Afraid to Tell You: On Vision and Revision
creative nonfiction by James Tate Hill

(originally the keynote address, Mountain Heritage Literary Festival, Lincoln Memorial University,
Summer 2023)

Iwould love to begin with an anecdote about the book that set me on my path to becoming a writer, the novel from early childhood that taught me the power of imagination, provided an escape from the disappointments of what I would one day call the real world, allowed me to believe in dreams on the other side of rainbows. Perhaps for you the love of stories began to bloom with the pre-pubescent mysteries of Encyclopedia Brown, or the intergalactic hijinks of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Maybe some saintly librarian placed in your hand one of those formative classics, The Count of Monte Cristo or Anne of Green Gables. Or were you one of the cool kids, like my girlfriend, who sneaked into the stacks to read The Stand or Flowers in the Attic? Incidentally, I finally read Flowers in the Attic in my late thirties and am pretty sure I was still too young. Why was every girl reading that novel when I was in seventh grade and how often does that book come up in therapy?

Anyway, like I said, I would love to begin this keynote with an homage to the book that inspired me to become a reader and, eventually, a writer, but I confess: I never was one of those kids. By those kids, I mean a reader. 

Before you hurl your phones or rotten tomatoes or Ken Follett novels in my direction, let me assure you I always loved books. When the Scholastic book fair arrived to our school’s cafeteria, I was the kid most excited to browse the covers. But the titles I bought with my book fair money were collections of mad libs, karate manuals, and an easy peasy breakdancing guide that was, as I remember it, neither easy nor peasy. What all my selections had in common were, you guessed it, pictures. This pattern held until I discovered what one could accurately and inarguably call the greatest series of books in the twentieth century, nay, the history of publishing, possibly of language itself: Choose Your Own Adventure.

For anyone unfamiliar, Edward Packard got the idea for Choose Your Own Adventure novels in the 1970s while telling bedtime stories to his daughter. Bored by his own storytelling, he asked his daughter what she would do next. Written in second person, Choose Your Own Adventure made storytelling partners of readers and authors, asking us to make narrative choices every few pages: 

To take the controls of the abandoned spaceship, turn to page 27. 
To crawl through the escape hatch and explore the planet, turn to page 79. 
To give the glowing briefcase to the couple holding up the diner and leave behind your life of crime, turn to page 40.
To continue working as a henchman for Marsellus Wallace, turn to page 32.

Each Adventure had multiple endings, meaning you could reread a novel dozens of times without reading the same story. But here is where I have to tell you, friends, my dark secret. Given what I’ve told you already, you might not be surprised to learn I was a Choose Your Own Adventure cheater. When given the choice of two actions and page numbers, I turned to both, checking which one contained less text. 

I know.

By seventh grade, I had returned to books with pictures, this time comics. For a few years, these were a perfect complement to endless hours of cable and Nintendo, until a few months after my sixteenth birthday, when the burnout of my optic nerves rendered all visual media as abstract as a Jackson Pollock.

It started in one eye, a blurry kaleidoscope of magenta and pale green radiating from my central field of vision. I had been a licensed driver for two months when the central blindness spread to my other eye. The diagnosis, Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, had no treatment. Instead of surgery or drugs, doctors made me an appointment at the Johns Hopkins low vision center, where a specialist equipped me with loupe-style magnifiers, a pocket-sized telescope, and thick-lined paper suitable for practicing cursive. The low vision specialist also signed paperwork declaring me legally blind, which my mom and I took with us to the basement of the West Virginia Cultural Center a few miles from our house. 

The following is a short excerpt from the chapter of Blind Man’s Bluff titled “Real Books.”


Somewhere in this building was the famed Mountain Stage, which R.E.M. once called one of their favorite venues, but the long, dim hallway where we ended up was less rock concert than abandoned radio station.

Inside, the odor of plastic was so thick it could have been a doll factory. I squinted in the bright fluorescent lights. When an older woman noticed us by the door, she assumed we were in the wrong place until Mom showed her my paperwork. Suddenly she was glad to see us.

In a brief tour, the librarian walked us down aisles of metal shelves, pointing to a stack of relics from the years books were recorded on vinyl rather than cassettes. Most patrons being print-disabled, the library wasn’t set up for browsing. Instead, requests were made over the phone, and books were shipped for free through the mail. To return them, you simply flipped the postage label to the side with the library’s return address, Free Matter for the Blind printed in the corner where postage would go. The plastic scent in the air came from the pale green cartons that held the tapes.

