Here’s a writing exercise for you: Go into a room with your brain-damaged, deaf, seven-year-old daughter (or perhaps a normal daughter or son) and start writing to her. Don’t ignore her, but let her frequent interruptions, a sudden screeched “Eeee,” influence the course of your writing. This is more or less what Paul West did in writing Words for a Deaf Daughter. In his introduction to the Dalkey Archives edition, West writes, “It suited [Mandy] especially that I was writing on the backs of envelopes slit open; something homespun and undignified in that appealed to her, not least because it was on such paper that she did her own extraordinary daubs and composed what passed with her for prose. The original manuscript sits in a steel drawer in a university library now, an uncouth bundle of penciled, ball-pointed, crayoned handwriting joined, quite often, by Mandy’s scrawls and squiggles: a garish obbligato in the margin, sometimes on the middle of the page. Often enough, in her ecstatically ebullient way, she would snatch a page from me and run away with it, giggling.”
Although parenting a disabled child can be challenging, to say the least, and heartbreaking at times, West ponders his daughter with good humor and wonder. The book reads at times like a sustained freewrite wherein West, set off by something that his daughter does or says, riffs on everything from wine labels to birds to airplanes, always circling back to Amanda. While it may have been written in the presence of a child, it’s the kind of dense, poetic, thought-filled book that you’d best savor after yours are asleep.
For the record, I have tried, on occasion, to write in the presence of Lilia. My own daughter, however, loves notebooks almost as much as she loves shoes and whenever she sees me with one, she tries to take it away and write on it herself. Thus, like West’s manuscript pages, my various notebooks are decorated with Lilia’s drawings and letters. I like to think that she will be a writer someday, too.