John Cotter

I Had to Make it Mean Something: A Conversation with John Cotter


At the age of thirty, John Cotter found his hearing cutting out unpredictably, replaced not by silence but by a roaring, whistling, ringing noise “made of several tones, high and low together, like a lawnmower near your ear and a plane not far away.” He was diagnosed with Ménière’s disease, a disorder of the inner ear that causes not only hearing loss but pain, nausea, and vertigo serious enough to impact mobility. It affected every aspect of his life; not only his work as a teacher and theater director but his relationships and his sense of himself.

Losing Music (Milkweed), his beautiful, extraordinarily honest memoir, has already won plaudits from the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. In its pages, Cotter finds a new understanding of life, connection to people, and a way to cope without bitterness after being struck by such random misfortune.

I talked with Cotter via email about giving form to memoir without betraying the truth of experience, how he reconciled the medical and social models of disability, and how he escaped the tyranny of the inspirational narrative.


The Rumpus: As you say in the book, your diagnosis, as well as the disease itself, resisted all of your efforts to attribute meaning to it. How do you turn this kind of illness into a story without falsifying what happened?

John Cotter: There’s the story of the sickness and there’s the story of the soul. It’s necessary to get between those stories. I couldn’t do “I’m glad I fell ill because I learned so much,” or “I was cured through this one weird trick,” or “Here’s my platform on disability—I’ll see you at the polls.”

Losing Music cover

But a book needs an arc, which is another way of saying it needs to describe transformation. Ten years ago, it would have been fair to call me despairing or despondent. Since then, I’ve adapted. The challenge of the book was to describe that transformation without giving in to easy lessons, or self-helping, or cracking glib. The question became who this self of mine was, and how I was changed, and what that might mean.

Rumpus: One thing I especially admired in Losing Music was how you managed to draw various strands of your life into the book, so it wasn’t just a story about the illness but about constituting self. How did you represent that self as a narrator?

Cotter: There’s writing the self in real time—what the I of right now thinks about right now (and thinks about this I). Or, there’s the way I saw myself in the past, exactly as I might have articulated it to myself at the time. Or, there’s the way I’d describe that self after a gap of time.

Years ago, I wrote a semi-autobiographical novel, Under the Small Lights. The only way I could voice the main character was by pushing him into the role of fool, a comic foil. But I wasn’t just taking my own piss, I was implicitly congratulating myself because here, I’d transcended that guy. Here, I was able to laugh at him.

In Losing Music, the voice is more wistful and more immediate. I had to write about events that were closer, which is tricky because the chaos of those events offered a hundred possible narrative lines, a hundred frames. The paradox of writing from this I is that you can’t make any clear shapes appear until you’ve cleared away most of the furniture. Then you have to go back in and sort of add what audio engineers call room noise. You have to empty the room, and then you have to be very careful about putting things back.

Rumpus: In doing that work of reassembly, do you find that writing transforms the material for you? Does rendering the experience into prose change how you feel about your life?

Cotter: It does, yeah. For my own sake, I had to make sense of this thing that was happening to me. I had to make it mean something to stave off despair. My original plan for this fell apart—I couldn’t find a cure, couldn’t return to my old future—so I had to figure out a way to orient myself to this new meaninglessness. That’s a formal dictate of memoir.

One reader said she thought the latter half of the book felt a little extraneous. But from my perspective, that was also a formal imperative: I’m exploring the question of how to make sense of your life when the old motives collapse, the old raisons d’être. I had to allow the story to become a little picaresque because I was wandering—that’s the nature of someone who’s searching.

When I was at my lowest point, I wrote in fragments, a paragraph or a few lines per day. Later, I arrayed them to see if I could find an arrow, a sense of directionality. This is how the book decided on a story—through this collaging and winnowing. It’s how I decided on one for myself. The formal and the personal moved toward the same end.

Rumpus: One of the things I knew about the book before I got it, and which made me want to read it, was that it contained a long section about the illness of Jonathan Swift. What made you decide it was important to include it?

Cotter: I just think I’ve got a news hook in Jonathan Swift: to my eye, his experience of Ménière’s disease is very present in his work and no one discusses it. Gulliver’s Travels is a book against the body, and about the horrors of the body (those giant pores on the Brobdingnags! the countless infirmities of the Struldbrugs!). It’s about the failures of science, and the uselessness of reason.

Today we’re interested in Swift by way of how he typifies his age, but I was more interested in how he was atypical—and atypical in his body as well—beset with a mysterious and unsolvable condition that had to have affected the way he saw the world. Maybe this is subjectivization, or I’m just playing into the current fashion, a prisoner of the zeitgeist, but I really do think the illness influenced his work. And I think I’m in a unique position to write about that.

(On a personal note, I’m very grateful you thought it worked. I remember Swift not getting great marks in The Western Lit Survival Kit. I will take your question above to be a thorough recantation.)

Rumpus: I just checked, and as I suspected, the only book of his I gave low marks to was A Tale of a Tub. Like, I thought the allegorical humor about schisms in seventeenth-century Christianity didn’t age that well. But this is probably a conversation for another time.

