I'm Heather Sellers, and you don't look like anyone I know. Should we happen to meet, I would have to tell you right away that I will not recognize you when we meet again. I'm profoundly prosopagnosic: completely unable to recognize people by face.
"Don't worry!" most people say, "I'm terrible with names, too."
"No, that's not it," I say, urgently. I'm fabulous with names. I have to be-I need every single tiny clue I can get, just to make it through a day of students, meetings, errands, and social obligations. I am actually not going to remember your face, ever. Each time I see your face, it's for the first time.
Sellers is Professor of English at Hope College, my alma mater, where she is an accomplished poet and essayist. Her new memoir You Don't Look Like Anyone I Know: A True Story of Family, Face Blindness, and Forgiveness (Riverhead Books) recounts not just her experience with prosopagnosia, but her tumultuous upbringing: her mother was a schizophrenic and her father was a cross-dressing alcoholic. But this is no self-pitying memoir.
Sellers's book recently received a positive review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, where it is an Editor's Choice. Mary Roach writes, "Face blindness would seem to be a trump card, but Sellers doesn’t play it that way. On the contrary, it helped her cope with the mood swings and unpredictable behavior of a schizophrenic mother and an alcoholic father . . . She views prosopagnosia as a gift: 'the ability to live with uncertainty, to be receptive to all that a person might turn out to be, literally and metaphorically.' Sellers believes her condition helped her as a writer by forcing her to focus on 'the essence of the person,' not the surface."
Read my interview with Heather Sellers after the video.
Tea. Paper. Pencil. I can't compose on the computer. The pencil lets one go slowly; the speed of creating isn't a nano thing at all. The work comes from a place that is outside of time--I know that sounds very abstract. But to write, we have to be in a place of deep concentration and focus. It's like meditation. You can't meditate with a computer. You have to do it with your body, your breath, your self. It's the same with the writing. I can catch the pull of that creative force only with my breath/hand/body. It's very slow, but it ends up being a better use of time because the work I do by hand needs much less revision than work I might originate on a screen. I like typewriters. I collect them. I like beautiful pens that have great rolling action--not expensive, just super smooth. Like good thinking!
It's my writing studio, in my home. What makes it ideal? Well, it's simple and small. I write on an old school library table I've had forever. I have a beautiful piece of art by my friend Mary Brodbeck (marybrodbeck.com) on the east wall, called "Sheltered." There's two bookcases and my Aeron chair, and that's it. No internet, phone, fax or i or e anything. It's just me. No one else really goes in there. It stays very peaceful. My ex-husband painted the room this amazing shade of blue-violet. He works in color for a large company and this color is supposed to be the most conducive to creativity. I do like it! I have a view of a tree-filled park and I hear kids out there playing, and there is a constant parade of dogs who invariably echo their owners' gait and affect. I've worked there, well, for fifteen years. I feel very fortunate to have a home, and such happiness there in my studio. It's the cockpit of my life.
Writer's block is a myth. The myth has to do with how we want to see creative people--as special, touched, inspired, fragile, supersensitive. All those things are true, but the gift of creativity is nourished by daily practice, not nourished by the grace of "inspired moments." It's a fantasy that something "comes to you" and that that mystical thing can also be taken away from you by writer's block. Working writers know that writer's block is something people who don't write talk about, as though writers are special, like miniature super fluffy pandas or something. There's just no such thing--it would be like getting "parenting block" or "driver's block." I can't parent today I just don't feel it! I can't drive, all the sudden, I just.....can't! This never happens.Writing is something that is practiced and vital and alive. It can't be blocked. Here's how it works. You show up every day and you practice your skills. It's like baseball. You may not always be in the zone. You may not have very good skills, but you can get better with great coaching and more hours playing. You get better hanging around other baseball players and people who value baseball. You watch a lot of games, read a lot of books. You have bad days. But part of learning how to improve is learning what to do (in sport, in art) when you are injured, how to keep moving things forward when you are starting out, and really bad at the endeavor.Writer's block is a fantasy, and it seems young to me. "Something is happening to me and I don't know what it is and I can't write!" Well, no. Here's what it is. Writing is really hard. The "block" is actually learning taking place. You have to study what writers do when they want to learn. A child waits for the state of mind to change and suspects forces out of her control are at play. The adult writer learns a new skill, practices what she knows. I don't mean to be glib. It's very, very hard. Very hard.
