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John Cotter on writing, trauma, and the stories we tell ourselves

John Cotter, a deaf writer from Colorado, spent April of 2016 living and working at a homeless shelter in the great plains. In the grips of his own trauma — diagnosed in his 30s with a strange disease — Cotter found fellowship and new humility among the shelter’s residents, and learned both about what makes us who we are and how to bear better witness. An article he wrote for Guernica Magazine about his experience in the homeless shelter can be found here. John is currently the Artist in Residence at SPACE Gallery and took some time to talk about his writing practice and that business of humanity. He will be giving an Artist Talk on Trauma Writing at SPACE Gallery on Monday, December 11th at 6pm. This event is free and open to the public. 

What are you working on?

I am writing a book of essays called Losing Music. It’s a memoir in several parts about losing my hearing and dealing with other medical complications from a rare illness called Meniere’s disease, and in my case, bilateral, intractable Meniere’s. Which means I hear noises, quite loud ones, all the time, without cease. And my hearing fluctuates, it comes and goes, so one day I’ll hear fairly well, and the next day people’s voices will sound like classic radios. There’s an essay about assistive listening technology, and there’s an essay about living in a homeless shelter for a month and how the very minor trauma I had experienced helped me relate to the people there who had experienced more significant traumas, and there’s a piece about the Mayo Clinic and the medical industrial complex. And there’s a good deal about teaching which I’ve been surprised to discover as I’ve been writing the book. A lot more scenes of teaching than I thought there would be, but that’s how I spent my life in the last four years, and it would be, I guess, strange if a memoir didn’t include that.

Has your hearing loss and change in hearing changed the way you write?

Yes. But I don’t really know if that’s for me to say, because I’m so close to it. I had published a novel at age thirty-three and I assumed that I would write another one pretty soon, and I flitted around between a number of different projects feeling only marginally invested in one or the other, and in a sense this made the small catastrophe of becoming sick worse, because I didn’t have a creative raft to cling to when it happened. And in the last two years, working on this book I have felt more alive than I felt in the decade prior. I really missed being in love with a project and feeling the sense of purpose that comes along with the work and I’m anxious to springboard into the book I write after this one. I want to keep this going, for as long as I can, from my perspective, forever.

You were in a residency and teaching in a shelter for addicts in recovery, and you’re giving a talk at SPACE Gallery about trauma writing, can you talk about what you’ve learned or discovered about stigma around trauma, addiction and disability?

I’m learning that I felt it too. That’s part of the horror of being disabled, is realizing suddenly, that you too are part of the great number of people who stigmatize illness. I think illness disgusts people a little bit. Rightly so, to some extent, if something’s contagious we don’t want to catch it. I think people are attracted to success and to beauty and to all these wonderful fascist things. It’s something you would hate it about yourself if you saw it, and then you get sick and part of the self-disgust you feel is that suddenly you’re one of the people you’d rather not spend time with. I didn’t have any deaf friends before I got sick and I probably should have. I think to myself now, I think about a kid I went to elementary school with and he wore assisted listening technology, and he, it was the 1980’s and he was geared up with this very, very elaborate equipment and I think as a child he frightened me, and I never got to know him. I never got to know him and I feel pretty bad about that now. When I was staying at the homeless shelter I discovered very much the same thing. I went there with the best intentions but I discovered once I was there that they could have been better. I went there as an outsider and what I realized as I spent time there was that my position as an outsider was a lot more precarious than I had thought. And look I’m as thoughtless about homeless people as anybody is. When I left the shelter, for a long time I was remembering to shake everyone’s hand, I was remembering to stop and talk to everyone and shake their hand, and ask them their name, and I forget a lot now. I catch myself constantly just walking past people, mentally just editing them out. We say we don’t like these things about ourselves and yet we do them. I wish I didn’t do that. When I’m conscious of it I try not to, but I don’t think I’m conscious of it enough. I think it’s like a lot of issues that change really does start with ourselves, and I think sometimes the self-righteousness we feel is a little act we’re putting on for ourselves, and that actually the situation is much more serious than we’ve let ourselves believe.

