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,
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.