Monday, March 18, 2019

On Blindness and the Teaching of Form in Essays

JT: I’m explaining the focus of my Intermediate Nonfiction course with the syllabus projected onto the large screen when I notice a young woman (brown shoulder-length hair, skinny jeans, soft sweater, brown lace booties) in the front right corner seat wearing sunglasses. It is January, 2018. A white cane leans against the wall beside her. Her fingers alternate between the Macbook on her desk and a small, blue keyboard on her lap. One earbud in, she types notes as I go along, and when I pause to ask the students to write their first names on a sheet of paper and hang it from the edge of their desks, the young woman turns to another female student behind her and whispers. The student whispers back, writes something on a sheet of paper and hands it to her. I watch the young woman fidget with the folded paper until it hangs from the side of her desk. Nikki.

I panic.

I panic because the class I have designed, “The Essay Form(s),” relies heavily on the visual aspect of the essay and includes units on the braided, the enumerated, the segmented, the one-sentence, and the triptych, as well as a final unit—Innovations in the Essay—that includes borrowed form (hermit crab) essays and other experimental, invented approaches. I have taught a version of this class for a few semesters, always with the emphasis on the conversation between form and content and how various forms engage the reader visually on the page.

How, I wonder, is this going to work?

NL: My first thought, after class was over, was that I was really looking forward to learning more. Creative writing was a new passion. Upon completing my first fiction workshop the previous fall, I decided to take creative nonfiction because the opportunity sounded exciting. Nonfiction—real life? I had no clue what to expect. I didn’t know if anyone would be interested in reading about my life. As I always do, I introduced myself to Dr. Talbot after the class had ended and said, “I don’t want you to worry. Blindness won’t affect anything at all.”

Said with a smile, with confidence, with a knowledge that this was, in fact, the truth.

I was fairly certain that blindness would only mean I would receive the assignments via e-mail, whereas my sighted peers received them in a course packet. I assumed blindness would mean nothing more than it does in my other classes, that I’d simply take notes on my computer. I had absolutely no idea what it would actually mean: thinking in a new way about things I’d never had to think about before. Form. Shape. Font. What those things would mean to a Braille reader like myself.

But I didn’t know any of this then.

JT: After that first class ended, I walked back to my office, worrying about the small group read-arounds.

Every Thursday, each student brings in two copies of a 300-word experiment in the form we are studying. One copy for the group, one for me. In groups of four to five, they silently pass their experiments around the circle, reading and underlining passages they admire or identify with, as well as one other element that changes each week. Sometimes, a + for where a reader wants more information or an E to signal that an entire essay could be made from that line or an L for a surprising leap across the white space between segments.

As the experiments go around, students come across a sentence already underlined or find a plus sign or an E in the margin. If they agree, they add a check next to it. So students can get their experiments back with ✓✓✓✓ in sections or find sections with no markings, those areas I call “crickets.” After the first read-around, I ask students to look at their writing and identify where the energy is (where are the multi-colored checkmarks?). Students answer with “a strong detail” or “an image” or “a strong emotion,” and I explain that my strategy, in part, is to teach them how to assess what’s working and not working. In other words, I want them to see what’s going on in their writing.
I considered the read-arounds, the emphasis on visual assessment, the underline or the + or the ✓. Blindness wouldn’t affect Nikki’s learning, but it would impact my teaching.

Nikki’s group ended up meeting each Thursday at a table in the hallway, and while the rest of the groups sat in the classroom silently reading in circles, Nikki’s group took turns reading their experiments orally and commenting on strong lines or discussing the assigned elements for that day.

Nikki and I figured out after a couple of read-arounds that the sighted members of her group needed a hard copy of each experiment to make their underlines and notations, in addition to the group discussion. A hybrid read-around, part out loud, part on the page.

Sometimes I went in the hallway to check on Nikki’s group, but most of the time, I left them on their own because I don’t monitor other small groups. Nikki, what did I miss out there in the hallway? What was your takeaway from the oral read-arounds?

NL: The group read-arounds were undoubtedly my favorite part of Thursdays. When I read a nonfiction essay, or any piece of writing really, I try to do so only with Braille, because it enables me to try to hear what the author’s voice sounds like in my head. When I read with a screen reader, as helpful as that can be, I hear an electronic voice and don’t feel I can connect with the author. This is to say that I was so, so excited by the prospect of listening to my group members read their own work aloud. It meant that I would get to hear their tone and inflection and the way they phrased each syllable. And they did not disappoint. Each Thursday, my group brought their best work to the table, leaving me in awe each time they read for me.