I thought we were here to obtain school textbooks, but the librarian said that a place called Recordings for the Blind handled those. The books here were the sort found in a regular library. When she asked if there was anything I wanted to check out, the question caught me off guard.

I couldn’t remember the last book I had read that wasn’t assigned by an English teacher, and most of those I abandoned after 20 or 30 pages, piecing the rest together from class discussions and Cliff’s Notes.

“Do you have Jaws?” I asked.

The librarian confirmed they had Peter Benchley’s shark novel that became the Spielberg movie I had seen a dozen times. I asked if they had Deliverance. When she said they did, I tried to think of other movies that started out as books.

“What about The Exorcist?”


Incidentally, if you’ve never read the William Peter Blatty novel that became the classic 1973 movie, do yourself a favor and keep that streak alive. It’s not good.

The librarian returned with the green cartons containing my selections. I wasn’t convinced I was going to read them, but it felt good to have the option, to ask someone if I could do something and, for the first time in months, hear yes.

What I also heard in the librarian’s response was a choice, something new I could do instead of something I no longer could. My car keys collected dust beside my video games. Dad continued to pick up my weekly arrivals from Cheryl’s Comics, hopeful I’d read them again, but the pictures inside remained inscrutable puzzles. My first computer, less than a year old, had become my parents’ solitaire machine, and television had become radio, but in the four-track cassette player provided by the Library of Congress’s Talking Books program, I could still hear possibility.

Some readers have asked why, in the years that followed, I tried to hide my disability, to use the blurry peripheral vision I still had to try so desperately to pass for sighted. When I say “some  readers,” I mostly mean a random stranger on GoodReads

Why would anybody feel ashamed of something they can’t change? a GoodReads user asked in their review shortly after publication. 

And here is where I tell you, dear friends, present and future authors, never ever read reviews on GoodReads. You will be tempted to visit your book’s page. Do not visit your book’s page. Some readers will say lovely things about your book. Do not read those either. If you hear nothing else I say today, remember this: do not feed your mogwai after midnight, do not say Candyman three times in front of a mirror, and do not, however curious you become, visit GoodReads.

The reasons someone with a disability might choose to hide their disability are legion. Some of these reasons make sense. Others take years to understand. All of them, give or take, stem from what we have come to call ableism. Ableism comes from the belief, conscious or not, that people with disabilities are not equal or do not deserve to be equal to people without disabilities. 

For one example of ableism, let us look more closely at the cultural view of audiobooks, and yes, I use the word view intentionally. Audiobooks have come a long way in the last decade, so far, in fact, that many of you might be less aware of how little our ocularcentric society once thought of them. As an experiment, would you do me a favor and applaud if you’ve read an audiobook in the last year.

Note that I said read and not listened to. To those who are protective of the verb to read, insisting it can only be done with eyes, not ears or fingers, I ask what is gained by insisting on the distinction? If a quarterback can read a defense and a computer can read a file, it doesn’t seem like a giant leap to call ten or twenty hours of actively processing words that happen to enter our brains through the ears reading.

To put it another way, responding to the question of whether audiobooks count as reading, author and book critic for Slate Laura Miller told me in an interview, “What does ‘count’ mean? Who is counting? We’re not in school and completing assignments anymore. If the point of reading is to enjoy it and you’re enjoying it, why would anything be lacking?”

To read is to analyze, to study, to decode, and yet a tiny lump in the shape of a lie surfaced each time I used this verb to refer to titles I checked out from my specialized library. Jokes on sitcoms once implied audio books were to physical books what flag football is to the NFL. Throughout college, after declaring an English major, I would clarify to friends that narrators of my audio books didn’t perform what they read, as though a straightforward narration had more integrity, a closer relationship to the hardcovers sold in bookstores. 

Here’s another short passage from Blind Man’s Bluff and the chapter titled “Real Books:”


There is nothing quite like the scent of a book. The aroma of old paper when you enter a library is the smell of thought itself, of memory and time. For years, I would buy used books I could display on a shelf because being an English major and aspiring writer who didn’t own books made me feel like more of an imposter than I already did. Occasionally I loaned them to people, letting the recipient assume that this copy I was giving them, this paperback or hardcover and not the four-track cassettes in the green plastic container, was the one I had read. 

