Losing My Hearing Showed Me a New Way to Write About the Self
John Cotter on the Difficulties of Capturing Silence
Around age thirty, I began to lose my hearing: gradually, and all at once, but not in that order. Some days I’d wake up at the edge of deafness, unable to hear the birds outside or the cars or my own phone alarm. And then sound would return, hours or days later. Voices spoken right next to my ear might sound as though they came from far away, and the words didn’t sound like language. They were as unlike the solid shapes of words as those long, bowed bubbles you can draw in the air with a big hoop dipped in soap. And then they’d break and be gone, leaving no way to trace their pattern.
In those years I taught college—humanities, rhetoric, ethics. Between classes or between meetings I might lose most of my hearing over the course of an hour or, dramatically, over the course of a few minutes. A colleague might be waiting behind me at the copy machine, talking to me, addressing me in a friendly way, with every expectation I’d hear them and turn around and banter back—but I wouldn’t know they were there. Even after I turned around, I’d see their mouth moving, and I’d try to impose meaning after the fact on the sounds I could make out, but I wouldn’t be able to understand the shapes. Their eyes might crinkle with concern, aware I wasn’t responding right.
At the fear of being pulled into the huge crater of emotion I was encircling by then—How much would this new condition degrade my life? When would I stop being able to recognize voices for good?—I’d try to find a casual way to explain what was happening, or to brush it off with, “Yeah, sometimes I can’t hear well,” or, “I have this transient deafness thing.” But this inevitably led to more questions—because only an hour earlier I’d been able to hear them just fine, and they could see that, they weren’t fools.
It wasn’t easy to prevent these casual moments from turning into awkward and difficult conversations. No, we don’t have a name for the illness yet. Yes, I’m seeing doctors. Sure, I’ll try that supplement, that maneuver, that one easy trick. Thanks for the advice. What was that? I missed the last part of what you said. I’m sorry, I couldn’t catch that again. No, it’s not working. Listen, I have to go. I’m sorry, I just can’t hear you. I don’t need help. I mean, I do, I guess. I’m sorry. Yes, I’m sorry.
My ability to hear soft sounds was degrading, not just the whispers inside words but fricatives and stops and approximants: little hisses, little arches of the tongue, unvoiced pops and clicks of air. There are swarms of these sounds in every sentence, like electrons—a periodic table we tour in an instant without thinking about it. Missing these sounds, the words we hear lose their coherence, show up as disconnected vowels.
Eventually other symptoms appeared, and it became clear we were dealing with a complex condition. I say we, meaning my family and friends—my support circle, which was considerable. But of course I say we to avoid saying I too. Because it’s difficult even now to acknowledge how alone I felt when I couldn’t hear people; or, later, when other symptoms developed, and vertigo attacks made my vision blur. We’re alone inside our bodies, dependent on signals from outside. More precisely: we’re dependent on our ability to decipher those signals. Who are we when we can’t communicate without great effort?The sounds I heard, and the way voices got deformed inside them….How to replicate that? How could I take this ugly mess of information and make it readable, relatable, coherent?
My old self was trapped and tortured and nobody on the outside could see it. And if I were to write about it—to say I feel lost, I feel afraid—the sadness and vulnerability of that story would be too embarrassing to me. People would ignore it in order to protect my dignity.
After a few more years, the mysterious condition—by then diagnosed as intractable bilateral Ménière’s Disease—had made me quit teaching and had damaged my personal life. I tried all kinds of pills with all kinds of side effects. I stopped going out. In the years before I became sick, I’d published a novel and started writing a second novel, but now I couldn’t pay attention to fiction.
Worn down and desperate, I made a goal of writing one paragraph a day about what was happening, either in a Word doc in one of several notebooks, like a haphazard diary. One paragraph per day. Sometimes the things I wrote were painful to reread. It couldn’t be possible my crowded life had reduced so much, that the rich voices of friends far away were just words on a screen, or that the music I once used to soothe myself was missing too many sounds—the soft parts, the connections—to be decipherable. That the path ahead was so clouded.
And I was face-to-face with that word I again, the word that drove me away from writing as a kid, and that eventually made me quit writing poetry as a young man. Years ago, I could write really good imitations of other poets, and I could write persona poems, and the kind of light surrealism that was popular in the early aughts, which neatly obscured the self in linguistic fireworks. But I couldn’t write a poem in my own voice. I couldn’t write confessionally, in the simple I.
More comfortable, for me, were multiple voices. Before I lost my hearing, I used to be one of those people who did lots of impressions, paying close attention to the little sounds inside the words other people spoke, the way they rolled air around their r’s, caught the backs of their tongues on d’s and t’s. It’s why I started writing fiction, where it’s necessary to inhabit other voices, even to efface the self, at least since Flaubert (and probably long before Flaubert, if by self we also mean performative self).
And there was a more technical problem in front of me too, as I tried to capture on the page what was happening in my head, expanding on these scraps of diary, building a longer story. The sounds I heard, and the way voices got deformed inside them… How to replicate that? How could I take this ugly mess of information and make it readable, relatable, coherent?
To some extent, every writer faces this trouble, but in my case, there was a complication. These scenes I wanted to depict—a dramatization of how I’d try to continue teaching a class as my hearing degraded in real time and my balance failed, or a scene in which I emotionally reconnected with an important friend, but I was never sure, at any given moment, what she was really saying—happened outside of language, in a mess of near-language.
How many times can you write “I didn’t understand what she was saying”? More times, surely, than you can say it—the laws of polite conversation permit two requests for repetition, after which your interlocutor invariably dismisses what they’ve just said, or changes it, or even disappears.
