Washougal’s ‘Blind Woodsman’ tells life story in new book

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category icon Arts & Entertainment, Community, Hometown, Latest News, News, Washougal
Washougal artists John and Anni Furniss hold a bowl they created together, with John doing the woodworking and Anni completing the painting, in their Washougal garage/studio, Thursday, Feb. 2, 2024. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

John Furniss has told the story about his life, which has included bouts of chronic illness and depression, drug addiction, financial despair, the loss of his sight following a failed suicide attempt at the age of 16, a loving marriage, and a fulfilling career as a renowned woodworker, to audiences many times, especially during the past few years.

It’s a sometimes dark but ultimately uplifting tale, filled with optimism and hope. The Washougal resident regularly receives emails and social media messages and letters from people who claim that his stories have saved their lives.

“It’s hard to put into words,” Furniss said. “It makes me feel really, really good that I can help them through their pain. It’s amazing that I’m able to help people like that. I truly feel like I’m supposed to be blind. This is who I’m supposed to be to do what I’m supposed to do.”

Now, that story is set to be distributed to the masses in book form. “The Blind Woodsman: One Man’s Journey to Find His Purpose on the Other Side of Darkness,” co-authored by Furniss and his wife Anni, will be released on Tuesday, March 19, in paperback and e-reader formats.

“I’m very proud of it,” Anni said. “I learned some things about John that I didn’t know before. I feel like (the writing process) bonded us together because I learned more about him, and I’m also really proud of the growth that he made during that time.”

John and Anni, an acrylic painter, first started talking about writing a book during a trip to Seaside, Oregon, in 2018.

“We were on our anniversary trip, and we were in a coffee shop in Seaside, and we started making an outline for a book,” she said. “Originally, it was going to be a book about marriage because people often ask, ‘How do you guys get along so well? You have such a great marriage,’ and we were like, ‘Oh, that’d be fun.’ And then the more we talked about it, (we realized that) John has had a really interesting life, (and we wanted to highlight) all the things he’s gone through and all the things he’s overcome.”

“I know my story and our story really helps a lot of people, and it really resonates with a lot of people. That was a big reason for me,” John added. “Also, who doesn’t want to have a book written about them?”

Anni started writing in 2021 after being diagnosed with a medical condition that temporarily took away her ability to walk and limits her mobility to this day.

“I basically interviewed him,” she said. “That was the best thing for us. I interviewed him and I was able to type up the basic answers to the questions I had, and then through the editing process, we just sat down together and tried to fill in the gaps as best we could.”

The process was emotionally devastating at times for John, who had never told his story in that amount of detail previously.

“(This was) definitely the only time I’m going to tell that story,” he said. “I had to dig really deep into some painful (stuff). That was really hard. I didn’t think it would be as bad as it was. I’ve done so many talks about it, but I realized that those talks are 15 minutes long, maybe an hour (at most), so they had to be on the surface. This one went all the way.”

Serendipitously, John and Anni were contacted by representatives of Mount Joy, Pennsylvania-based Fox Chapel Publishing, in late 2022.

“When we had the Zoom call with them, there was instant chemistry,” Anni said. “They saw us on social media, liked our content, and learned about John’s story. And they were like, ‘We love John’s story, and we would love for you guys to write a book about it.’”

They spent “basically all of 2023” writing the book, according to Anni, and submitted a final draft to the publisher in December.

“The whole year, we focused on writing,” she said. “We still made art, put out content and stuff, but most of our (focus) was on the book.”

The first chapter of the book contains a shared retelling of how they first met. The subsequent chapters are told from alternating points of view — first Anni’s, then John’s.

“I hope that people take away from the book that even though hard things happen in life, they’re usually temporary,” Anni said. “Feelings are temporary, and all things pass. I know that that’s been the case for John and I because we both struggle with mental health issues, and one of the thoughts that’s helped both of us is, ‘This is the feeling I’m feeling right now, but tomorrow’s a new day, and tomorrow’s the possibility of feeling better.’”

“The Blind Woodsman” is a “compelling true story that will give hope and inspiration to those dealing with disabilities, mental health struggles, addiction, chronic illness, and the anxieties and stresses in our everyday lives,” according to a publisher description.