Occasionally, when no one was around, I would pull a book from the shelf and turn the pages. Even without a magnifier, my eyes can tell where the text lies, locate the little black wings on the otherwise blank page that must be the dedication. A few times I would hold the hardcover in my hand while the cassette played, guessing when to turn the page. I’ve feared I might be missing some element of the reading experience, that I might never have been reading at all. I worried that the short stories I wrote were not organic, authentic creations because all the books that inspired and educated me were consumed through secondary media, replications of the original text. A scholar of the humanities might point out the Homeric tradition of oral storytellers, noting that once upon a time writing and publishing didn’t even exist. A few times I tried to write such an essay, defending the way I read by describing the different languages of the world, the unique alphabets with their own characters incomprehensible to other cultures. But there is no defense quite like the feeling that you have nothing to defend.

If the distinction between reading and listening didn’t matter in the days of Homer, it mattered each time my freshman philosophy professor failed to remember our conversation about my eyes on the first day of class, when he continued to call on me to read aloud a passage of Sartre or Descartes and I had to announce my disability to a room of twenty-five college students I didn’t know. It mattered in my dorm rooms when I stowed the white boxes of my recorded textbooks under my bed, stamped in black ink with Recordings for the Blind and Free Matter for the Blind. It mattered when, encountering Descartes in another class, the renowned philosopher declared sight “the noblest and most comprehensive of the five senses.”

Alone in my bedroom when I was sixteen, popping tape after tape into my talking book player, it didn’t matter if I was reading or listening. The book titles on the side of the green cartons were the same as the copies found on the shelves of bookstores and regular libraries. They were the same authors. The words in my ears were the same words other people saw when they held a book in their hands.


Blindness, deafness, wheelchairs, canes, gender, neurodivergence, queerness, race, class—none of it is anything to be ashamed of, of course it isn’t, but it’s hard not to feel shame when the world is not made for you, does not account for you, when the world discounts what you are capable of. 

Before I move on to the fun part of this keynote, failure and rejection, here is another brief scene from Blind Man’s Bluff to illustrate the origins of my shame. In this section, I am a high school senior, my vision loss less than a year old, college six months away. This is from a chapter titled “Pass/Fail.”


The director of disability services welcomed us into his office with a smile and a moist handshake. My parents scheduled the appointment to discuss my transition from high school to the giant state university I planned to attend in the fall. Less than a year had gone by since the permanent burnout of my optic nerves. I wasn’t a big fan of the label legally blind, but that’s what I was. The word disability, no less accurate, seemed even worse.

“Do you know…” The man whose palm sweat I had furtively wiped on my jeans searched for my name in the papers in front of him. Not finding it, he asked me what it was. 

I told him my name.

“Do you know, J.T., what’s the best Christmas present you can give Mom and Dad your first semester of college?”

I said I did not.

“The best gift you can give Mom and Dad that first semester is a report card of all Cs.”

My parents and I stared blankly across the desk. I couldn’t see their faces, but I could guess their expressions. As it happened, I had given them a similar present a couple of years ago, and they would have been grateful for the gift receipt. 

“College is a hard adjustment,” the director said. “Once you have that first semester under your belt, then you can start thinking about Bs. Maybe even some As.”

“Which dorm should he stay in?” Mom asked, changing the subject. To my parents, despite my underwhelming B average, I remained the prodigy from elementary school who had been declared gifted and moved ahead a grade. 

“Our blind students stay in the downtown dorms. That way they’re just a short walk from us. Plus, most of his classes will be on this side of campus.”

I cringed at his use of the B word. It felt like a slur. Strictly speaking, I wasn’t blind. I had my peripheral vision, fuzzy though it was. My eye condition—that’s what it was, a condition, not a disability—might have put an end to my unremarkable driving career after two months, my pre-owned Mustang still awaiting sale in the Foodland parking lot, but I got around okay on foot. In New York City, most people didn’t drive. I wasn’t blind; I was a New Yorker.


Such was the logic that fueled my fifteen-year efforts to pretend I was someone I am not. But if denial was my fuel, writing provided the hope. Hope for what exactly? I wasn’t sure. My senior year of high school, inspired by all the books I was now reading with my ears, I dictated short stories into a microcassette recorder. My mom typed them up at my request. Sleepy as she was after a ten-hour work day, I’m sure I told her they were assignments for school. 

