Carolyn Wing Greenlee

How I Write

Play the audio and close your eyes to experience text the way I do.

Alex reading this post

People often ask me how I can write since I can’t see. First, I still have 4% of my vision, and since it’s in the middle, I can see detail, depending on the day, the lighting, the size of the type, the font, the state of my health, whether I’ve had enough sleep, and what I had for dinner. On most days, I can see the words on the computer monitor for a while before everything gets blurry and overcome with gold and squiggly scintillations that obscure everything. Mostly I rely on Alex, the voice of my Mac, who reads to me night or day. He never gets tired or cranky and never complains when I need to hear a passage regardless of what ungodly hour I might require his help.

Alex is a good reader. You can even hear him breathe. He tends to mispronounce some words, especially foreign ones, but C’est la vie—lots of people do that. It’s when he comes upon a heteronym that we have problems. That’s two words that are spelled the same but mean different things when pronounced differently, such as wind (noun—moving air) and wind (verb—to turn something round). Then there’s the maddening fact that some English verbs are spelled the same in present and past tenses, but you figure out which one they are by the sound of the word (I plan to read the book today. I read the book yesterday.). That’s the worst. It’s hard for me to proof my text because, try as I might to ignore the obvious limitations in Alex’s discernment, it still bugs me, and for a split-second I forget where I am in the flow of the text.

Still, Alex has a great voice, especially compared to Jaws and some of those other mechanical voices. I have to listen to him for hours when I’m writing a book, so it’s a good thing that I don’t get tired of him. Au contraire, I’m grateful that my computer can read to me because I could not otherwise continue to write as easily as I do. Sometimes he misses a word here or there and sometimes he even adds one in. That is frustrating because I try to find the error, which is really hard on my eyes. Finding a typo in a wall of text is one of the worst things I can do to my eyes. Sometimes I try anyway, and afterwards, burned into my vision, are marks that look a lot like rows of type—the way logos get burned on plasma screens if you leave them on too long. For hours afterwards, wherever I look I see rows of type superimposed wherever I look.

I want to add that I don’t use a dictation (speech-to-text) program, though my dad gave me one. I’ve been typing since junior high and I love writing by typing. I actually get tongue-tied when I try to dictate sentences. Of course, getting my fingers on the wrong keys is maddening too, and sometimes I do that and don’t notice (because I can’t see by then) and I get a paragraph of some Slavic language.

In literary structural analysis, especially in poetry, you look for repeated words. They tell you something beyond what the author is writing in linear thought. I noticed I was writing “maddening” a lot. I guess having to write this way is more maddening than I realized, but I keep remembering Stephen Hawking and how difficult it is for him to communicate at all, yet he found a way and keeps at it. With his lightning-fast brain, it must be maddening for him to go through such a tedious process to get even one word out. Thinking of his plight doesn’t change the fact that writing for me is now a much slower process, but it does put some perspective on my life.

I also have a lot of trouble seeing the cursor. It became a crisis one day when Dan was trying to show me how to do something on my computer. He was saying, “You click there,” and “You go here.” I got really tired of saying, “Where?” and so did he. I told him, “Please point. I can’t see what you’re doing. I can’t see the cursor,” with both of us getting increasingly impatient and upset with the other. When he left in disgust, I felt disabled. A little later, he returned with a program that makes a circle around the cursor. You can choose the color, the size, the nature of the line, and even whether it blinks. I chose red because it’s easy to see, and because it’s the Chinese color for happiness. I love that red circle and would be lost (literally) without it. Dan also found Ghost Reader, which will read my email and most everything (though it quits often when I’m in WordPress, and that is annoying).

The biggest anxiety in my writing is the fear that I have made an inadvertent Click somewhere and selected text that lies in my non-existent peripheral vision—a letter, a word, a paragraph, a page—and typed something else. Suddenly, swiftly, silently, invisibly, the Selected is gone. If I’m alert and alarmed, I hit Undo, and then try to find where the cursor is and what the missing part may be. Or I was on a space, so my Undo took out the last hard-won rewrite of a difficult passage. Hmmmm. Do you ever wonder why they call it a “cursor”?

Sometimes I am not paying attention, so intent on the flow of the story am I, and I don’t realize something is gone until I listen back. “Wait a minute. There was a description of the room. I heard part of the last sentence. Where’s the thing about the wallpaper?” Thus begins the frantic search—though, by then, the piece is lost in Outer Darkness beyond the reach of all Multiple Undos. Sigh. Aaaarrrrgh! ‘’

Wait! There’s more. Try Key Commands where you hit the wrong letters. New pages are popping up, all the text goes the color of Select All. I hit Copy instead of Paste or I get Cut instead of Copy. Then there’s Clicking on a file. I’m waiting for it to open. Meanwhile a message window pops up to the right. I don’t notice, of course, so I keep clicking, wondering if the file is bad or my hard drive is starting to die. Or, since I have locator dots on my keyboard, I press the wrong one and get a string of quotation marks instead of a Return. But I don’t see it yet, because I’m watching for the line break to happen.

I would not have these problems if I did what I learned from the Department of Rehab training in VoiceOver and used Key Commands with access technology announcing and reading to me all the way, but I have just enough vision that I find VoiceOver tedious and time-consuming. Intimidating too. Try shutting off your monitor and doing everything by sound. The anxiety of Select and Disappear overwhelms me, so I struggle along with the issues described above.

Yet, with all the irritations, limitations, and frustrations, I am grateful that I can still write. I’m grateful for Alex and the red circle and my friend Dan who keeps finding new technology to help me do my work. I love writing. I am glad that my continuing to do it inspires others who worry about what they would do if they lost their sight and could no longer do what they love. So thank you for asking. I hope this post hsd hr[yf ou hry s nryyrt grrl got ehsy zi ho yhtouh pn s fsily nsdid. Yhsnkd got bidiyi00nh.