“One of the messages I really (hope people take away from the book is), ‘If you can’t do something one way, you can find another,’” John said. “There’s a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. that I like: ‘If you can’t fly, run. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl.’ I say, ‘If you can’t see, imagine.’ The other one I love is by Bruce Lee. He said, ‘Patience is not passive. On the contrary, patience is concentrated strength.’ I love those (quotes) because they describe how I’ve tried to go through life.”

‘Surreal’ rise to social media fame

John and Anni aren’t just artists and authors, however. In the last three years, they’ve turned into bona-fide social media stars with rising profiles on the national and international stages.

“We have over 2 million followers across all of our platforms,” Anni said. “I mean, it’s crazy. We have people from all over the world, all sorts of different countries, following us.”

John and Anni can track the origin of their digital fame back to one day in 2020, when they took a walk down the Lacamas Creek Trail.

“I posted a video of John slapping his cane up in the air to try to see if he could hear echos to find out how tall the trees were, and people went nuts in the comments; they were arguing back and forth about echolocation,” Anni said. “Actually, (the arguing is) really good for the algorithm because people are engaging. As long as the people weren’t being mean, I just let them do their thing. And that video (took off); I think it got 500,000 views.”

They then produced a web series called “Cooking With the Lights Out,” which attained a relatively large following. Then, “it just kind of snowballed after that,” according to Anni.

“People would send us gifts, and we did ‘lives’ (live shows), where people from all over the world would log on (and engage with us),” she said. “A lot of people like to follow us because of our interactions as a couple. Those are the ones that people love, so we’re like, ‘OK, we’ll just be ourselves.’ I know there’s a lot of people on social media who do things purposely for views, but we just want to share our life and be ‘us.’”

“It’s funny,” John added. “We’ll lay out (a script) for a video and plan it all out, and it will bomb. Then we just do an on-the-spot one and it’ll get a million views.”

During the past several years, the couple has told their story to several high-profile national media outlets, such as “ABC News Live,” “The CBS Morning Show,” “Inside Edition,” and “The Kelly Clarkson Show” and “People” magazine.

“It’s just kind of surreal,” John said. “I grew up in a town of 9,000 people. There were more cows and sheep in the area than people. The thought of 2 million people following me just blows my mind. It’s funny — I remember anytime I would watch stand-up comedy or something, people would talk about staying in little towns or something like that, and I always wished that they would say Craig, (Colorado), the town I grew up in. The one time I saw Craig on a show, it was ‘Dirty Jobs.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s about right.’ I’m happy now that I’ve made Craig famous for good reason.”

Anni said that they’ve “talked about how sometimes ‘fame,’ or whatever it is, can change people sometimes.”

“But (it) hasn’t changed us,” she said. “We’re still dorks. We’re still just us. For me, for the most part, (the social media fame has) been wonderful. I really love the community that we’ve built. For people who are disabled and have a hard time leaving the house sometimes, social media might be the only interaction they have, so that’s why there’s a big disabled community on Tik Tok. A lot of them can’t leave their houses at all, so they’re interacting with each other that way, and it’s so beautiful to see. … I want it to be a safe place for people. There’s going to be younger kids or other blind people that are going to come hang out in our social media space, and I want it to be safe for them.”

John and Anni are also using their platform to talk about mental health advocacy and how they navigate their mental health as a couple.

“I think a big part of it is being open and vulnerable, because sometimes what happens is people feel shame around feeling depressed or anxious, or feel awkwardness trying to reach out towards someone who might be feeling that way,” Anni said. “John and I have talked in videos about ways (people can) overcome (challenges). If you’re having a tough day, here are some little things that maybe help a little bit, not necessarily overcome it, but just maybe diminish the symptoms of feeling depressed that day or whatever.”

John is also excited about his newest venture — teaching woodworking to sight-impaired students at the Washington State School for the Blind in Vancouver.

“It’s been wonderful. It’s been working really great,” he said. “Within the next couple of years, we want to expand this program. There are blind schools all around the country with fully equipped woodshops but no teachers, so we want to bring people in from those areas and train them how to teach blind students to woodwork and then send them back to those classes. We want to try and spread this all across the country.”

To view videos by John and Anni Furniss, visit their social media channels on Instagram, TikTok, Facebook or YouTube.