I’ve written over sixty books in multiple genres that run the gambit: short fiction, romance, fantasy, poetry, young adult, children’s literature, horror and suspense, even some science fiction. In all of those books, I have never had a character that was disabled—not in any of my books.
I was born with cerebral palsy (CP). When I was younger, I had been desperate to read books that included a disabled character. My mother found Mine for Keeps by Jean Little. In the story, there is a girl who lives with CP.
I remember how changed I was by that, having someone like me reflected on the page. It was a revelation. After finishing the book for the third time, I realised something: reading a book about someone with my disability made me feel “normal.”
As I got older, I resolved to be a writer who told stories of people who were misunderstood, who were thought to be broken but who really just wanted to be loved. I wrote a young adult novel called The Ghost Mirror, about a young girl named Mave who is a witch and finds herself in a world that is inside of a mirror. I wrote a book of short stories about magic in everyday places.
I had been skating around the issues I wanted to write about. Mave’s magic was kind of like her disability; but I waned to bring it out into the open and really talk about disabilities in some way. I wanted them to be “normal.”
However, I was afraid. I thought that writing about characters with actual disabilities would be putting too much of myself on the page. An author already puts themselves in their characters; I thought that they didn’t need to be afflicted by what I lived with. I loved them too much to make them live as I did.
After writing The Ghost Mirror, I went on to publish over forty romance novels, many of them becoming bestsellers. There wasn’t a single disabled character within those books either. All of the characters were all kind of searching for themselves in some way, but none of them dealt with disabilities of any kind.
Then, in 2013, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and I stopped writing romance novels. In fact, I stopped writing completely. I was unable to write. Over the course of six months, I taught myself to walk again, to speak again and, most importantly, to write again.
When I had regained my ability to write, I wanted to write novels and stories that mattered. I don’t really know what that means, as all writing matters, but I turned away from writing romance novels. How could I write about love when I didn’t love myself?
My writing turned darker towards horror and magical realism as my characters fought to find themselves, just as I had. I had finished one novel called The Other Side of Oz and was wondering what to write next. While looking through my files, I found three chapters of something that I had started years before. At the time, it only had the title of Boyfriends.
I read those three chapters and fell in love with the characters of Blaine, Nancy, Chuck, William, Mike, and Poppy. I thought I could have a lot of fun with this, try to find the joy in writing again instead of writing dark and depressing stuff. I had had enough of living in the shadows; I wanted to go into the light.
The idea I had for the novel was kind of an updated Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin, a series of books that helped to shape my identity both as a gay man and as a writer. I thought I could throw my own spin on a revolving narrative and, hopefully, find some more of myself along the way.
As I wrote the book, I realised that the story would not be contained in one novel. I planned out a trilogy. I knew that the stories contained within the trilogy would be wide-ranging and I would try to capture every facet of GLBTIQA lifestyle that I could think of.
Over the course of Lust and Lemonade and then Life and Lemonade, I covered gays, lesbians, abuse, drug addiction, and sex workers. I looked at straight love, gay love, lesbian love, and bisexuality. I even had two characters who are transgender—one a trans man and the other a trans woman. In Love and Lemonade, the third and final book of the trilogy, I wanted to cover drag queens, BDSM, and the loss of a loved one.
There was one issue that I still hadn’t touched, though. I thought back to that long-ago day when I had wanted to write about disabled characters. I had written about every aspect of GLBTQIA life and society that I could; wasn’t I a gay man? But didn’t I also live with a disability and a disease?
At first, I thought I would write about someone who used a wheelchair. Then it hit me: I knew nothing about having to use a wheelchair. I’m able to walk without a mobility device. It would be doing myself a disservice, not to mention those who are dependant on a wheelchair.
If I was going to write about a character with a disability, it should be my own. Gone are the days where I am too shy or hesitant to talk about my MS. I have a blog where I write about living with both CP and MS. I’m vocal about being disabled and have even recently completed a memoir.
I had been afraid back then, afraid of taking that kind of challenge on and being strong enough to bear it. Well, I am not afraid now. I want to write about a disability that I know well. So, I will write about my own.
I took tentative steps at first, when Zack came on the page. He was me, but not me. Zack had the red hair and green eyes I always wanted, but he also had my disease. It felt odd at first, writing a character with a disability. I wasn’t sure what I was doing.
In the end, as I grew to know Zack more, I let him go through some of the struggles that I’ve had to endure. Even though Blaine and Nancy are the characters that are most like me (Blaine the quiet side of me and Nancy the fabulous side of me), Zack is me on the page, with a red dye job and green contacts.
As I continued to write Zack’s journey, it became less weird for me, less awkward. It became cathartic and wonderfully freeing. As I continue writing Zack’s story (I’m almost done the first draft of Love and Lemonade as I write this), I discovered what Zack has taught me: His story has made me realise that even though I’m disabled and carry a disease within my skin, that doesn’t make me different. I am just like everyone else, trying to figure out my path on this journey we call life.
I just might sparkle brighter than most.
Jamieson Wolf is an award-winning, number one bestselling author of over sixty books and writer of Two Steps at a Time, a blog about having multiple sclerosis and cerebral palsy. He is an accomplished artist who works in mixed media, charcoal, pastels, and oil paints. He is also something of an amateur photographer, a poet, a perfume designer, and a graphic designer.
Jamieson currently lives in Ottawa, Ontario with his husband Michael and his cat Tula, who is fearless. You can read more about Jamieson on his website or his blog, and can connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.