Writing To Live

by Charles Champlin

When his vision became seriously impaired, a writer learned to cope by doing what he loved best.

(Published in the Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2001.
Reprinted by permission.)

Charles Champlin Is the former film critic, arts editor and critic-at-large columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He retired in 1991. This piece Is based on his book, “My Friend, You Are Legally Blind”.

In something more than half a century as a reporter, writer and critic, I wrote more millions of words than I can count. When I was the film critic of the paper, I saw 250 movies a year and reviewed half of them. As a critic at large, I saw and wrote about plays, lectures, panel discussions (spare me, please), appearances, places, happenings and personalities. I wrote about visits to film festivals in England, Spain, France. I went, I saw, I wrote.

My eyes, not less than my ears and my fingers, were my livelihood.

Then, a year and a half ago, those visual excursions came to a kind of squinting halt. Something called macular degeneration invaded my “good” right eye. The left had actually been hit by AMD, as it’s called, for age-related macular degeneration, a decade ago, leaving me with only peripheral vision in that eye. But the right eye soldiered on for a decade.

I was reading a book in the back yard in bright sunlight. There never seemed to be quite enough light indoors. As it was, I needed a little help from a magnifying glass. There suddenly seemed to be pieces of ash falling on the pages. My first thought was there must be a fire a canyon or two away and I looked for the telltale column of smoke. There was none. I was burning holes in the pages with the glass.

I called my ophthalmologist for an early appointment and after I did my best with the eye charts, he said, “My friend, you are legally blind.”

The AMD closed in fast, and within days it was no longer safe for me to drive a car and I couldn’t read a book, a newspaper or a letter. As I also soon discovered, I could see television or movies only in sidelong glances, looking left or right of the screen and piecing together what I could with my peripheral vision. It was, of course, a stunning, staggering deflection from the way I had lived my life–and earned my bread–for all my years.

And yet the story of this last year and a half has not been a hopeless surrender to limitations, but learning how to cope and get on with life and my passion to write. (One of my earliest pieces for The Times was an essay on being a compulsive writer.) I am not blind-blind. I see the larger world as through a theatrical scrim, with some loss of detail and a slight fading of colors.

There are problems closer up. I can’t make out my fingernails, for example, and I shave by touch. Parting my hair is such sweet sorrow, also done by touch. I have a little trouble making out faces, and I had lapel pins made that say “Vision Impaired. Please say your name.” You can’t make out the pin unless you are close enough to kiss me. But the design is intriguing and sometimes people are inspired to ask what lodge I belong to.

Not driving does raise hob with the life that once you led. For all my half-century in journalism and even now in retirement, lunch was a social ritual that was also a battery charge for renewal of news, information, gossip and the nurturing of often long-established friendships.

In my working days as a magazine and newspaper writer, I had lunch “out” as many as five days a week. I never kept count of the interview lunches I conducted at the grand old Brown Derby on Vine Street, at Musso & Frank over on Hollywood Boulevard, at the smoke-filled Redwood Restaurant a few doors from The Times, or, depending on the grandeur of the interviewee, in the Polo Lounge or on the terrace at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

All that, of course, has come to a shuddering halt. My wife, Peg, drives me to lunch or I take cabs; occasionally friends pick me up and deliver me home. But those grand lunches have dwindled to one or two a week. The old lament of wives that “I married you for better or for worse but not for lunch” is relevant here, although Peg has not complained.

It requires more than an assault by macular degeneration to demolish a lifetime’s affection for the arts in all their infinite variety. It is no use kidding yourself that the perceiving of art is undiminished. Only the pleasures of music remain unaffected. I have found fresh delight in the fairly large collection of LPs and CDs we have accumulated over the years. Enjoying the other arts post-AMD requires a certain amount of adjustment.<

As with movies and television, I have to look sideways at paintings and sculptures, and while in my peripheral vision I can glimpse the whole painting or carving, the image is blurry and, although the color is present, a great deal of detail is lost. Seurat and other pointillists seem to have lost the point and are using flat paint only. Sculpture appears curiously rubbery.

