In the third installment of Writing While Disabled, Kristy Anne Cox interviews Derek Newman-Stille.
KAC: I’m sitting down to chat today with the fabulous Derek Newman-Stille! Derek lives in Toronto and is a writer, an editor, a visual artist, an activist, a nine-time Aurora Award winner, and a professor at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. Derek’s pronouns are they/them.
Hi, Derek! I’d like to start by thanking you for giving this interview! Would you mind telling us about yourself and your work?
DNS: Sure. Thank you, I am excited to chat with you today. I teach at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, currently finishing my PhD on representations of disability in Canadian speculative fiction. I’m an artist, activist, academic, and editor.
I also run the nine-time Aurora Award-winning website Speculating Canada: a digital humanities hub where I share reviews of Canadian SF, interviews with authors, and discussions about SF topics. I’m Disabled, Queer, and Nonbinary.
KAC: How do you fit into the Disabled community? Which Disabled communities do you identify with?
DNS: I have a collection of disabilities. I have a spinal disability and use a walker; I manage chronic pain; I have learning disabilities and ADHD. I also have psychiatric disabilities—primarily depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
When I was around nineteen, I came to the Disabled community and finally felt a sense of belonging. I’ve been lucky to meet incredibly brilliant Disabled activists, artists, and teachers.
I also engage with our community as a DisArtist—I do DisArts (Disabled-informed artwork): it’s a space for me to do some of my activist work and speak back to our society’s portrayals of disability.
I currently teach courses on Gender and Disability at Trent, so disability is also essential for my teaching and engagement with students.
KAC: Can you tell us how disability intersects with your teaching?
DNS: Disability informed a lot of my learning early on. I could see the problems with my teachers’ ‘one-size-fits-all’ model that favored neurotypical, nondisabled ways of learning. After these experiences, I knew I needed to be more adaptable when teaching. I wanted to get at everyone’s strengths in my classrooms and to listen and learn from my students.
So, my disabilities have allowed me to be an adaptable and responsive teacher. I got to know my students’ diverse types of learning and found ways of sharing information and ideas with them that highlighted their strengths.
KAC: Where can we find your artwork?
DNS: I’ve created a few art pieces, mostly in local spaces. I just finished working on a project for the Electric City Culture Council in Peterborough that imagines a Peterborough about twenty years in the future, where the city has become accessible and is inclusive of diverse Disabled folx. I collaborated with brilliant artists in our community—Sioux Lily Dickson, Bethany LeBlonc, and Hannah Keating. We used performance art, visual art, and creative writing to imagine a city that would include Disabled voices.
My DisArt has also been featured in Aging Activisms and Feminist Space Camp Magazine.
KAC: How do your disabilities impact and inform your work?
DNS: My disabilities inform most of what I do—I think of myself as a Queer Crip. To be more specific, I think of my ADHD as my Muse. It inspires my need to write and create art. I go into hyper-focus and enter the world I want to build with paint or words, then I get wrapped up in that world until I make something.
KAC: What is your writing process?
DNS: My writing process involves a lot of experimentation and daydreaming. I spend weeks imagining a world and playing in it before I get down to writing. Once I know the world and characters, I write. It’s like an imagination purge. I just let everything go onto the paper as I type it.
Often my words have trouble catching up to my thoughts, which I credit my ADHD for providing. I then do a lot of editing, which I hate!! It’s the most challenging part of the process for me because it’s where my nitpicky side comes in, and I end up criticizing everything I have done.
When it comes to dyslexia, I credit it with most of my poetry. I already view words as strange, so poetry just makes sense for me. Poetry is a complicated form of wordplay, and dyslexia already plays with how I view words.
KAC: So dyslexia informs your poetic process like a formal constraint might? Or a word-association exercise?
DNS: My dyslexia means that everyday words are “weird” to me. They make little sense and require a lot of decoding.
Because of that, I have a fascination with words. I love their weirdness and their incomprehensibility. I play with them for hours and hours, and they end up on the page. To me, words have a taste, a certain mouth-feel, and I am fascinated with how they form. Their spell-like quality and the power they have to shape the world enthrall me.
It’s like an association exercise: I watch how certain words generate others and how words enter conversations.
KAC: And dyslexia leads you to ideas and possibilities you might not otherwise have discovered?
DNS: Absolutely. I love how words shape ideas but can also constrain those ideas. In some of my poetry, I feel like I’m freeing words of their boundaries and letting them absorb new meanings and new possibilities.
KAC: Where do you fall on the spectrum between an outliner or a discovery writer?