Ten years ago I was someone who thought of himself as progressive, or thought of himself as basically a democratic socialist and I vote democrat, someone who’s very interested in social justice and someone who’s very interested in equality and fairness and justice. Looking back on that person, I don’t think he was. I think he was putting on an act to some extent. And maybe when I look back on myself in ten years I’ll feel the same way about the person I am now. But I think its wonderfully satisfying to, you know I was thinking about this, just as I was walking around Portland yesterday I was thinking about this great concentration of wealth here in downtown. I started to interrogate myself and I said ‘well now but wait John, you too think it’s pretty, you too find this quaint, you too like these old brick buildings, they were probably erected by a bunch of immigrant fisherman -I have no idea who erected them- but you too think this is gorgeous, so who are you to be critical?’ And then I had the thought like well, this place is only temporary, climate change to one side, every city changes. If Portland’s going to change I would rather it change, at this point, away from being less of a concentration of wealth, and if that means it’s a bit less quaint and a bit less charming, and you have to walk a little farther to get a cake pop, fine. Then I congratulated myself for having this good thought.

How are you structuring your time at SPACE Gallery in your residency and how is that different than how you work at home?

Well it’s different than how I work at home in that I’m structuring it at all. I’m writing all morning and then I’m allowing myself a little jaunt around Portland and then I come home and edit and attempt to write more in the afternoon, and usually just process regret about what I’ve already written. But it’s been wonderful, I’ve been looking around Portland, it’s beautiful, it’s like a quaint Boston. It’s such a pretty boutique-y city now, and it’s a little precious, but that’s just the part I’m walking through. And it seems like it definitely has changed a lot in the last ten years since I was last here. Listeners would know more about that than I would.

Are you interested in doing more residencies?

Yes. They’re very, very different experiences, this and the one I did before, but I like that, because it’s an indication to me of the variety of experiences that are available. I do feel like for the three weeks I’m here I don’t have to justify my existence. I feel as though my existence, provided I’m working, is justified. And for whatever reason, that’s not always something I feel in the world. I feel incredibly privileged and a little staggered because three years ago and four years ago I was very, very sick, I suffered a series of intractable vertigo episodes. I shouldn’t use the word intractable for vertigo, my hearing is what’s intractable, not my vertigo, my tinnitus. I suffered significant vertigo, I couldn’t leave bed, I was bed-bound for most of the time, and when I wasn’t I was deeply depressed, and convinced in a sense that my life had come to an end. That sounds very melodramatic to say out loud, but I don’t feel that way now. I feel like this residency and the Fort Lyon residency that I was a part of last year were very instrumental in picking me up off the ground again. Because It’s corny to say it, but it is a sense, however subjective the selection process is, of validation, and that’s really important.

Do you think all or most artists feel like they have to justify their existence?

I think they probably feel that way, yeah, a lot of them do, I can’t speak for all of them. But yeah, absolutely. It’s like what Susan Sontag said about writing, she doesn’t so much feel good about doing it, as she feels depressed when she doesn’t do it. I feel like you’d be foolish to deny that the work is pleasurable when it’ s going well, it’s really pleasurable, time vanishes, it’s like everybody talks about. You confront this whole morning of work and you think ok this will feel long, and then as you write it, as you sit there working at your desk and suddenly you look up and it’s 11:30, its 1, its 3:30, and there’s 1500 words there, waiting for you to revisit them. It’s beautiful to be a part of at times. But it’s also painful and frustrating, particularly when you’re starting a project. Truman Capote said that it was, he’s a little melodramatic, he said writing’s the hardest thing there is, and it is not the fucking hardest thing there is. But there are times it feels really bad, because you’re alone in a room, and I assume all artists feel this way, you’re alone in a room with your shortcomings. It’s like that Goya print, The Sleep of Reason, you’re sitting in that room and you’re besieged by these visitors and your own flaws and past hurts and deficiencies. And somehow, you bite down on that bit and you keep moving and in an indefinite amount of time you eventually feel marginally better about what you’re doing and that is somehow monumentally rewarding. 