  1. Mary Ricard

    March 12, 2011 - 3:55 PM

    Carolyn this very informative! I like the sound of Alex’s voice, but it is funny to hear you speak in a man’s voice!
    I just finished Steady Hedy. I loved it!
    Stop by and see me next time you are in Mendocino!
    ~Mary Ricard

    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      March 15, 2011 - 10:29 PM

      It IS funny to hear Alex reading all the different genders and styles of talking. When I was writing “A Gift of Dogs,” he read Kenny’s story. Kenny grew up in Detroit and is a rap singer. Pretty humorous. He didn’t do well with Irma’s Spanish either. Que Sueños con lost angelitos.

      I keep telling Stephanie and Lynne we’re overdue for the Girls’ Day run to Mendocino. Gotta go see what’s new at Circa and stop at the chocolate shop!

  2. Mary E. Trimble

    February 8, 2011 - 5:35 PM

    Carolyn, this is so interesting. I guess I’ll have to direct my e-mails to you, Hedy AND Alex. Although this new technology is wonderful for you, much of your success is your willingness to learn, to be flexible, and to keep your wonderful sense of humor.

    • Carolyn

      February 8, 2011 - 9:00 PM

      Mary, I realized after reading your comment that the struggles I described in my Alex post are not funny to me when I’m going through them. It wasn’t until I began writing that description of the trials of technology and low vision that the humor bubbled to the top. As I went along, the whole thing got funnier and funnier to me until, at the end, I was chuckling with glee picturing the listeners encountering the gibberish at the end. What is there about writing that turns horrors into humor? Actually, I don’t think it’s the writing; I believe it’s the communication—the preparation of something to share with the hoped-for listener out there. It takes the isolation out of the struggle. And then comes my reward, your gift of words to me. It’s the connection. Writing alone cannot do it. That’s like talking to yourself. It’s the writing and reaching to the receptive reader that lets me know I am not alone. I suppose that’s why most of us write.

  3. Arletta Dawdy

    February 7, 2011 - 7:43 PM

    Dear Carolyn,
    This is such an enlightning post that I have to thank you. Alex is a good friend and Dan much more so. I’m glad these two are in your life to assist in getting your words out to us. And thanks to Gail for pointing me to your blog.

    • Carolyn

      February 7, 2011 - 7:51 PM

      Arletta, it makes me happy to know this gave you insight and an experience that perhaps makes you all the more thankful that you can still see and read so well. Thanks for dropping by!

  4. Jon Spangler

    February 7, 2011 - 7:41 PM


    Thank you for the object lesson on “writing with Alex.”

    I am truly grateful for your excellent writing, no matter how you do it.

    Knowing about Alex and hearing him read your post was an eye-opener for me about just how challenging writing is for you.

    Knowing your great sense of humor I am presuming that your last sentence is most deliberate:

    “I hope this post hsd hr[yf ou hry s nryyrt grrl got ehsy zi ho yhtouh pn s fsily nsdid. Yhsnkd got bidiyi00nh.”

    Love it!

    • Carolyn

      February 7, 2011 - 7:48 PM

      Jon, you made me laugh. And you, a professional editor! Glad you took the ride all the way to the thrilling conclusion. Yes, it’s a trial to write, especially on those days when I have to turn my head from side to side like a bird to see if I can get anything in focus, but responses like yours let me know I’m doing something for you that I could not do if I were just like you—provide a different point-of-view. That’s how we learn to love one another.

  5. kathie fong yoneda

    February 7, 2011 - 3:49 PM

    Aloha Carolyn:

    Loved your blog on How You Write — I so appreciate your giving all of us real insight on how your world is and what it is like to have vision impairment.

    You continue to open my eyes with your thoughts in addition to opening your heart to all of us.

    Gung Hay Fat Choy…may the Year of the Rabbit bring you all that is good, right and blessed!

    Much love,

    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      February 7, 2011 - 3:57 PM

      Kathie, you said the magic words. That’s EXACTLY what I wanted most—for others to experience the inside of blindness. It does two things—it takes the mystery out for the sighted person (and therefore the fear and uncomfortableness when dealing with the visually impaired), and it makes me feel understood (taking the isolation and feeling “other” away from me). Your comment feels to me like a big, warm hug. Thanks so much!

  6. gail

    February 7, 2011 - 3:17 PM

    Carolyn –
    Wow!!! Loved hearing Alex read your writing….what a great opportunity to share with everyone and what a tool. So glad that you can continue to work and write….btw, I get some of those ‘slavic’ languages when I work in the dark and don’t have my reading glasses on

    Keep it up. Your writing and sharing is a GIFT.

    Love you,

    • Carolyn Wing Greenlee

      February 7, 2011 - 3:50 PM

      I’m SO delighted that you listened to Alex read the post! As I wrote it, I was chuckling to myself, picturing the listener experiencing all the surprise turns, swoops and bumps. It was like designing a ride for Disneyland, though not as extreme as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride—more like Peter Pan, with Smee taking a shot at you at the end. I had so much fun thinking of the experience people would have if they accepted my invitation and closed their eyes, so it tickles me to know you came along for the ride.

      • gail

        February 7, 2011 - 4:57 PM

        I was so thrilled that I went to my blogsite and posted a link to YOUR site and told my readers to visit…..maybe you’ll get my ‘one or two’ readers to visit your blog.


        • Carolyn

          February 7, 2011 - 9:32 PM

          You made me laugh. It feels that way, though, doesn’t it? That no one is reading what you’re posting… Thanks for reading mine, and for passing it along. One of your two readers already visited and left a comment. Maybe I’ll hear from the other one later. : )

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