reaching a thousand words I stop completely. I don’t see the point in editing straight away as my judgement is too clouded at being too close to the project. But as there is no rest for the wicked, I more often than not begin to plot the next chapter. I am not a great one for notes so I usually work from memory. Whether or not this will change is something I will find out. I think deep down I am just a masochist.

HB: Have you always wanted to be a writer?

ST: Heck, yes! I was composing–“writing” really isn’t the word for it, since I hadn’t yet learned my alphabet–stories even before I was in Kindergarten, and I started my first “book” when I was eight or nine. Coincidentally enough, they always involved wardrobes and Narnia and space. My idea for the Great American Novel, at the age of nine, was essentially Narnia in Space.

— now for the role reversal —

HB: Can you remember the first thing you ever wrote for yourself? School etc doesn’t count.

ST: I do! I remember dictating to my mother when I was four or five years old, who dutifully typed out my words onto our MS DOS computer–complete with dot-matrix printer–multiple nonsense stories which usually involved our new puppy, a brown dog appropriately named Cinnamon. My parents saved several of them, the first one being the following:

“One day one of the dog die in 1516

And he was admired and he was a nice dog he was alive

And he was or he thought he was a dog and he wanted to be alive

And he really wanted his friends back

The end!”

Since King Ferdinand II of Aragon died in 1516, I assume he was reincarnated as my dog and was desperately trying to communicate to me that he was having a deep existential crisis about the meaning of life. I never did find out how that worked out for him.

HB: What is your writing routine?

ST: Oof. How much time do we have? I have a few different routines depending on where I am in the “cycle” of my writing. The four basic parts are: creation, revision, fine editing, and submission for publication, and I have a hard time working at cross purposes. For example, the mind-set of getting new material on the page is very different than deciding whether I really need that comma, and so where I am and what time it is will vary depending on what I’m doing. I find that when I’m writing lots of new material, I tend to stay up late, sometimes all the way until five or six in the morning, and sleep until noon. When I’m focused on getting every full stop in its proper place and ensuring the margins are their proper width on my cover letter to magazines, I like it to be first thing in the morning during my second cup of coffee, so I’ll get in the habit of being asleep promptly at ten so that I can be up by six. When I’m travelling, I just can’t do editing or submitting. It’s pure first-draft creation, wild frenzies of notes and stories and snippets and sketches and moving material around and slashing chapters and adding them back in and filling up notebooks until my hand gets sore. It seems chaotic from the outside, but there’s a definite rhythm to it from within.

HB: If you could write anywhere in the world where would you write?

ST: Antarctica! No, seriously. I have been lucky enough to travel a lot, from studying abroad during my undergraduate years, serving in the U.S. Peace Corps, and backpacking with friends, so that I have been to every continent except Antarctica (it’s a personal goal of mine to visit all seven before I turn thirty.) The States offers this fantastic program to sponsor artists and writers to visit Antarctica for a few months, and it’s been my dream to go. More practically, the most likely way I’ll get there is to get a job working as a fry cook on the base. It doesn’t matter to me! I can compose dialogue in between filling short orders.

HB: Typing or handwriting?

ST: Both, but I’ve filled boxes and boxes with notebooks written on cover to cover, left, right, and centre as well as written numerous drafts of pieces completely in my word processor. Since I’ve travelled so much, I end up writing longhand a lot, but I’ll write longhand even at home for the first draft. I never write out a second draft, that happens during the transcription process into the computer, but I will rewrite scenes over and over in a notebook. Having the paper copy makes me bolder during the revision process, since I know I still have that storyline somewhere, packed away in a box, should I need it later on. (I never do.) Deleting pages and pages or even entire chapters of text feels a lot scarier if the only place the information is stored is electronically, and crossing out a page feels less permanent than taking a full word document and making it blank.

HB: If you were in the middle of a conversation, date or family gathering and inspiration struck for a great story, what would you do?

ST: I can answer this from experience, because it happens more often than you think. I always keep a pocket notebook in my purse, and back when I had a car, I kept one in the glove compartment. I’ve been known to pull over to the side of the road during a car trip so I can write down an idea, and I’m famous in my family for disappearing upstairs only to be found hours later on my laptop with a bewildered expression and a “What do you mean everyone’s already left?” I’m a social butterfly, though, so in a one-on-one conversation or a big group setting, I’m usually too busy conversing and bopping around from person to person for my brain to have the spare RAM for story composition. There have been a few times I’ve taken notes down in my phone when I got desperate, but it’s my least favourite way to jot down ideas. I will take pictures of things sometimes, such as the name of the artist of an installation that inspired me, so that I can research more about them later. One time in Quito, I had already filled the notebook I’d brought with me, and I dragged my friend to a stationary shop directly after breakfast so I could buy a new one before she and I left for our hike that day! She was kind enough not to comment.

By Hayleigh Barclay

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Hayleigh Barclay

Graduated in 2019 with a Doctorate of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. Scottish based, usually plugged into her iPod or watching too many Viking documentaries.

One Comment

  1. Is there any difference between a writer with a disability and one without?

    One could also ask the question as to whether or not there is a difference between a young writer and an older writer, or between a black writer and a white writer, or between a male writer and a female writer.

    I suppose we all come with various life experiences, which is a wonderful thing, and some of us are more positive than others. I’m a sort of ‘glass half full’ kind of girl and I am always annoyingly optimistic!

    The fact that I referred to myself as a ‘girl’ just goes to show that I’ve never really grown up. I asked my niece, the other day, whether or not she thought that I would ever grow up. Her answer was “You, Auntie Sandra, will never grow up!”

    So here I am, ageing rapidly and pretending to be 50, and embarking upon becoming a writer.

    I was diagnosed with MS about 30 years ago. At that time, I was Personally Executive for Yorkshire Television and I loved my job and my life in general. Obviously, over the years, I have had to adjust to changing situations, but I hope that my outgoing and cheerful personality has not changed.

    I am now permanently in a wheelchair, so I had to seriously consider my options. Dancing, hiking and tennis were abandoned long ago, but I still loved entertaining, wining and dining. Unfortunately, after losing the use of my right arm, I realised that I needed to change direction.

    I saw an advert for a ‘Creative Writing’ class, and the rest is history.

    In 2014 I self-published my debut novel ‘The Destruction of Innocence’. Set in the 19th century, partly in the unsavoury world of the London sex and gambling clubs, and partly with the more genteel activities of the aristocracy, this tale of Victorian life is a little racy. Being an inexperienced writer, looking back it start a little slowly, but I’m told that it becomes gripping. I am, at present, working on a sequel and I do hope that I am able to make a success of my new direction in life.

    Without the aid of my Dragon NaturallySpeaking software, it would not be possible for me to pursue my new venture as I am unable to either write or use the keyboard. At least this means that I can remain the same expressive, self-opinionated, self-delusion woman that I’ve always been!

    I can be found at sandraboyle.com where the first three chapters of my book are freely available – any constructive comments would be greatly appreciated.

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