DNS: I think somewhere in between. I play around a lot before starting the writing process, so I have a lot of mental maps for what I want to do. But a lot of my stories and plans also get taken over by my characters: they often decide to steer the story in a new direction, or change themselves in ways that I didn’t expect.
KAC: Do you have a regular writing routine? What do you do?
DNS: I don’t have a regular writing routine. I’ve read so much from authors like Stephen King about how you need a writing routine to be a proper writer, but that has never worked for me—my ADHD makes a routine challenging. I need a sense of inspiration to write, to feel absorbed in the world I’m creating. So, I often end up getting an idea and spending all day or night working on it.
KAC: Are there specific accommodations or tools that you use to get the writing done?
DNS: Mostly, I rely on my spellcheck. But I also need a laptop to write from weird positions. Because of my spinal disability and chronic pain, I have to change position often. I can’t sit somewhere for a long time, so I end up moving around to find the sweet spot where my body will let me write. There are also days when I can’t sit up, so writing from my bed often happens.
I was inspired by something that Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha said about the tradition of Disabled people “writing from the sickbed.” It is extraordinary to think about how the Disabled community has historically taken part in this process of writing from the bed: it’s a connection between all of us. When I read her words, I felt connected to all the other Disabled writers writing from the bed. Her words made me feel a sense of community with all the other Disabled writers out there using the same practices.
KAC: I often feel like commonly repeated writing advice is geared towards abled writers and that some of that advice can be a poor fit for Disabled writers. Do you ever hear writing advice and think, that will not work with this disability? What’s the worst writing advice you’ve heard?
DNS: Nicely said! Yes, absolutely. All the advice I have been given on writing is to think of it as a career: just sit at your desk for eight hours a day and write. It doesn’t work for me and probably for most Disabled people. Sitting at a desk for long periods is not possible when managing pain. I also find that because of my ADHD, I need to be fuelled by inspiration, to feel like I have to write. I can’t imagine just working on something from 9 to 5.
KAC: What advice would you offer to Disabled writers about getting their writing done? Any practical tips for writers with similar disabilities to yours?
DNS: My key piece of advice for Disabled writers is to remember that writing advice, like everything else, is elaborated in an ableist world and constructed to feature only one type of body. So, remember not to internalize that ableism and instead find your way.
I encourage Disabled writers to find the methods that work best for them. This process often requires a lot of experimentation to find the right writing niche or parameters. For example, experiment with which time of day works best; try using different technologies; consider writing in different spaces; explore various background noise. The most powerful thing is discovering what works best for you.
KAC: Do you have any advice for the Disabled writer who isn’t writing right now, who keeps losing momentum because of medical interruptions? How do you get back into the flow of writing after a period of not being able to work?
DNS: My advice would be to take time to play and not feel pressured to write. It is vital to let inspiration happen when it happens. Again, that might be my personal bias because I only write when inspired, so everyone should find what works best for them.
In terms of medical interruptions, this has been a challenge for me, too. I often lose the flow of my work because medical procedures or health issues prevent me from writing, so I have to go back and re-read it all to start up the writing process again—I need to keep notes about where I was going.
I also suggest keeping a writing utensil nearby all the time, even when in hospital, so that if ideas come, you have a space to record them right away. When I have been too ill or unable to write things down, I’ve also used a tape recorder to record ideas.
KAC: One issue I often hear from other Disabled writers is this pattern of abled people telling us our #ownvoices Disabled characters aren’t Disabled enough, or believable, or that they aren’t Disabled in the right way. Is this something you’ve seen?
DNS: Yes!! This!! Absolutely. I have had so many people tell me that my Disabled characters aren’t Disabled in the right way, that they need to fit into tropes. Many abled writers have difficulty with the idea that a Disabled character can be Disabled and still have a worthwhile and fulfilling life. I have had editors tell me that my characters should be “fixed” or “cured” to create a happy ending. It just does so much damage: they assume that one can’t live a happy and fulfilling life while Disabled.
As Disabled people, we are accustomed to people telling us their view of our bodies and our narratives. This is why counter-narrative is so important: we can write back to the tropes and assumptions about us. We can change those assumptions. But the issue is that most publishers or anthologists don’t give us that opportunity. They often reject our work because we aren’t telling the stories they expect about disability, those informed by tropes and biases.
I was lucky to encounter the anthology Nothing Without Us (Renaissance Press), which emphasized own voices narratives. It was edited by Disabled people, and I think that makes a lot of difference. It was a wonderful experience to have my work understood. I presented them with my story “Charity™,” which had been previously rejected because it wasn’t optimistic or inspirational enough. But Nothing Without Us provided a space for what we often call “Disabled Snark.”