But at some point, it’s going to annoy the reader too. I love avant-garde writing, but I wanted the book I was assembling—because by now, it was clear I was writing a book—to be an act of straightforward communication, no complex ambiguities. Since I was having trouble communicating in the world, I wanted to speak all the more sharply on the page. I needed to find a way to easily express that things could not be easily expressed, to use decipherable signs to depict the indecipherable.
Sometimes, as I tried to capture the sensation—the quality of what I heard—I’d let words be interrupted by other sounds. Yes, the mind attempts to ascribe meaning to these phoneezp…iiuu…rtssso. But the letters on the page had to resist that meaning. How much of this was the reader going to put up with? This nonssaseas…uuwrra…iivaa….This is the opposite of clear writing, the opposite of everything writers are taught. (As you listen to words degrade, you try to ascribe new meaning to the kind of sound you can hear. What kind is it? About four o’clock.) It’s too easy. It looks like when a kid slaps down on a keyboard. Maybe I wanted to slap a keyboard.
And I wasn’t trying to make word art, to experiment with poetry, so the kind of deterioration I use above—the deterioration inside a word—couldn’t be something I used very often. What about when whole sentences disappear? Whole parts of conversations? We’re all familiar by now with redacted documents, government reports obscured by black bars. I considered using something like this.When it came time to revise Losing Music, more than one early reader pointed out that although I’d managed to get all kinds of voices in there, clear and distorted, heard and unheard, my own voice had become lost.
But black bars were the wrong signal, because they suggested something deliberately obscured, and perhaps with malign intent. This wasn’t what was happening when I ate lunch with my old friend at an outdoor table and their voice got lost in the babble of other diners and the rush of passing cars. Because to reprint a bar of redaction is to accuse, and in my case there was no one to blame for the words I missed. Or rather, the only one to blame was myself, a part of myself over which I had no control.
In one of the chapters from, Losing Music, I use open brackets to describe the [ ] at that restaurant, the sentences that I couldn’t [ ] Denver. Because it’s possible to use the [ ] that I am able [ ] a partial sense of meaning—at least on days when [ ]—then this seemed like it might [ ].
One early reader said, “It doesn’t look like you’ve finished drafting this part. I’ll read it once you fill in the rest of it.”
What I eventually learned, in trying to describe different aspects of distorted language—the elephant’s ear, the elephant’s tail—was that no single method was going to serve in every instance. One approach might be to develop something elaborate and tiered, invent my own code, insist that readers be initiates. Long ago, when I thought of myself as a poet, this is exactly what I would have done. But I wasn’t trying to amaze the reader like a thunderstorm, rather to take the reader’s arm, and to walk beside them at a comfortable pace. I wanted to be clear. I wanted to hide nothing up my sleeve.
So I minimized the jumbled words and empty brackets. They weren’t telling the whole of the story. The brain doesn’t want to hear a clutter of sound as vacancy or silence—it wants to impose meaning; it finds words to stand in for the words it misses. Anyone who’s had trouble hearing has experienced this misassignment: the comic miscues, the brain making grotesque and uncanny sense out of what it can’t process.
When I was a kid, my friend Colin and I loved William Burroughs’ cut-up novels Soft Machine and Nova Express. We’d try to copy our hero by lugging armfuls of books down to my parents’ basement, along with newspapers and poems we’d printed out. We’d tear out a page from an old bible and slice it with scissors and scotch-tape to it parts of a poem, and then cut up the resulting text and scotch-tape it into a newspaper. Thus did we subvert reality.
Twenty years later, house sitting for my friends Heather and Peter in Virginia in the summer of 2019, I brought a notebook to their back porch and, surrounded by damp heat and mosquitos, I transcribed old conversations from memory, tore the page down the middle, and scotch-taped them onto transcripts from the television shows played in the background when those old conversations occurred. Then I tore up and re-taped and typed them, repeating the process again until it grew too dark to see outside. Not a lot of this found its way into the final version of Losing Music, but a little of it did.
Obviously, in the first draft of the memoir, I spent a lot of time figuring out how to represent the sounds I heard. But I also spent time studying sound dynamics—how air is forced into waves, and how waves distort. I researched the life of Jonathan Swift, who suffered the same condition, and I looked for and found the condition in Gulliver’s Travels. I read up on historical treatments for hearing trouble.
When it came time to revise Losing Music, more than one early reader pointed out that although I’d managed to get all kinds of voices in there, clear and distorted, heard and unheard, my own voice had become lost. My own feelings about what had happened to me weren’t clear. The character of “I” had been drowned in the noise.
The last and hardest job of writing Losing Music was to thread myself back in: What was I feeling while all of this was going on? Was I thwarted? Confused? Defiant? Certain I’d find a cure. Uncertain how to live when I couldn’t. Curious about how others lived with this kind of loss. Filled with recognition. Fascinated by the shapes of their lives.
It was eerie to visit the places I’d once lived and worked as a new person, with this new disability. It was reassuring when people acted as though I was the same person they used to know; but that wasn’t the whole story. It was hard to know what to do next. It rebuilt me to write about it.
And I could really do it by then, because the person I was writing about at the beginning of the book wasn’t I anymore, he was a previous self, the person oblivious of the future. And I’m a character too—the I writing—to whom a coming future hasn’t happened. To see myself this way, the way rewriting the book helped me to see myself—is to understand the self as a series, a chorus. A discord of vowels all saying I.
The easy thing, it turns out, was finding ways to type ssseeeoofhc..swzzuu [ ] wire told / hell required / is allaboardgetout. Harder, but possible, was learning how to write I instead of he. The many kinds of I I was. The one in the memoir, and the one looking back on the memoir. And the one moving toward what lies ahead.
Losing Music by John Cotter is available via Milkweed Editions.