Cotter: Ah! My copy of the book is packed in a box (because we’re moving). But yes: some of Swift’s more abstruse pieces are sort of interesting, but I would never ever recommend them to somebody who was just Swift-curious. Most of the jokes in Tale of a Tub and Battle of the Books have not survived their three-hundred-year journey. Gulliver’s Travels is the one to read. And if people only have time for one part of it, they should read Book Four. That’s my official prescription.

Rumpus: Losing Music is especially brilliant about the loss of control that comes with long-term illness in general and Ménière’s in particular. Do you think writing (or reading) a book like yours can help restore a feeling of having some power over one’s own life?

Cotter: I’ve always been resistant to this idea of memoir as therapy, maybe because it seemed to sideline aesthetics. And now, look at me. Sometimes I come across memoirs that read like a primal rush of feeling, just unstructured, untranslatable yawps, basically. It’s not that I want the writers to falsify their experience, I just wish they’d exercise more subtlety. Alternately you get these books—lots of them celebrity memoirs by ghostwriters, but not all of them—full of very pat conclusions, cheap inspiration. I don’t know if it’s writers or readers more desperate to believe in this stuff—reading a whole book for answers you could find in an old copy of TV Guide.

But I’m dodging your question. The answer is yes. This may sound stuffy, but the process of writing really was a devotion. It gave me a reason to keep going. And because I’m interested in formal problems, it was the crafting of sentences, finding rhythms, shaping my material that helped me to get hold of it.

Rumpus: You’ve alluded to the tendency to want to turn illness (or really anything else that gets into a memoir) into an inspiring story where light conquers darkness. Could you say more about that?

Cotter: Years ago, in the checkout line of a supermarket, I found one of those one-off, souvenir magazines, with a picture of a grinning Anne Frank on the cover and a title—I don’t remember the exact words—like, “Inspiring Lessons from the Life of Anne Frank.” Obviously, I understand why people want this kind of thing. I think it speaks to how close to the edge people are, that even the Holocaust is something about which we feel we need to be cheerful.

But also: come on. If you find yourself needing to feel cheerful about the Holocaust, what the fuck are you doing?

Rumpus: What do you make of the idea that the main bad thing about disability is the stigma attached to it? Do you think it’s possible to get rid of that stigma while also acknowledging that some disabilities are just unequivocally painful?

Cotter: I think not all disabilities are the same. Much of the language of disability activism and disability studies eschews the medical model in favor of the social model, where the major issue is lack of accommodation. Throughout history—and, pace Foucault, not just post-Enlightenment—people whose bodies were merely different, merely misunderstood, have been routinely kidnapped and tortured, basically, and in many cases, that’s still going on. And the medical industry has been complicit in that.

That said, in terms of artistic depictions, a big advantage of the social model is that it provides an outlet for catharsis. It’s improving, as Jeeves would have said. As Tom Shakespeare notes in his essay for the Disability Studies Reader, the social model is most useful for people with static impairments. Another way to put this is that for otherwise-healthy people negotiating bodily difference, society really is the problem. But for people with degenerative conditions, or who are dealing with physical pain, society might not be the sole cause of their suffering, or even the primary cause, and it’s important not to paper that over or to erase it. In many cases of disability and chronic illness, the condition itself might be a cause of suffering. This is not a story that gets a lot of oxygen right now. We don’t have a useful way to process this side of the story in form that isn’t inspiration porn or desperation porn. Among other things, Losing Music is an attempt to tell a complex story that navigates all these Scyllas and Charybdises.

Rumpus: One of the potentially good things about disability is the existence of communities that share support or common experience. This is very specific in the case of Deaf culture, so why isn’t there much about that in Losing Music?

Cotter: When we talk about Deafness with a capital D, we are not talking about degrees of hearing loss. We’re talking about a tightly knit group of people who use American Sign Language, many of whom attended Deaf schools growing up, some of whom have Deaf parents. This is the community you’ll encounter in Sara Nović’s novel True Biz or in movies like CODA. Deaf artists and activists have described their own culture beautifully, and they’re who you should consult for more information.

I’ll speak here only about late-deafened adults, meaning people who lose their hearing after they’ve finished with school, once they’ve started building adult lives. The vast majority—the overwhelming majority—of late-deafened people do not identify as big-d Deaf. The reasons for this should be obvious: it’s a lot of work to develop fluency in a new language. It is work to learn new customs, new taboos, new hierarchies—all the while trying to maintain ties to the life you’ve already built. It’s probably too taxing for people like me, with lots of other symptoms to manage or people whose resources are strained.

This is probably a good place to note that I still have plenty to learn about hearing or its associated communities. My answers to all of these questions may be different in a few years’ time. I’m trying to learn as much as I can and at the same time be patient with myself. It’s a project. I hope I’ve got the time to do it justice.




Author photograph by Kirsten Rebekah Bethmann

Sandra Newman’s most recent novel is Julia a retelling of George Orwell’s 1984 from the point of view of Winston Smith’s girlfriend, to be published in October 2023. Her five previous novels include The Heavens (a New York Times Notable Book) and The Country of Ice Cream Star, which was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. She's also the author of four works of nonfiction, including a memoir, Changeling, and the bestselling writing guide How Not to Write a Novel (with Howard Mittelmark).  More from this author →