Additionally, after that first read-around, I found that reading my writing aloud wasn’t as daunting as I had previously thought. By the end of the semester, I’d grown to enjoy doing so. As one of my group members read his or her writing, I would open a document and write down particular phrases that stood out to me as I heard them, as well as anything Dr. Talbot had asked us to point out that week. On the flipside, as I read my writing aloud to them, they would circle and underline their favorite parts of my work and then review them with me at the end of my reading, all of which I would write down in that same document under the heading “Notes.” This became a weekly ritual for us. I learned to listen for specific things in the writings: syntax length, the use of what Dr. Talbot calls “the magic three,” or the clarity of the persona.

Also, if a part of someone’s writing was in italics, or bold, or changed font, my friends took the liberty of letting me know. If the form was segmented, they told me how each segment was denoted (by asterisks, by number, by symbol.) By the end of the semester, none of us wanted to see group read-arounds end, because we had grown to thoroughly enjoy the time we shared our writing aloud. It helped me become a better writer, and I would wager to bet it helped them notice different things about their own work that they probably hadn’t had to think about before, such as form, italics, white space. By the end, we knew each other’s writing styles inside out.

JT: During those initial weeks, I struggled to understand what you could “see” regarding segments in essays, and you struggled to understand what segmentation meant, how it appeared on the page. But we had a breakthrough moment in my office. Would you like to tell about it?

NL: The moment you are referencing is one I will never forget. I’ve been fortunate to be a fluent Braille reader since the age of eight, and for about five of those years, I used a refreshable Braille display that connects to my computer to read everything from essays to novels. I realized during the segmentation unit that the Braille display I utilize was reading sentences line by line, which made the concept of sentence-by-sentence segments nearly impossible for me to grasp. For example, if the sentence was longer, I may receive a line of that sentence before needing to advance it to the next line. I had no understanding of how long a segment could or should be. I remember feeling frustrated that I didn’t have the answer to figure out this thing that seemed so complex yet so simple at the same time. You and I decided it might be a good idea to move away from technology and go back to the basics of Braille as I learned to read it, before refreshable Braille displays and computers entered my life.
With that in mind, I typed—in Braille—an essay by Ira Sukrungruang, “The Cruelty we Delivered: An Apology.” The next day, I brought the four pages (in landscape mode) to your office. I remember your awe as you watched me read the words. It reminded me that for someone who has never seen Braille, it can be really neat to observe the reading process. Then, you took scissors and cut that essay into strips, laying each out across the small sofa in your office. As I placed my hands on the strips – segments – I was astounded. The fifth segment was shortest of all and to me, carried the most weight in the essay. Those that were longer sandwiched the shorter one, and suddenly I understood fully what a segmented essay was all about. And it was all because we were both willing to think outside the box. Technology is an amazing asset, and I can’t imagine my life without it; however, for this exercise, it was really crucial to go back to the basics of Braille formatting, as can be done only on paper.

JT: While you held the strip of the fifth segment in your hands, I asked you if you had any thoughts about why it was shorter then the other segments, and you answered, “Because [the boys are] all together in that one, and that’s an important moment.” In class, we had been discussing how short segments can be used for emphasis, and in that moment, you physically recognized that.

And then you asked: “So when the students read, they can see this?”

I realized that a student might be able to see, but may not pay attention to visual cues on the page. The next day in class, you and I shared our conversation, and from then on, everyone was more attuned to segment size variation or consistency, to writer’s choices in regard to the spaces in their work. Since that class, I share this anecdote every semester to emphasize the importance of not only reading an essay, but looking at it.
And here’s something else about the visual aspect of the essay. My syllabus requires that students avoid the default font in Word and use the experiments throughout the semester to “find” their font, the one that matches their voice or the tone of the piece. The font in your experiments, Nikki, even this semester in Advanced Nonfiction, are all different. How do you create different fonts, even when font has no meaning for you?

NL: Because Braille looks the same to the blind reader all the time, no matter what is being read, font as it appears in print was something I hadn’t thought about before. There is no way to change font in Braille because, though different symbols may be present, the code itself doesn’t change. To that end, I found thinking about print font confusing—until you asked me to consider how each experiment I wrote made me feel. You asked me to pick a font based on my answer to that question.
I’ve found over time that the font that usually goes best with my writing is Apple Chancery (Nikki’s other recurring font is a 10 point Courier New. It works well with her voice on the page.). As it has been described to me, it is gentle and swirls across the page in a loop. And many of my experiments feel like they need this gentle, swirling font.