KAC: How do widespread harmful narratives about Disabled people impact the way you write Disabled characters and stories? How can writers push back against harmful tropes about Disabled people?
DNS: People often ask me why I choose to work analyzing literary representations of disability. They tell me I should be doing policy work because “that will make a real difference.” I have to remind those people that writing and fictional representations define society’s concept of disability. They shape the policies we develop and whether/how people will follow them.
Writing back or counter-narrative writing is so essential because representation matters. I don’t just mean we should write Disabled characters: the characters should represent Disabled lives and not be draped in harmful tropes.
The tropes that do the most harm are the “cure” narrative—where disability is something that needs to be cured—and what we call the “better dead than Disabled” trope, where the character dies to achieve a “happy ending.”
I do a lot of work in science fiction writing, and one of the most harmful things authors can do is to erase us from the future—to present a world where there aren’t Disabled people. This eugenicist approach takes away notions of Disabled futurity. We often have to fight for our rights against the idea that eventually we won’t exist anymore or we will be cured, which is a justification for not working toward accommodations or supports right now.
KAC: How do you write disability in your work? Would you mind telling us about some of your Disabled characters and their arcs?
DNS: I write disability in two fundamental ways. One way is by purposely countering existing narratives about disability. For example, in my story “Charity™,” I speak back to the idea of disability as something that should be primarily supported by charities, disrupting both the charity model and the medical model of disability.
The other way is to present disability as just another aspect of a character, part of how they engage with the world. And I do that largely to remind readers that Disabled people do exist and that disabilities shape our lives in different ways.
KAC: Accessibility can be a big issue for Disabled writers taking part in conventions and events, applying to writing workshops and fellowships, even receiving awards at award ceremonies. What can cons and workshops do to help Disabled folx attend safely?
DNS: The main thing they can do is consult with the Disabled community. Often convention organizers believe that if they have elevators and ramps, they are accessible. They don’t understand the diversity of disabilities, nor do they consider the ableist mentality of many people involved in the cons.
I have at different times been told to “check” my cane—they think it is a prop—or that I can’t use elevators because they are “only for the special guests.” I’ve encountered barriers around people’s ideas of how a Disabled body “should” look.
Finally, it is critical to have a Disabled person specially designated to oversee accessibility.
KAC: How can Disabled communities create and hold safe spaces for multiply marginalized Disabled folx?
DNS: This is a central issue within the Disabled community. So often, intersectional identities are ignored, and people assume that everyone encounters the same barriers. Like any other community, the Disabled community can be racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic: we need to be working toward challenging not just ableism but also other forms of injustice. Our social justice work always needs to be intersectional.
For folks that don’t know the term “intersectional,” it is one that was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, who pointed out that experiences of discrimination aren’t the same for everyone, and that people experience overlapping discrimination depending on the connection between race, class, ability, and gender.
KAC: So we should listen to what multiply marginalized Disabled folx are saying about these issues and make sure our spaces are inclusive for everyone.
KAC: What advice would you offer to publishers about finding and working with #ownvoices Disabled writers? How can industry professionals create and hold space for us?
DNS: The fundamental thing is to ensure disability representation in all aspects of the publishing process. Representation matters and can be the difference between perpetuating harmful ableism or creating significant Disabled works. We also need to remind editors that Disabled people are the experts on their narratives. We know our stories best.
KAC: Last but not least, I’d like to come back to finding community. There’s something magical and rare about Disabled creative communities, about meeting other Disabled folx outside of a medical context. How can we find and meet other Disabled writers? How do we connect with Disabled communities?
DNS: I can’t underestimate how powerful the Disabled community is. It allows us to do our work because if we are looking for support and accommodations, odds are someone has already encountered the same barriers and overcome them. Frequently, we find out about hostile or problematic markets from other Disabled writers. And our Disabled writing communities support us.
I find a lot of my writing process involves checking in with my Disabled friends—getting their support and supporting them in return. Social media are dynamic spaces for connecting with these communities. In particular, I’ve found what we’ve called Disabled Twitter to be a powerful space for creating community and not feeling alone. We can see that others are experiencing the same things or working through the same issues. It allows us to feel a sense of community and connection, and prevents the isolation that is often part of the Disabled experience in our highly ableist society.
KAC: Is there anything else you'd like to add before we wrap up?
DNS: I think that covers everything. Thank you for such powerful and thought-provoking questions, and thank you for the opportunity to chat with you and reach out to others in our community.
KAC: Thank you so much for sitting down to talk with me today!
Disabled readers, we’d love to hear your thoughts! What writing advice do you have for other writers like you? Join the conversation on social media with #writingwhileDisabled and #cripwriting!