'Voice' describes the ability to say something, using your own distinct style. It's about finding an audience. It's about speaking out. This week on Writers Bloc, we're sharing a short series around the idea of 'voice' in writing. Today's post comes from Melbourne-based screenwriter Tim Williams.

Spina bifida is a fairly common neural tube defect. About 30-35 babies are born with it in Victoria every year and there are approximately 5000 people living with it across Australia. Apparently country music legend Hank Williams had it too, although it’s yet to be proven whether having spina bifida can assist you in having a successful country music career. As one of the 5000 people living with ‘the bif’, I have always been pretty open talking about my condition. However, it has only been recently that I’ve reflected on how having a physical disability has shaped my voice as a writer. Many of these reflections assisted in developing the screenplay I wrote for my Masters degree. Titled Splint, the story follows a 13-year-old boy with spina bifida on an adventure he takes with his older brother.

Image source: Flicr CC / 45511562@nN04

It’s worth mentioning that in the early stages of the script, my protagonist, Joey Strider, didn’t have spina bifida or any kind of physical disability. When the idea came up to include spina bifida in the story and incorporate my own experiences, I was perhaps a little hesitant - it felt like the easy way out. I know many writers who swear by ‘proper’ fact-finding research and think that following the old adage of ‘write what you know’ is just being lazy. After deciding to include spina bifida in Joey’s story, elements of the plot began to fall into place. The characters became more relatable and I found I had a stronger connection with the work. Suddenly themes of disability, parenting and restriction became clear in my mind, and Joey’s journey became a way of voicing them. I believe that every writer should think about that special 1% they can offer that no one else can, and the spina bifida element proved to be my own signature stamp. Since I understood that world in detail and could connect with the emotions of my protagonist, the story became authentic to both my audience and myself. Down the track, it even proved to be an effective selling point as spina bifida perhaps hasn’t been portrayed on screen as much as some other conditions. In hindsight, it seems strange that I didn’t adopt the ‘write what you know’ approach sooner and was reluctant to use all this knowledge I had at my disposal. I would encourage other writers to embrace the 1% that makes their voice stand out against the cacophony of others.

Although it was quite cathartic putting a lot of myself into the story, and I think the script is stronger for it, that shouldn’t suggest that there aren’t risks, problems and pitfalls associated with the decision. As writers, we can get so hung up on making something realistic that we forget where the truth or authenticity lies – and it’s an important distinction, between realism and authenticity. Personally, I’ve never really had a problem with divulging personal aspects about my condition, however when it came to writing the script I was conscious that the aspects taken directly from my experiences had to be serving the story and the characters. I didn’t want to simply write The Tim Williams Story, and so anything that wasn’t relevant had to be cut. The key was understanding the emotions that came with my experiences, rather than the events themselves. For example, in the script Joey isn’t allowed to go on a school camp. Although I’ve been taken home early from a bunch of school camps, the key point was Joey feeling like his parents were controlling his life, which I can certainly relate to. In a way, Joey’s story became an extension of my own in that his experiences are what mine could’ve been if things had been a lot worse growing up. My parents have also been a monumental help in understanding the emotions of Joey’s parents, who form a significant part of the story. Understanding what my own parents went through and how they felt made the motivations of Joey’s parents that much more accessible. From these discussions, I realized how having a child with a disability is difficult for everyone, not just the person with the condition, and I wanted to voice this idea in the script.

A writer’s voice is a cocktail of influences - both conscious and unconscious thought. Sometimes what we’re trying to say, or how we need to say it, doesn’t occur to us until we’ve hit page 50 or even after we’ve finished the work. Voice is something that comes naturally, but it’s also something we can work to refine and articulate more clearly. Having a disability has certainly shaped my voice, and whenever I’m asked if and how having a disability has changed my life, it’s a pretty easy answer. Since I’ve had spina bifida from birth and am always going to have it, having a disability has simply been my life. All the experiences and challenges I’ve been through have shaped my voice and I’m thankful for that.

Tim Williams is a screenwriter and theatre reviewer currently based in Melbourne.

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Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.

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