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“Presence of Another”
Winner of the Carter V. Cooper Memorial Prize for Nonfiction, 2009
Selected by Natalie Angier
What is your biggest challenge as a writer?
I’m not exactly sure who coined the phrase, Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard (BIC HAK), but this is my biggest obstacle. The butt in the chair part is easy, since I’m always in a chair, so mine would be more like, Laptop on Lap, Hands on Keyboard. I do commit myself to a page a day, at least. Some days, nothing truly great surfaces, but on others, I’m rewarded by some words I’d actually be proud to let others read.
Do you structure your writing before you write, or do you begin by writing freely?
I write a lot in my head and into a tape recorder before I turn to the page; the ideas come most frequently late at night. Then I just write freely, brushing the editor off my shoulder, until I’ve gotten a nice chunk of it written. After a day or two, or when I feel I’ve had enough distance from it, I begin structuring it so it unfolds in a way that’s honest, vulnerable, raw and funny—exactly the way I feel and live my life.
Does others’ writing contribute to the development and craft of your own writing? If so, what other writers have inspired you?
Absolutely. Whenever I read Mary Karr, I find myself full of ideas and motivation. She’s mad talented; and while I get down a bit, that I’ll never be able to possibly string together the sentences and syllables, the clean prose that encapsulates a solitary moment the way she does, her work propels me to write. David Sedaris reminds me how vital humor is, especially with a story that can be pretty serious at times. Nancy Mairs and Lucy Grealy are great inspirations, as they are also disabled women who struggle to find a sense of femininity and acceptance in our culture’s idealized notion of beauty. Disability advocate, Simi Linton, encourages my work, not just on a personal level, but a political one as well. Finally, my writing friends keep me on track and remind me that I have a good story to tell and gently nudge me to keep at it; that is, if you define “gently” as yelling at me if they find out I’m not writing.
Are there instances in your writing to which you did not intend to give thematic or symbolic meaning, but which you became aware of after writing them?
Of course. I don’t often go into a piece with any real themes in mind. I just write and allow the words to tell me what they mean. After a few drafts, motifs and symbols emerge, and on subsequent drafts, I work to unite and flush them out.
“Presence of Another” relates the aftermath of the car accident that left you paralyzed when you were twenty-one. There is a rare sense of peace in the writing. Do you feel like writing has helped you to come to peace with your experience or that you had to come to some peace with it before you were able to write about it?
I’d say a lot of both. I wrote manically in the years after I got hurt, but looking back on it, it’s all victim, feel-bad-for-me, vapid, narcissistic babble that I would ONLY read to my cats—and even they would play the imaginary violin. However, writing at those times kept me sane and helped me come to terms with what I was going through. It took me a few years to own what happened, and my present work is a testament to the peace I found naturally and my inevitable acceptance of my new body. However, I’m grateful I have a record of my feelings when it initially happened. “Presence of Another” (as well as my memoir from which it was taken) incorporates both the innocent voice that propels the present tense of the narrative and the experienced voice that reflects on and makes sense of it, for myself and the reader.
Did you write as a child or teenager, or do you think your experience was what really spurred it?
I’ve always written. I think I wrote my first “poem” when I was seven or eight. And as far back as I can remember, I told people I’d be a writer; however, I joke that it’s a good thing I got hurt because what the hell would I write about? Seriously, now I feel like it would be a disservice not to. There are only a limited number of people who experience life the way I do, and as hard as it can be sometimes, it’s also entertaining. I hope that my writing can reflect both and put a face on disabilities—a discussion of the lived experience.
How did you decide on the title for your essay?
One of the main things that happen in this portion of my memoir is the first time that I actually looked at and recognized this new version of myself. I found it difficult to reconcile my past self, one who danced and made snow angels, to this new self who, because of a tiny break in my neck, couldn’t walk or even pull her hair up in a ponytail due to my limited hand dexterity. I couldn’t own it, so in the beginning, it wasn’t part of me, it was another me.
Can you tell us anything about your memoir, Cock-Eyed View?
Cock-Eyed View depicts my transformation from a 21-year-old college student to a quadriplegic. It begins at the time of my accident and focuses on the “after.” I live between two worlds: my life as a fully functional “normal” citizen, and a full-time occupant of an A4 Titanium wheelchair. The book follows my discovery and understanding—how to live a life that’s not straightforward, but a bit skewed—challenging and humorous at the same time.
However, the point of my book isn’t to flaunt my accomplishments and make me a hero. Just the opposite is true; I want audiences to recognize themselves—to recognize that they would have pushed ahead just as I have and thrived, despite paralysis and the ramifications of it. Within these issues, I will unfurl a story that all audiences can call their own. “Tragic” memoirs are ubiquitous—but my story is new. My story is Cock-Eyed.