Writing is possibly the closest thing humans have to real-life magic, with the ability to transport the writer (and the reader) to another world, allowing us to experience things we might never have the chance to on our own — love, beautiful sights, a certain ecstasy of joy. Sometimes, it has the ability to give a freedom our bodies do not allow.
"I may be in a wheelchair, but when I'm writing, I'm not tied to anything," freelance writer Melissa Blake said. "I can truly express myself and that is such an incredible feeling."
Melissa was born with Freeman-Sheldon Syndrome, which is a fairly rare disorder that affects a person's face, hands and feet, according to Genetics Home Reference. Because of this, Melissa uses a wheelchair and has undergone 26 surgeries and multiple hospitalizations over her life.
"I credit my parents with giving me a normal life despite my very abnormal disability," Melissa said. "They never let me get down on myself and refused to let me disability define me."
Instead, Melissa has worked to be defined by something else — her writing.
She said she has been interested in writing as far back as elementary school; in fact, one of her earliest pieces of writing is a poem in which a young girl rides a bicycle and feels the wind in her hair — a freedom Melissa found through writing.
In college, Melissa edited the campus newspaper and she has been a freelance writer since graduating 11 years ago.
"I honestly can't imagine doing anything else with my life," she said.
Her main genres, or "beats," if you will, include disabilities, relationships, lifestyle and pop culture. She has a blog, So About What I Said, and is a contributor at The Mix, a network of freelance contributors for Hearst magazines (to which I also contribute). She has been published by magazines like Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping as well as the lifestyle website xoJane.
"One of my favorite things in the whole world is working on a piece of writing, being vulnerable in my words and then sending those words out into the world," Melissa said of the publication process. "It can be nerve-wracking wondering how people will respond, but that's part of the excitement for me. I've always believed that a writer's job is to make people feel, think, react, so whether those reactions are good or bad, I know I've done my job."
A piece she published on xoJane a few years ago, and which she says is the hardest one she's had to write, was about just that: negative reactions. Melissa wrote an "open letter" to an anonymous commenter who had left hateful comments on her blog.
A couple of years after I started blogging, you’d pop up every so often –- always under the ever-so-clever Anonymous moniker, of course -– with a comment about how I looked or a dig at my disability. Such low blows, but not as low as those comments would go, I eventually learned.
Your words stung. They stayed with me. At first, at least.
— Excerpt from "An open letter to 'Anonymous' — you can't break me" from xoJane
The rest of the piece is definitely worth a read.
Melissa said that she had to learn early in her writing career that, as they say, "haters gonna hate." In fact, she makes it a practice not to listen to people who are rude just for the sake of rudeness.
"I had to learn early on that not everyone is going to like or agree with what I write, but that's OK," she said. "It doesn't make me any less of a writer. I try to grow from genuine criticism, but if people are negative or rude just because they can hide behind their computer, I don't pay much attention to that. You have to let that sort of negativity go."
It's a message a lot of writers are still struggling to learn, but one that's crucial to the journey of being a published writer.
And what makes the negativity and the harsh words worth it in the end is the hope that somehow her words are making a positive impact on others.
"People don't feel so alone, so isolated, when they know that there's someone else out there who has gone through the exact same thing," Melissa said. "I also hope I've helped people see that I'm just like everyone else despite my disability. There are so many misconceptions out there about the disability community and if I can change just one person's perspective, I'll be happy."
Sometimes, that one person for a writer is none other than herself.
Although Melissa's writings about desiring love even though she's disabled and dealing with the loss of a parent have doubtless helped others by shattering stereotypes or putting words to grief, her ability to write has proven life-changing for her as well.
"I had no idea when I started blogging seven years ago that it would be such a cathartic experience as well as a career for me," she said. "I've written about so much of my life and that has helped me heal on so many levels — everything from processing emotions to reliving wonderful memories to keeping my father's memory alive."