What is it like to write a book when you cannot see? - Ian Brown, RNIB Scotland

What is it like writing stories, creating your own literary world of characters and scenery, when you are blind or partially sighted?

Given the wide spectrum of sight loss, and the fact that many people who lose sight may have had fuller vision for much of their life, it is hard to generalise.

But if the creative essentials - character development, plot and story structure, writing from a subjective or objective perspective - are the same, how does someone whose sight is impaired depict a person or a setting they haven't seen? Do they rely more on dialogue, on describing sounds, smell, touch? Does this offer a different take on narrative?

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It makes for interesting discussion among members of the creative writing group set up by national sight loss charity RNIB Scotland. Writing fiction can sometimes help them escape the boundaries they face in everyday life, or dramatise the problems these create for others.

What is it like writing stories, creating your own literary world of characters and scenery, when you are blind or partially sighted? Picture: Getty Images
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Billy Horsburgh, 39, from Anstruther, has already self-published an autobiography of the first 26 years of his life growing up with cerebral palsy and glaucoma. In 2018, he completed another book, On the Road Again, about a European road trip with two friends to a music festival in Hungary.

“Each writer develops their own particular style,” Billy says. “But I can relate to someone who has never had sight. I was short-sighted until I was a teenager before losing a fair bit of sight, to later very little sight at all. For someone who is blind, using their other senses often helps. Dialogue is a useful tool. You don’t need to see what someone looks like to create a character.

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“I have glaucoma which has been deteriorating for a number of years but it doesn't stop me writing the stories I love to tell. It's not just the writing side of it, it's the learning process. I've read a lot more books recently and I've used the writing style of the authors I enjoy for my own writing.

“I joined the RNIB Scotland group because another member had approached me, knowing I had just started my masters degree in creative writing. She asked me if she could gain the experience and knowledge I had acquired through my course.

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“We all interact well in the group, read each other's stories, and comment on each other's work. I get a real sense of satisfaction from hearing other people's work, sharing my own work, and giving each other confidence and suggestions on how their work is good or could be improved.”

Jen Worrall, 34, from Bellshill in Lanarkshire, also has glaucoma.

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“I enjoy creative writing because I've found it is quite therapeutic and relaxing, especially after a long day, to write about it, or just to let my imagination run wild,” she says. “The RNIB Scotland writing group has helped to give me the inspiration to write things. It gives you the chance to meet other people who are visually impaired as well as to discover what creative writing has done for them.”

Charlotte Bennie, 67, from Newton Stewart, finds writing fiction liberating. “One thing when I'm writing is I can see perfectly well in the worlds I create,” she says. “I can see what people look like. I can see what sort of landscape they're in. So that's one of the things - out of the fuzzy world and into the 20/20 vision world.”

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Charlotte's fuzziness is because of the eye condition gyrate atrophy she has had since her early 40s.

“On a good day, I can tell my laptop screen is on and see vague blobs as I walk around,” she explains. “On a bad day, I bumble around in a mist, which can be golden, lilac or a range of pretty colours. Pretty but not very useful.

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“Another thing I love about writing is it helps my blood pressure. If something as annoyed me I will go off and dash off a few hundred words on the laptop. I'll then leave it and maybe go back to it a day or two later. Or sometimes I'll just totally delete it because I think, this is just a rant.”

For Charlotte it can be as much about the practicalities of sight loss as the creative process.

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“I think it's really been good to be in a group with other people who have the same problems that I do with screen-readers that misbehave, and who possibly write about similar things, like coping with blindness and the like.

“Because of the experience I've had with the RNIB Scotland writing group I got the chance to go to an afternoon session run by the Wigtown Book Festival and had a great time. I learnt a lot from it and I really only had the nerve to go to that because the RNIB Scotland group exists.

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“The writing group has benefited me because it's helped my confidence. It's also interesting and helpful to discover how other people tackle the things they write about. You're amongst like-minded people. You're going to be in a group of people who are all in, if not exactly the same boat as yourself, then a very similar one. You're not going to be in a group where somebody is going to say very loudly 'Well, I didn't know blind people could write.'”

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