The greatest casualty is the foreign film, which I have loved obsessively ever since my first viewing of “Children of Paradise” and “Open City.” The subtitles, however, are now an indecipherable garble at the bottom of the screen.

It is true, indeed, that memory is newly important to me in many ways, as in identifying friends by their voices, but in a real if subtler sense memory is more than ever a key to the arts. The pleasures of culture are very often remembered pleasures, pleasures recalled in sound and impaired but evocative images. Painfully, it is the new cultural experiences–new TV, new paintings, new plays, new films, that are diminished by one’s damaged vision.

My great boon and blessing is that I took typing in high school. The commercial teacher was the prettiest in the school. By such accidents are lives shaped. Touch-typing has served me wonderfully from college through a long career. Now I can type at the computer even though I can’t make out the screen. What I do need is proof-reading, and occasionally I hit the all-caps key and find I’ve been shouting for a paragraph or two. More alarmingly, I get off the so-called home keys and type what looks like a cryptogram. Peg has even learned to translate this gibberish if there’s not too much of it.

I early on acquired a large magnifying machine, a video camera aimed downward on a platen on which you place material to be scrutinized. The camera can enlarge what it sees up to 55 times and transmit the results to a monitor above the camera.

The machine doesn’t work with books because of the difficulties of focus. Reading newspapers is a nuisance because of the folding and refolding required. It’s as bad as trying to read the New York Times standing in a crowded subway. But the machine is a godsend for mail and documents.

I have found that I can dictate letters and indeed editorial copy. My wife and also a part-time secretary can type the dictation straight into the computer. I find that editing is trickier now–trying to keep two or three alternate versions straight in my head.

Yet I keep remembering what James Thurber said when he lost his sight completely (he lost an eye as a child when his brother hit him with an arrow). He did not mind being unable to draw his lumpy dogs, strange men and women, he said, but if he could not write he would suffocate. I had the same anxiety when the AMD recurred. But Thurber kept writing and so, at a very different level, am I.

The other boon is the number and variety of recorded books available. The Braille Institute on Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles maintains a library of 70,000 volumes, recorded by and for the Library of Congress, available postage-free and rent-free for as long as you need them. Not long ago, I listened to a magnificent reading of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” read by the fine radio actor Alexander Scourby and recorded in the late ’50s. Not all the readings are as thrilling as Scourby’s, but all are competent at a minimum. There are also the commercially available audio versions, unabridged from Books on Tape and the other major rental concerns, and there are as well the abridged versions of current bestsellers. John le Carre is his own best reader, with an actor’s gift for accents and voice changes. His reading of “The Constant Gardener” is a superb condensation.

A counselor at the Center for the Partially Sighted in West L.A., which I visited soon after the onset of the latest run-in with AMD, questioned me about the problems of discouragement and dismay. I assured her I could cope, but it was actually an apt warning. I live in a house full of books, shelves in virtually every room, and they are a continuing frustration. Even now I occasionally pick a volume off the shelf, only to realize freshly that I can’t read it.

Daily chores present lesser frustrations. To take a really minor example, it’s almost impossible to see butter (or margarine) on a china plate. I surrender to having my bread and rolls and toast buttered for me. It took a while to discover that it was easier to put some toothpaste on my index finger and spread it on my teeth rather than try to negotiate the paste onto the brush. Yet what the loss of a certain quantity of vision has done above all is to create an immense new appreciation for those who have no sight, or virtually none, and yet who manage to live full and independent lives and cope with challenges of mobility and street-crossing that are troubling to me in my limited darkness.

I am lucky naturally, that these troubles commenced after I had retired from daily journalism. And whatever the frustrations of legal blindness are, I remind myself many times a day that I am very lucky, a writer’s need for expression by no means silenced yet.