Indeed, I did show these stories to my English teacher, Mrs. Jones, who, like the best of our educators, seemed to know when I was asking for more than her time. 

The plot of my first story involved an average, nameless man who must answer a question posed by a celestial gatekeeper. I don’t remember what he would have received for a correct answer. Presumably what one gets for correctly answering a question from a celestial gatekeeper. The assassination of John F. Kennedy was somehow involved. 

In my second, a sad man in a small town is haunted by the house fire that killed his wife. At least I gave this character a name, Bane, a word I learned from my new talking thesaurus. Through interactions with neighbors, we realize people blame him for his wife’s death. Even at the time, I recognized the story’s debt to The Harrison Ford version of The Fugitive and the music video for Richard Marx’s “Hazard.” 

I set none of my fiction in my home state of West Virginia. It never seemed, growing up on a dirt road without common amenities like city water, street names, or HBO, like the kind of place where novels were set. Certainly no one in New York or Paris would ever care about Route 2 Box 235F in Charleston, West Virginia, 25314.

If they weren’t good stories, they feel as important to me now as they did in high school, maybe more so with the perspective of thirty years. "You don't write because you want to say something," said F. Scott Fitzgerald. "You write because you have something to say." At 17, I wasn't sure what to say, but Mrs. Jones must have known I was trying to say something, to reach for words that might make sense of how my life had changed so suddenly.

In the coming years, changing my major from psychology to English, I would write short stories about professional wrestlers, pop stars, amnesiacs, minor actors. They weren’t bad exactly, but they were missing some essential trait neither I, my classmates, nor my writing teachers was able to articulate. Two years into graduate school for literature, still uncertain what I might do with my life, I continued dictating new stories into my microcassette recorder. I didn’t know why I kept writing, which, in the end, made it seem like something I should keep doing.

I set none of my fiction in my home state of West Virginia. It never seemed, growing up on a dirt road without common amenities like city water, street names, or HBO, like the kind of place where novels were set. Certainly no one in New York or Paris would ever care about Route 2 Box 235F in Charleston, West Virginia, 25314. Even Jerry West, the legendary basketball player so revered his silhouette became the NBA logo, who grew up in the same rural hamlet where my grandmother was born, writes in his autobiography of a lifelong inferiority complex stemming from how little people thought of his home state.

West Virginia counts TV icons like Don Knotts, Bob Denver, and Soupy Sales among its native sons, and although a student in my own high school would become the actress Jennifer Garner, celebrities seemed as exotic to me as extra-terrestrials, their lives infinitely more interesting than my own. In college, when introduced to West Virginia writers like Jayne Anne Phillips and Breece Pancake, I was amazed to find West Virginia at the center of great literature, books whose readers stretched far beyond the borders of my home state. 

I could have traveled, spent time in the cities I found more fascinating than my hometown. Instead, I simply set stories wherever I wanted. Let’s just say this one takes place in Albuquerque. The next is set in Denver. Los Angeles? Why not? If most of the action happens in a restaurant or living room, what difference does it make if I’ve never actually been to these cities, let alone lived there?

Never mind the flaws of a young writer’s stories set entirely in restaurants and living rooms; what took me even longer to realize was how poorly drawn these characters were with no connection to where they were from or where they lived. Their lives bore even less resemblance to my own lived experience. Fiction, of course, need not be autobiographical, but I remained in deep denial of my own identity, to say nothing of my emotions. And off the page, this denial was finally catching up with me.

In Choose Your Own Adventure parlance . . . 

To participate in healthy relationships, come to terms with your disability.
To keep mistrusting how friends and lovers feel about you because so much of who you are remains hidden, continue in silence.

“I will not be complicit in your lie,” my wife told me in an email two months after we were married. I wasn’t sure which word hurt more, lie or the B word embedded so thornily in the next line. Blindness. Your blindness. I will not help you hide your blindness from the world.

“Writers,” Michael Chabon writes in Wonder Boys, “tell their best lies when they are alone.” Did he mean that fiction requires us constantly to invent details, or that writers have a particular talent for lying to ourselves?

