You Can’t Tell By Looking. . .


May 30, 2017


You Can’t Tell By Looking. . .

By Stacy Brewster

I have several prompts I love to throw out the first week of a writing workshop. Where I come from…, Out my window…, On my way here…. Prompts which, when shared aloud, help break the ice between strangers by giving some insight into each person’s perspective, their style, their humanity and how it’s evoked through language. Even with a short write, eight minutes say, you already begin to appreciate all the disparate ways we have of telling stories — with prose and with poetry, in linear ways and circular ways, with wit or surprise or humor or an exquisite eye for detail.

You can’t tell by looking… is another one I pull out early for the way it gently pushes us up to the line of what we sometimes feel uncomfortable naming. Even though I train participants to speak about each other’s writing as though it were fiction — to keep the focus on the words, not the writer — still it is hard to write on this prompt without using first person. And when we share, we are often giving others a glimpse into our own vulnerability, the fear or shame or pain we keep secret, the words between the words.

You couldn’t tell by looking, but in the summer of 2015, my own hands began to fail me. My creative practice was in high gear. My writing group was going well. I was turning out the most intimate, personal fiction I’d ever attempted. Older pieces — a mix of poetry, flash fiction and traditional short stories — were steadily finding homes in literary journals and magazines. I had two bigger projects mapped out ahead of me and was gearing up to facilitate a 10-week writing workshop for Write Around Portland. All this while working a full-time day job. I was completely oblivious as to how serious my carpal tunnel syndrome was or how much further it was being activated by the additional stress I carried in my neck and shoulders.

You couldn’t tell by looking then because at first it was just some numbness in my fingers or a weird thrumming vibration in my arms I didn’t really know how to describe, let alone name. Wasn’t this the price for doing the work, for working my hands too hard — a morning writing practice, commuting by bike, a day job heavily reliant on email, not to mention a normal day’s worth of text and social media? Wouldn’t some exercises, some ergonomic adjustments at home and at work, do the trick? Wouldn’t there be a payoff?

You couldn’t tell by looking but my whole world was gradually being sucked into an acquired disability invisible from the outside. In addition to my arms and hands, two other unrelated conditions flared up as well, the combined force of which triggered more anxiety, more depression, a sense that my entire body was betraying me. I had sought different specialists, tried different remedies, bought new keyboards and mice, overhauled my posture, texted less, responded less to email, tried a two-week electronics diet, stopped biking, stopped doing yoga, stopped holding workshops because my handwriting couldn’t keep pace, even bought a new computer and new assistive dictation software to allow me to control everything by voice. All to avoid a diagnosis I feared and surgery I didn’t want until I’d tried everything, including physical therapy.

My transition from abled to disabled was too gradual and internal for anyone to take much notice who didn’t know me or work with me. My embarrassment, confusion, frustration, impatience, pain and fear had to be churned over, dissected, the script flipped in my own head first so I could accept the challenges that awaited me. You couldn’t tell by looking, but for most of last year it felt like someone had pressed the mute button on me. And, even after bilateral carpal tunnel release surgery this past February, it is still a very gradual process of my volume coming back, prompt by prompt, word by word.

Whether in a short workshop write with strangers or our repeat visits with specialists, we never stop revising our stories, trying in small ways to make visible that which you can’t always tell by looking, to put in words what medicine sometimes can’t. As a patient, I’m constantly reminded that not all medical histories are written down. It is the same with writing. There are always words between the words, and it is our great privilege to listen for them.

Stacy Brewster is a writer, editor, writing workshop facilitator and longtime volunteer with Write Around Portland. He is the co-founder of the Full Frontal Writing Collective and owner and principal of Launch Creative NW, dedicated to helping writers of all levels and stages of their careers get creative projects completed and shared with the world. Stacy co-hosts the Northwest Narrative Medicine Series, a monthly speaker series at OHSU. Join him on Tuesday, June 13th for a mini-writing workshop and talk about what it means to have a creative practice interrupted by illness. More at

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