Writers lose their rhythm. Writers run dry. Writers freak out. Writers get stuck. Writers create reams of terrible writing. But there's not a mystical "block." There is a high level of difficulty and the task is to figure out the next thing you need to know.
One, it's all revision. Two, re-see don't think. And three, get lost in time--you must spend much much much time on the work. It's a very, very slow process.To revise you have to, like an actor, get back into the scene with your body, with your breath, with your whole self and your character's whole self. Her whole history and future have to be activated in you! It's very difficult and it takes enormous concentration of the letting-go kind. Re-seeing--which is what the word revision means, not taking down and tearing apart, not fiddling around on the sentence level--means you go back in and be in it and look around and notice more, move forward more. Find out more. You go back and look again. Like a detective does at the crime scene. You can't have a theory or an agenda, or you are going to miss the clues that are key to solving the scene. My advice is to find out what's enjoyable and rewarding in this process; most of your time will be spent engaged in this process.
It's a great question, great topic. It seems like poems are the opposite of corporate writing. Corporate writing is all about communicating clear ideas and giving directions, making assessments, reviewing and analyzing, yes? Those are intellectual analytical skills, and hard ones to learn. There is a kind of rigor and discipline in that kind of writing that I think does help poets, on some level, think about what it is they might say and how important it is to say it and go somewhere in a way that is meaningful to a reader. But for me, writing poetry is wholly different in purpose and practice. When I make a poem, it's more like creating a sculpture, something my reader will come to at first beneath the level of language. I'm trying to create a feeling response, and emotional container. It's just so different from a report that I write. It's two utterly different uses of language. Ours is the only art form with this dichotomy--we don't use paintings to make arguments.
Secondly, poetry is difficult to read. It takes years of practice to learn how to read poems in meaningful ways. It takes time--one has to have space and spaciousness. You can't be wanting to get somewhere. You have to sit, quietly, it's like hunting or birdwatching, and wait, wait, wait. Wait for the thing to come to you, to open. It's interactive and requires patience and openness.
Obviously, emotional sensitivity, patience, and openness are high-value skills in the corporate world. And I'd like if my banker were skilled at reading poetry--it would fun to interact with her in that play field. But poetry is challenging. It takes time. Here's my fear: if we start mandating poetry, do we risk alienating readers?
I have to write every day. When I don't write, I get sick--I seem to go downhill quickly. Writing is how I organize my self. So it's not discipline, but it is absolutely a part of my daily life, just like exercise and food and prayer and love, a natural thing I'm meant to and must do. If it's all perfect, it goes like this: wake up, write until 2 or 3, go play outside with friends, do work-work. But that is a very privileged luxurious schedule and possible only on vacations, in summer. But it's the goal. It's the best way.
How do you know when a piece is done--when are you ready to submit?Handwritten notes....then all elaborately annotated.
It's never done. I could always work more on a piece. I'm one of those writers who revises published work. I am always learning more about writing and so always finding things I could improve. Never being satisfied is an important part of writing.
I always wrote poetry and fiction. When I discovered nonfiction was an option for me, everything fell into place--in nonfiction, I combine the narrative architecture and attention to story from fiction and the leaps and use of metaphor, juxtaposition, change-up and fastball from poetry.
No. It's not part of it. Both take enormous powers of focus, concentration, control, precision, and an ability to practice and an ability to really really suck, a high tolerance for mistakes. Learning from mistakes. So I have learned about writing from playing sports. The head game is similar, or parallel. But no, I'm always so happy to leave one for the other.