Thursday, November 27, 2008

Seven Wheelchairs: The Backstory

Backstory: Where authors share secrets, truths, logical and illogical moments that sparked their fiction or memoirs, a literary project by M.J. Rose and Jessica Keener.

The backstory behind Seven Wheelchairs ...
How do you write about something you hate? I suppose it's natural enough if you're Christopher Hitchens and the name of God twists your atheist knickers in a knot. On the other hand, if you want to publish a memoir, you'd better learn why you hate something, what the hate has done, is doing, and will do to you, and how you intend to portray yourself as acceptable in mixed company.

I'm a polio quad. I hate being paralyzed, hate that an apparent "vaccine accident" set me down to ride out my life in a wheelchair, hate being dependent upon other people for some of my everyday needs, and I've hated it all for fifty years.

Not very likable, huh? Yes, and no. I always believe that my True Self wasn't the most pleasant sort – a guy in the wheelchair, a little bitter, a little angry, and very much frustrated. Of course, I wore a disguise in public, one that allowed me to play another part in the drama we call life. I was a guy who had a sense of humor, tried to be kind and helpful, and was generally upbeat. I left the evil doppelganger at home.

Then five or six years ago someone gave me a book bag with a Groucho Marx aphorism on it ("Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read."). Hey, I thought, this bag's going to make for a great way to carry my urinal in an unobtrusive fashion. After all, outside of an accessible restroom, a urinal can be a paralyzed man's best friend, right?

And that whimsical thought was the hook for a 2500 word essay called "A Pot to Pee in."

I'd been writing ten years or so at that point, had published essays on a variety of topics, and I even had spoken out in op/eds about disability issues, but I'd never written a … true confession about the practicalities of life as a gimp. I had never explored the hard-grained truth about rolling through life boob-high to the world and answered questions about disability mannerly people are too polite to ask. I knew it wasn't going to be easy. In fact, "A Pot to Pee in" was initially as close as I could come to facing the biggie – "How do people in wheelchairs have sex?"

The essay received rave reviews from my writing critique group, including several responses which said, more or less, "You have a memoir to write."

The first 50,000 words came easily – iron lungs, wheelchairs, hospitals – all that dramatic stuff that makes Grey's Anatomy and ER hot properties on television.

The next 50,000 words were a surprise, however. It turns out even though I do damn well hate being paralyzed, there lurked somewhere deep in my psyche an Observer. Of course, the guy had probably been there all along. Why else would I be writing?

Strangely enough, there was another person back there too, smiling as he rode through my subconscious, always ready to help. This one was an odd amalgamation of stoicism, existentialism, and mysticism, a man who had a slippery grip on the wisdom of Jesus and Buddha, Viktor Frankl and Abraham Lincoln, a man who wanted to seek within himself serenity and patience and generosity.

That's the guy who reminded the other two of Lincoln's aphorism, "Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."

After that, all three of us collaborated on writing Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio.
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