Steven Salmon, March 2015.
Steven Salmon has some advice for aspiring writers: "Just go get it."
The author of three books, with a fourth in final revisions, understands that many writers struggle to become published authors. But he says if he can do it, anyone can. After all, Salmon has overcome many hurdles to achieve his writing success: Diagnosed with severe cerebral palsy as an infant, he speaks with great difficulty and uses a wheelchair to get around.
Unable to control his hands, he cannot type on a standard computer. Instead he taps out each word in Morse code using a special headset -- a painstakingly slow process. Yet he spends hours each day at his computer: composing, editing and rewriting.
"Not being able to speak is not the same as not having anything to say" is his motto, and in his case, what he has to say is that his disability doesn't define who he is. "I'm just like everyone else, but with a handicap," he explains.
Salmon has published a children's book, Cat's Tail, and two novels, The Unusual Writer and Buddy Why. He is finishing his fourth, Just a Regular Kid Like You, aimed at a young-adult audience. His work draws on his own experiences and is intended to help readers better understand people who have cerebral palsy.
Salmon's big break happened when he met his agent, Tina Schwartz, at the University of Wisconsin's annual Writers' Institute two years ago. The program is a three-day weekend crammed with workshops on topics ranging from how to write a cliffhanger to composing a query letter. It also offers writers a chance to pitch their books to professional literary agents. The 2015 event is March 27-29 at the Madison Concourse Hotel.
Salmon has attended the last eight Writers' Institute programs and says it is the highlight of his year. "It is a chance for me to meet with other writers, with agents, publishers and booksellers," he says. "I learn so much from everyone, and it's my chance to get out into the world. Writing can be lonely, and I am not able to get out of the house very often."
Salmon is a popular guy at the Writers' Institute, notes its director, Laurie Scheer. "He is very outgoing, and everyone is very friendly and welcoming," she says. "He always has another writer accompanying him to help him get around and help to interpret questions and interactions," she said. "I think other writers are inspired by his dedication and passion for writing."
Author Steven Salmon credits the Writers' Institute with helping him find an agent.
Salmon, 47, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was seven months old. He grew up on a farm outside Racine and knew he wanted to be a writer, but school wasn't easy for him.
"I had physical, occupational therapy and speech therapy for years growing up," says Salmon. "Speech therapy didn't change my speech impediment, and physical therapy didn't do much good due to my tight muscles." Realizing he could not do much about his body, he decided to focus on his brain and made getting an education his priority.
After being mainstreamed into regular school when he started seventh grade, he was bullied frequently. The bullying of people with disabilities is an important theme in his latest manuscript. And his physical disability made doing schoolwork challenging at a time when computers for the disabled were still in early development.
"When I was an adolescent, I used to type using a pencil in my mouth," he says. "My drooling gummed up the typewriter keyboard, and my teeth bit pencils in two. So I dictated to my aides, teachers and parents."
At age 18, he graduated from Racine Case High School and visited the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR),an agency that assists the disabled in finding jobs and purchasing specialized equipment. "They told me I was unemployable," Salmon says. "I was hurt. It made me very angry, since all that I wanted was to go to college. After sitting at home for two years, I vowed that I would succeed in college and prove DVR wrong."
Determined to move forward, in 1989 he moved to Madison and attended MATC, now Madison College, for five years before transferring to UW-Stevens Point. Finally, in 1998, he received his bachelor's degree in English with a minor in writing.
"Steve was a very good student," says Larry Watson, Salmon's former writing teacher at Stevens Point. "He always got his work in on time, and he was always prepared for class. And because I said that participation in discussions was a requirement, that meant he had to be prepared to speak up in class. He did, and it wasn't easy for him," says Watson.
Tina Schwartz, Salmon's agent, says she was immediately impressed by his determination and attitude. "I could tell he was a hard worker and a furious writer. Every year he had another book out," she says.
Last year, Schwartz suggested to Salmon that he try writing a book for young adults. "He had a first draft for me in four months," she says. Schwartz says Salmon is effective at marketing his books, getting reviews in newspapers and magazines, placing his books in local bookstores, listing his work on Amazon.com and promoting the books on his website and blog.
Salmon names some of his influences as Stephen Hawking, mathematician and author of books including A Brief History of Time; Christy Brown, the author and painter depicted in the film My Left Foot; and a junior high school special education teacher with cerebral palsy who inspired him to go to college.
"Hopefully other severely physically disabled people will follow in my footsteps," he says.