On days this font does not fit my writing, I ask a wonderful assistant in one of the campus computer labs for a bold font, or font that is more quiet, or a font of a particular emotion. This pairs an emotion, a concept I am familiar with, with print font, a concept I am not.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the incredible people who have taken the time to describe these fonts to me in this way; when I turn in an essay, I know it looks uniquely like something I wrote.

JT: In our conversations and in class, you insisted, more than once, your desire to do what your classmates did, but we did make some minor adjustments. Which ones worked best for you?

NL: Self-advocacy has been an important part of my life from a young age, and I knew you took my questions seriously and worked diligently to understand my way of learning so you could best help me understand what I needed to know. Often times, once you explained it in a way I could grasp as a Braille reader, such as when you told me about the three ideas that run throughout a braided essay, it made total sense. The oral read-arounds worked really well because they enabled me to fully participate in a way that was unique to my learning style. I believe it also helped me learn to read more confidently, something I previously struggled with at the beginning of the semester. Finally – and it seems really simple – but e-mail was our best medium of communication. Each week you would email me the essays, along with any notes on formatting and form I should know before reading the piece, and this was extremely helpful. With these three things, I truly learned an incredible amount in the class and would recommend that any blind student take a class on form if given the opportunity. I simply cannot imagine my writing now without the knowledge I have gained on form, and it is something I always think about now as I sit down to write a new piece.

JT: After a few weeks, we agreed it would be beneficial to add an Independent Study to your coursework as an extension of the class so that we would have more time to discuss the shape and function of different forms and for you to read additional essay models. You also worked one-on-one with some of the PhD students. Those students each selected an essay, such as Eula Biss’s “Time and Distance Overcome,” “Dislocation” by Verity Sayles, or Steven Church’s “Auscultation,” because of the their distinct shape. And when one of those students asked how you would describe the shape of Braille, you answered, “Shapeless.”

Thinking about shapelessness—the one sentence essay really clicked for you, because it makes the most sense to you as a Braille reader. What is the connection/relationship between the one sentence essay and Braille?

NL: My entire life, I have been a loquacious speaker; my sentences are long, winding, and often require gentle interruptions from the person listening, so they are able to get a word in! This is not to say I do not listen, but what I found is that I write the way I tend to speak. When I discovered an author could write an entire essay full of emotion and sentiment all in one sentence, I could not wait to try it.

In my mind, the one-sentence essay translates the best to Braille because it just flows across the page, nothing special needed. It just is what it will be. The one-sentence essay effectively let me convey scenarios which were full of action, full of excitement, full of feelings that are not controlled easily and tend to burst to the surface. That was what the one sentence essay came to represent for me. In a one sentence essay, the form reads fluently in Braille because it is essentially a series of lines working together to form the sentence, the same way Braille is presented.

JT: Finally, what did it feel like to have your own one sentence essay, “This is What (Real) Freedom Is”, published in HAD?

NL: Having my first essay published is a tremendous honor, and I couldn’t have done it without the time and energy and brilliance of the graduate students who worked with me to make this piece the best it could be. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my family and friends, especially the family friend who inspired the piece. And I couldn’t have done it without the support and guidance of you, Dr. Talbot, who took the time to teach me all I needed to know about form and nonfiction in general. Finally, this essay found its home with Hobart, and I am forever grateful to Laura Gill and her team for taking a chance on me and deciding this essay was worth a shot.

Special thanks to Ruby Al-Qasem, Clinton Crockett Peters, Kim Garza, and Spencer Hyde.


Nikki Lyssy is a senior at the University of North Texas, where she studies creative writing. Her favorite journals to read include Brevity, Hobart, Kenyon Review Online, Sweet, Pithead Chapel, and Hippocampus. After graduation, she plans to pursue an MFA.

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren't: A Memoir (Soft Skull) and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (Iowa). She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of North Texas.


  1. This is so smart, so amazing, and so necessary for faculty (myself at times) who feel ill-equipped to work with students such as Nikki (who by the way, seems brilliant.)

  2. What a brilliant and inspiring conversation. Thank you!

  3. This is blowing my mind and I love everything about this. The low-tech braille printing, cut up into strips, to physically experience the segmented essay is fantastic, as is the reverse -- finding a form, like the single-sentence essay, to pair formally with the experience of reading braille.