MS: So, in “Underwater Hearing,” you take on how the feeling of in-betweenness affects relationships and identity for someone. I have to ask, what were or are some of the challenges you’ve faced when handling these topics?
EM: Well, this is an essay that I’ve struggled to write. I’ve been telling myself for probably two or three years that I need to write about deafness—actually since I worked at camp and since I met those boys I talk about in the essay.
I think one of the biggest struggles and also one of the biggest successes with that essay was being okay with not having an answer. I asked myself over and over, can I call myself deaf? Can I have this Deaf identity? And I think being okay with not having a concrete answer to that kind of got me through that mental block.
That actually goes really well into my next question, too—I think a lot of people use creative nonfiction to heal in some way or to have some kind of closure, but your piece feels very successful in an attempt to explore something and not necessarily to write about it, but instead to sort of swim around in this pond and see what you find. So I guess to go into the other question, can you tell me about the greater function of writing in your life? I guess I’m interested in how you process things through your writing.
Okay. We’re just going right into the big questions.
Writing is the comb that untangles my thoughts. I’ve said that for a long time. I’ve always kept a journal, I’ve always written and I used to think I was a fiction writer. From the time I was probably eight until I was in college, I was like, “I write fiction, I write other people’s experiences.” But when I got to college I realized I wasn’t a terribly successful fiction writer, because I was trying to take on experiences that weren’t mine, I was trying to insert myself into stories that weren’t mine to tell—either that, or I would have these thinly-veiled CNF pieces with these clumsy characters who were just a compilation of me or people I knew.
So, journaling is a very rough form of CNF and it’s something that’s been very healing for me and has been a spiritual practice for me since I was about seventeen.
Yeah, I mean, writing is healing. Writing has been one of the biggest ways that I’ve processed things and healed from things and celebrated things and documented different experiences. It’s really been a blessing to have a record of my life, my experiences, and the lessons that I’ve learned. It’s something that I think is always going to be there. And since studying creative nonfiction in more detail—Paige [our prose editor] and I were talking about this last night—I’m starting to see more of myself in my fiction, and I’m starting to be able to let some of my voice, my personality, and my experiences come into my fiction, all since taking a long break to study CNF.
It’s like you have to learn how to be completely, unrelentingly honest before you can learn to be a little honest.
Yeah, and that’s the hardest part of CNF, that unrelenting honesty. Going back to relationships, I’ve written essays that are very successful that I don’t want out in the world, because they’re too honest, and I think they could be embarrassing to people close to me.
Are you still glad that you wrote those?
Yes, absolutely. There’s one in particular that I think reflects a very unique point in my life. It wouldn’t have been the same essay had I written it a year later or a year earlier. It reflects the experience of being a twenty-year-old human person, but also, it feels like a living record. It feels weird to say that it’s a living document, but it feels like an artifact, almost, of places and people that are not here anymore. So, I’m really glad I wrote that.
I guess, going in a different direction, I want to know about your teaching. How do you want to use writing in your teaching, or vice versa?
I love teaching writing. Sitting down one-on-one with a young writer and asking “How can I help you get better?” is my favorite thing. I could do that all day long. I have, for three years, taught memoir-writing and poetry to students from kindergarten all the way to high school through the Indiana Writers’ Center’s Building a Rainbow Project. And that has been a really meaningful experience to me. Most of our students have some very difficult stories to tell. But they’re also little kids, so they say really goofy stuff.
There was one boy that I worked with this past summer. One week we had a really chilling conversation about gun violence, and the next week he said, “My grandma’s house looks like a Cracker Barrel!”
Hahaha, there’s no pressure on them, they just let it out.
Yeah! So, teaching writing is giving somebody else that outlet, and that way to have a voice for their experiences and for a way to untangle their own thoughts. And I want to be as unafraid of being wrong as my little seven and eight-year-olds are.
One time, a girl fell off a swing and hit her head, and I asked her “What did that feel like?” And she said “Like scorpions are biting my face!” Didn’t skip a beat, looked up at me dead serious and said that’s what it felt like. And I said “Write that down right now.”
Hopefully you got her a band-aid too.
Just to close things, what are you taking in right now? Books, musicals, cooking shows?
Oh, you know my brand. Okay, for books, I just finished Tracy Holczer’s The Secret Hum of a Daisy, and I just started As Brave As You by Jason Reynolds. I read his other book All American Boys, too, but I like this one better. They’re very different—instead of challenging white culture like All American Boys, it’s more of a reflection of Jason Reynolds’ black culture. It’s for a younger audience and more humorous. It’s gorgeous, I read half of it while subbing today.
Also, Spring Awakening, Deaf West Theater teamed up with Broadway to do this musical about sex ed in 1900 Germany. But because half of their actors are deaf, they pull in oralism, and deaf culture, and deaf identity, and add this whole other layer to the show. So that’s gorgeous.
Yeah, you might have to shoot me a link to that. Anything else, too?
Um, well, I’m very behind on This is Us. I love that show, but I’m three episodes behind so I’m avoiding the internet for a bit.
Right, that’s probably generally healthy, too. And lastly, is there anywhere else we can find your work?
I have a piece coming up in Knots Disabilities Studies Journal. That publishing date is to be determined, but they have accepted a more academic piece. And you can also support me, my kids, and my work as an editor with any of the collections I Remember: Indianapolis Youth Write About Their Lives. I participated in the 2016, 2017, and 2018 collections.
Great, that’s awesome, well, thank you so much for doing that. This, not that. Well, that too, just thank you in general.
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Emily Mack is a graduate of Ball State University, where she studied Secondary English Education. Armed with a recent degree, Emily hopes to continue sharing the joy and power of storytelling with kids of all backgrounds and abilities. Find her work with the Indiana Writers’ Center here.