Craft Capsule: Writing With Limitations

Susan Stinson

This is no. 95 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.

About a year ago I bumped my head on a low ceiling in the dark. There are few certainties in this story, but I likely got a concussion. Ever since I have endured what might be called post-concussion syndrome and/or benign paroxysmal positional vertigo and/or—the diagnosis that has proven most useful to me—vestibular migraines.

I’ve had headaches, mild to excruciating. I’ve had the sensation that the room was spinning, or that my apartment was tilting back and forth as if I was standing on the deck of a ship. Sometimes I experience a little tremble in the world as I turn my head. Once, the vertigo provoked nausea to the point that I couldn’t move without vomiting. I hear crackling or popping in my ears and feel fullness on the right side of my head. My neck aches. I had weeks of sensitivity to sound and light, including the light of my computer screen. I’ve had brain fog.  Some of the medications I’ve tried to address this have made it hard to concentrate, hard to stay awake. Things are better now, but none of it is completely gone.

This has made it difficult to write. But I can do it. Here are some insights and practices that might help others who are what novelist and essayist Esmé Weijun Wang calls “ambitious writers living with limitations.”

All of us are writing in the context of a global pandemic. I live alone and having new bodily limitations in a period of so much sickness, worry, disruption, caregiving, uncertainty, physical isolation, risk, and loss sometimes overwhelms me. One thing that lets me write is to turn toward the great waves of fear and grief. The feelings and experiences that threaten to overwhelm me can become energy instead of obstacle. It doesn’t always happen, but when it does it is a tremendous relief.

I have been meeting every week on Zoom with a small group of women. We encourage one another to take action to counter antidemocratic forces, racism, and corruption. We do small things: write postcards and letters, make phone calls, protest, help one another think things through. The motto of the group sets a very low bar: Do something, not nothing. That’s a goal I have every day for my writing too.

In an interview with Hilton Als, poet Robin Coste Lewis spoke about having sustained many injuries, including mild to moderate brain damage, in a fall. At one point she couldn’t read or write, but she came to an understanding with her healthcare providers that she would write one line a day and read one line a day. She spent each day making sure that the line she wrote was “the best damn line.” She went on to write her debut poetry collection, The Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems (Knopf, 2015), which won the National Book Award. It is brilliant.

Podcasts and audiobooks are increasingly important to my creative life. My symptoms fluctuate and are often under control, but when the room is spinning or I can’t tolerate light, I can’t read or write. Sometimes when I can’t read, I can listen.

Sometimes I can put a piece of paper over the page of a book and read it line by line. The stimulation of taking in writing I love gets me ready to write more powerfully than almost any other practice. There are also many writers who are great models in writing with physical pain, chronic illness, or disability: Adrienne Rich, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, and Eli Clare.

I’m in the middle of writing a heavily researched historical novel set in seventeenth-century Connecticut. When I start to panic about getting my mind to hold all I want it to in order to write this novel, I let myself dream of other forms: shorter, maybe more playful—more free.

I don’t yet know how this past year will change my writing. The habits of physical therapy are becoming rituals that allow me to start writing, whatever it brings. Sometimes every sentence is a struggle. Sometimes there is an outpouring of language that feels like sobbing or singing or simply like breathing. I want to get to the next sentence. That is enough. 


Susan Stinson is a writer, editor, and teacher. She is the author of four novels, including Spider in a Tree (Small Beer Press, 2013) and Martha Moody (Spinsters Ink Books, 1995; Small Beer Press, 2020). Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Curve, Lambda Literary Review, Seneca Review, and Kenyon Review Online. She is also a recipient of the Outstanding Mid-Career Novelists’ Prize from Lambda Literary. Born in Texas and raised in Colorado, she lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

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