Returning to North Carolina after my divorce, an old classmate from grad school talked me into attending a poetry reading. The poet was an alum of our writing program, a friend of his, but I hadn’t known her well. Nor did I get excited about poetry readings, despite—or maybe a result of—being newly divorced from a poet. 

For half an hour, I sat in awe of her poems, most of them about the disability someone with better eyesight would have noticed while she was reading. To me, seated in the third row, she was only the lines of her poetry, each stanza a flag planted in the center of her life: This is me, and this is me, and this and this and this. 

It was the first poetry collection I had bought since grad school that wasn’t a gift to my then girlfriend. The next day I scanned the pages into my computer, translating the text to digital speech. I read it in a sitting. I reread it later in the week, envious of how starkly, how boldly, each poem announced her difference. 

“Why don’t you write about losing your eyesight,” a different classmate had asked me years earlier in our writing program. 

I must have winced at her suggestion. 

“You don’t think it’s interesting?”

I shook my head and changed the subject. A burnout of my optic nerves was a worse plot than the aimless novel I would abandon before graduation. More than this, the thought of readers, people I had never even met, knowing I was blind, disabled, felt like the opposite of why I chose to be a writer.

I will now make good on my promised failure and rejection content. And since you’re likely more interested in my failed novels than my failed marriages, at least in this venue, I’ll say that after completing my MFA in creative writing, an agent agreed to represent my first novel, a romantic comedy set in the wacky world of professional wrestling. To my mind, no one had yet written the great American professional wrestling novel, and spoiler alert: neither would I. 

My agent sent my manuscript to a dozen publishers. One by one, the rejections came back. Most cited marketing concerns, the publishing equivalent of it’s not you, it’s me. Others gave no specific reasons for passing. One insightful editor said women wouldn’t want to read a novel about professional wrestling, and men don’t read books without real violence. By the time I had completed another novel, my agent had retired, and the reactions of other agents to whom I sent my new novel suggested I should consider doing the same. 

“Wish for more pain,” Maggie Smith writes in her recent memoir, You Could Make This Place Beautiful, recalling the advice of a friend’s therapist. “That's how you'll change. It has to hurt so much that you have to do something differently. The pain forces your hand." 

In 2011, delivering a keynote address to the annual AWP conference in Washington, D.C., Jhumpa Lahiri described her early failures to write fiction. An Indian American raised in Boston, she wrote exclusively about the white men and women with whom she had grown up, people similar to the characters in most of the literature she had read in school. That readers might be interested in Indian Americans like her, her family, or the immigrants in the community to which she belonged hadn’t occurred to her. 

Seated in the audience, stuck on page two of a new novel, I felt a shudder of recognition. What if my main character, a lowly adjunct on the campus of a failing college, also shared my blindness? Wouldn’t a murder mystery with a blind protagonist make for a better story? And what if, like me, the main character also shared my reluctance to acknowledge what he couldn’t see?

Years later, writing essays and doing interviews to promote that book, my first published novel, I realized how much of the story I still hadn’t told.

Was my life the real story? Was self-acceptance the ending I was always searching for?

Although, of course, you end up becoming yourself, David Foster Wallace told interviewer David Lipsky on his book tour for Infinite Jest. Lipsky used these words as the title for his book about their conversations, which would become the movie The End of the Tour. But if these words seem self-evident—although of course you end up becoming yourself—think about their truth. Of course we are always who we are, but did we become ourselves through inertia or through choice? Are we the person we ended up becoming, or the person we chose to be?

True revision is more than correction. True revision, despite the word’s relationship to sight, is more than what we see or don’t see. True revision is reinvention, imagination. Draft by draft, the story changes shape, becomes less and less recognizable. Even the parts we thought were working so well might need to be overhauled. That happy ending, for example, might be replaced with another, happier ending:

To revise your story, turn to page one. 
To revise your story, turn to page 100. 
Turn to every page you thought you understood. If we are lucky, if we are diligent, we eventually get it right, the story we were meant to tell. 


Portions adapted from Blind Man’s Bluff: A Memoir by James Tate Hill. © 2021 by James Tate Hill. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

James Tate Hill is the author of a memoir, Blind Man’s Bluff (W. W. Norton, 2021), a New York Times Editors’ Choice and a Washington Independent Review of Books Favorite Book of 2021. His fiction debut, Academy Gothic, won the Nilsen Literary Prize for a First Novel. Born in Charleston, West Virginia, he currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.