By Austin Chisholm
This article first appeared in Megaphone – Canada.
When Ryan Knighton was 18, he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disorder. To the accomplished author and poet, the loss of his vision is directly connected to the beginning of his life as a writer.
“I started writing because I was driving forklifts poorly,” he remembers. “I had a few car accidents, and when I found out I was losing my sight, I knew I had to go to school.”
As a student at Simon Fraser University, he studied English literature with a focus on contemporary poetry. “I started studying poetry because I could only read three letters at a time. Poetry was like a biological necessity for me,” he says.
Now, 43 years old and fully blind, he’s the author of two memoirs, Cockeyed (2006), which is currently being adapted for film, and C’mon Papa: Dispatches From a Dad in the Dark (2010). He’s written screenplays, he’s appeared on the radio shows This American Life and The Moth, and he’s also published a collection of poems, Swing in the Hollow (2001).
Knighton lives in East Vancouver with his wife, Tracy, and their daughter, Tess. He also teaches English and Creative Writing at Capilano University. Throughout his career he’s shied away from disability rights activism, instead opting for a more nuanced identification with disability, embracing its hindrances not as the obstacles that they are but as writing material. He captures in his writing peculiar moments of humour or terror, sometimes both.
What gets parochially labelled as a disability is, for Knighton, a source of creative inspiration and unique insight.
In the midst of all the stories that Knighton has told throughout his career, he has forged for himself a story of turning an encumbrance into an asset, confusion into humour, and blindness into a point of view where everyday banalities become truly bizarre.
When Knighton was studying at SFU, he met Canada’s first poet laureate, George Bowering. “I remember standing outside the lecture hall and Bowering walked by. He was my professor. I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me, but he pointed to the distance and quipped about the Fraser River. It was some throwaway non-sequitur-and he giggled- and then he walked away,” he recalls.
“I remember this very profound feeling at that moment that I wanted to be like him. He was completely self-possessed. He had a point of view on the world that was completely his own. It was a revelation about writing: before you write anything you have to have your own way of looking at the world.” Even if that world is impossible to see.
Another influence for Knighton was Canadian writer Brian Fawcett. In 2001, after Knighton published Swing in the Hollow, he participated in a poetry reading in Toronto. He had less than one per cent of his sight left and he hadn’t memorized his poems. He stood blinking onstage, his face buried in his book.
He made mistakes, read the wrong words, eventually making up words as he read. From the back of the room he heard Fawcett shout, “Don’t worry about it. Start over. Do it wrong. They’ll learn something.”
“I made them sit and listen to me read something wrong over and over and over again, until I got it right,” recalls Knighton. In the end, it wasn’t just the audience that learned something. Knighton realized that he had a thing. He performed what it was like to go blind. He could hardly read his own poems. As Knighton says, “It was more important than the poem itself.”
His third major influence was Vancouver writer Stan Persky, who also teaches at Capilano University. Knighton recalls when he used to carpool with Persky, who would happily narrate the world outside of the car. Those car rides helped Knighton realize the power of narration, which is, he believes, the source of Persky’s happiness.
“If you narrate everything that’s happening to you, it can’t hurt you. You take control of your environment, and everything is amusing and interesting or beautiful.” Knighton calls it “the disarming power of narration,” that by describing the world as it appears-in all its whimsical beauty and hostility – it is defanged.
When Fawcett and Perksy started the Toronto-based online magazine Dooney’s Cafe in 2001, Fawcett invited Knighton to write about his blindness. When he started writing, Knighton was surprised by the humour in his experiences. “I had this profound experience, that by telling what happened to me it made it better,” he says. “The cure for blindness is telling it.”
Slapstick comedy, he says, is underrated. “A cocksure 18-year-old guy who thinks he’s going to become ‘X,’ and suddenly he goes blind,” he says of his younger self, “that’s slapstick. It’s the undermining and thwarting of your illusions of power and control in the world.”
When he started writing his 2006 memoir Cockeyed, it marked a turning point in reconciling his identity with his blindness. “When I was writing Cockeyed, I finally owned blindness with my own point of view. It wasn’t an institutional identity, I wasn’t a disabled guy, and I wasn’t what the CNIB [Canadian National Institute for the Blind] told me blind people are,” he says.
“I got to own it my own way, and have it as my satirical point of view on the world. Because I’m the guy who doesn’t really understand what’s going on, which is a great writing perspective. Ultimately, becoming a writer cured me of being blind and everything that it made me. My world became a lot funnier.”
In 2012, Knighton did a show on the beloved public radio broadcast This American Life. “I told these stories about getting lost in a hotel room, and it received an outrage from the NFB (National Federation of the Blind). And that made really happy,” he laughs.
“I can stand by the fact that what I tell you is honest. I get lost in hotel rooms. It’s what happened. And it’s uncomfortable to go out there and tell stories about such banal ineptitude, which I feel on a daily basis. But I don’t agree with an organization that tries to sweep that under the rug as if it doesn’t exist, and hold itself hostage to a lack of sense of humour about itself.”
Of his own relationship with disability rights activism, Knighton says, “People say that there must be something in the work that changes people’s ideas and attitudes toward disability, and I can honestly say that I have none of that. I don’t want to be seen as speaking for a community. I can’t do that. I’m a particular kind of blind guy. I’m very different from any other one. It’s very hard to homogenize that group of people. There’s so many other issues that run through it, from other medical issues, mental illness, level of education, socio-economic status. Where you live determines much of your life as a blind person. It’s different being blind in Chilliwack than in East Vancouver.”
“Personally,” he says, “I don’t think there’s such a thing as a blind person. I don’t think that blindness is a cultural identity.”
In the years since Cockeyed was published, many parents of teenagers with Knighton’s affliction have written him asking for help. “They really want to know how to get them to the other side, he says.
But the only way Knighton succeeded was by failing. “That’s a hard thing to do, to let another person,” he pauses, “struggle-so that they can have independence and can learn an independence that they can manage, when it would be much easier if you just helped them, if you just did things for them.”
“The most toxic side effect of becoming blind,” he adds, “is the infantilization and the coddling that comes along with it.”
In Knighton’s mind, we can learn more from failure than we do from success. It’s like reading a poem wrong over and over, like he did in the café in Toronto years ago, Brian Fawcett shouting encouragement from the back row.
When he’s not writing, teaching, or bumping shoulders with Hollywood connections (he’s friends with many big-name actors), Knighton-ironically enough-goes surfing in Tofino. “I surf by myself, so I’m completely independent, and to use my body so fully is rare,” he says. “I like that. There’s something about it that is really recharging for me.”
Knighton’s passion for cold-water surfing typifies his approach to his work and life. He alone gets to feel the rush and excitement of surfing, but only if it means that he might get crushed by a wave, only if he has the opportunity to fail. Falling is part of surfing; failure is part of success. Blindness, by extension, is tightly connected to committing thoughts to paper.
“I don’t separate being a writer and being a blind guy. To me, they are inextricably tied together,” Knighton says. “If you gave me my sight back, I don’t know if I would be a writer anymore. I don’t know if I would have anything to write about.”
This article was one of the finalists for the INSP Awards 2015.