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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Someone Define Other-Abled For Me, Please!

by M. L. Buchman

I'm always perplexed by labels like this, and not merely because of the ever-changing landscape of PCness. Perhaps it is a sign of age. (Does other-abled count as a woman who is competent in her own right rather than as an adjunct to some male? It sure didn't used to. My mom and my wife's mother were both expected (required) to quit their jobs when they married--even though they both had very real skills.)

Maybe perplexed isn't the right word, but rather otherwise-thoughtful.

I'm a fiction writer by trade. It's my job to write characters who are "other." What if I wrote a character who wasn't? Bonnie from down the street or Randy from Medford. Not terribly evocative, is it?

My job is to find what is unique in a character, what makes them stand out, be exceptional, be more than they ever thought they could be. Because Bonnie from down the street actually commanded a wing of drones over Afghanistan for most of the war. And Randy, after years of flying helicopters in Iraq, is now a pilot and chief flight instructor for a very unique brand of firefighting helicopter. (Wild Fire)

Is it the smokejumper who lost his trade when he was permanently injured, but finds a new way to fight fire other-abled? (Pure Heat)

Perhaps the warrior who lost his arm when his war dog died to protect him from the worst of the blast? (Reaching Out at Henderson's Ranch)

Or is it the woman who is so good at what she does that even the Army's rules couldn't keep her out of flying for The Night Stalkers? (The Night Is Mine)

Fiction is about being exceptional, even if it is only in the character's own eyes.

I once had a curious writing assignment for a class.
Step #1: Write down something you're really good at.
I'm really good at 3D arrangement of objects. I've helped more friends move more times than I can count because I can load a truck as tightly as most pros. Whether its a pile of clothes into a suitcase or a houseful of belongings into a moving truck, I can just see it.
Step #2: Write a story in which that is a superpower.
So I wrote a little story. It was okay, not worth publishing, about a guy who could do that with bowls of peanuts in a bar or all the ships in New York harbor.

Huh! Was that character other-abled? Does that make me other-abled?

I have a friend who is completely colorblind. How does he make his living? As a painter and a theater lighting designer. He learned by rote how colors worked at a level I will never comprehend. I only saw him get tripped up once by the way. He placed a blue light against a tile wall, turning it the sickliest shade of green. I finally asked why he'd made that choice...and he was horrified. No one had told him the tile wall was yellow rather than white.

I used to own a 50' sailboat and I taught a lot of people how to sail on her. Far and away the best student of them all was a man with no use of his right hand. But his other-abledness wasn't working around his damaged hand, it was seeing outside the box. We had to play with alternate solutions a few times, but he didn't see the loss as a handicap, he simply saw it as an excuse to find more creative solutions to boat handling.

Perhaps it is simplistic of me.

When I write a character, any character, I am always on the lookout for what is other-abled about them.

What do they do that no one else could?

See the world from their own unique perspective.

I find that is what brings any character to life. And when that character is challenged? They will find their own unique path through the lens of the abled-ness, whether it is to save the day or win someone's heart.

I would argue that we are all other-abled, if we only have the bravery to look inside and see it. That is the true handicap, giving into the fear. The bravery is facing who we are and finding some way to be even better.

(By the way...no, I won't be packing your next moving truck.)

M.L. Buchman started the first of what is now over 50 novels and as many short stories while flying from South Korea to ride across the Australian Outback. All part of a solo around-the-world bicycle trip that ultimately launched his writing career.


Booklist has selected his military and firefighter series(es) as 3-time “Top 10 Romance of the Year.” NPR and Barnes & Noble have named other titles “Top 5 Romance of the Year.” In 2016 he was a finalist for RWA's RITA award. He also writes: contemporary romance, thrillers, and SF. More info at: www.mlbuchman.com.



5 comments:

Judith Ashley said...

Thanks for a thoughtful post, M.L. I agree that each of us is a unique individual and our job as writers is to show our readers that uniqueness and how it enhances rather than diminishes us.

Sarah Raplee said...

Great post, Matt!

Diana McCollum said...

Enjoyed your post Matt!

Barbara Rae Robinson said...

Very insightful, Matt. Love the whole concept. Will have to do some more thinking on the subject.

M. L. Buchman said...

Thanks all. I have to admit this was a really interesting post to write because the topic hit one of my buttons hard. "Other-abled" punched my "stereotype" button dead center.

I HATE stereotyping. I hate the way it boxes and classifies us. I did poorly in high school. All of my friends from middle school were tracked into advanced tracks, I was slotted in with kids who (for the most part) didn't care. Why? Because I was other-abled in a way our school couldn't measure. I don't memorize for crap. Equations, dates, sentence rules: I'm terrible at them all. Yet I was the one who ran the AV department and the theater. I was the one who they called when the school clock broke and the bells stopped ringing or some other building system stopped behaving. Why? I could figure out how things worked better than almost anyone in the school. Our class valedictorian signed my yearbook, "To the smartest one of us all." (I barely placed in the top third of 300 students.) I don't think I was the brightest, but I was certainly stereotyped right out of any classes that might have challenged me in that school. Since then, pigeon-holing people has been a major pet peeve. Is it any wonder that Emily Beale (my first military heroine) was created as "the woman who was so good they couldn't keep her out?"

Sorry, climbing off soapbox now. We are ALL other-abled. We just need to find ways to discover and celebrate that in ourselves. I don't work on where I'm weakest, I work intensely on where I'm strongest, because--duh--that's my greatest strength. Took me a long time to learn that one as well. (Now really getting off soapbox.)