You have quite a range of writing formats poetry, essay, novel, do you have one that you prefer, that you enjoy the most?

I think I kick around with things until I get bored with them. Don’t you feel a lot of people work that way? I get a little shocked by people that turn doing one thing into a whole career. It always seems a little disingenuous to me. Like at a certain point they have to be abstracted from this and just selling a product. But I guess that’s what success is right, and there’s a certain amount of fear with that. On the other hand, I don’t know, I think about one of my favorite poets, Bill Knott, by the end of his life he was mostly writing sonnets, he had written them almost not at all when he was younger. And he described it as going to the art supply store and getting a gross of canvasses that are the same size, and just knowing that’s what you’re working on. I have never felt that way, maybe one day I feel I don’t know. I tend to feel more alive when I’m trying new things. There’s this impulse as a writer who eventually going to have to sell the book they’re writing, for you to think ‘ok what would make this marketable?’ And for some reason I have this impulse to constantly not do that, I think it’s just a little bit of rebelliousness or something. I think ‘well, let’s do the next chapter differently than we did the one before, or, that essay was lyrical, let’s write this essay more straightforwardly, or, let’s write this one in fragments, let’s approach it differently.’

You were a founding editor for Open Letters Monthly which is in it’s final issue, what have you loved about that project and how do you feel about it transitioning into something different?

There were a few things I loved about Open Letters, and one of them was the people I was working with. I started with two friends at an Italian restaurant in Boston that’s not there anymore, and they sort of sat me down and told me what the project was and asked me if I would do it, they told me I would do it, and I asked my wife on the way home ‘should I do this?’ and she said ‘well I can see a lot of reasons you wouldn’t’ and I said ‘yeah I probably should, you’re right, I’ll go ahead and do it.’ What I liked about it was the part the people reading the magazine never get to see, which is talking about all the articles that came in backstage with the other editors, and joking about them, and arguing about them, and getting to know the other editors and the writers through their work. Of course, if you’re going to do something ambitious, we did a whole issue devoted to Anthony Burgess. We published a little anthology. It was fun to have grand projects. I don’t really see the skills I developed at Open Letters going much of anywhere at all, to be honest. I felt like it was something that happened, it was terrific to be a part of, and its more or less over now. I don’t see myself doing something like it. I feel like I’ve had the experience and it was satisfying and I’m moving along.   

Any work of yours that you really loved that you felt went unnoticed?

My usual answer to this is my novel. I loved the people I worked with at Miami University Press, they’re fabulous. But the book didn’t have any distribution, it didn’t end up in bookstores, so it is a little bit of a pyrrhic novel. That said, I don’t think it’s a great work of art. I think it’s the kind of novel that would beguile a summer afternoon. I don’t think it’s the kind of novel that would change someone’s life. It’s a short comic novel about young love. That said, yeah I feel what ninety percent of authors who put their book in the world feel, you feel like you throw a penny into a chasm and no echo comes back. My novel is available on Amazon, and other non-sinister retailers, like Indie Bound. And it’s fine, it’s an amusing book to beguile an afternoon, and I wish a few more people knew that, I guess. But it sounds a little whiny because I’ve been fortunate to find some readers for some other work that I’ve done. I didn’t go into writing thinking it was a quick road to wealth and fame. And I was reassured to discover it has not been.

Julia Whyel is a Storyteller and Media Producer in New England. Her work focuses on themes of community, addiction, and vintage fashion. She loves matchbox cars, holiday lights, and wandering the grocery store, but not necessairly in that order. View her work here.

SPACE Reader

🕯️ The dance show of the summer is Scapegoat Garden’s Liturgy|Order|Bridge. The Hartford-based company calls upon Black church traditions and ideas of faith, nature, fashion, and experimentation in their limited performance run June 20-22. Tickets available now, presented by SPACE at Mechanics’ Hall. 🕯️