10 Questions for Melanie McCabe
- By Edward Clifford
The baby in the crib is sleeping. Instead of tiptoeing out of the room, the mother tiptoes in, looks long at the infant, then moves quietly across the carpet to the dresser against the far wall. Slowly she pulls open one of the drawers, pauses, looks again at the baby, and then shoves the drawer shut with as much force as she can muster with her slender frame.
—from "Syllable from Sound," Volume 61, Issue 1 (Spring 2020)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
I could interpret this question in several different ways. As a child, I wrote “novels” which I also illustrated. The first one was called Too Good To Be True, and was closely followed by Summer in Miami, the cover text of which boasted, “By the author of Too Good To Be True.”
But writing nonfiction is a fairly recent enterprise for me, so it feels like I should include it among my firsts. When I began the research for my memoir, His Other Life: Searching For My Father, His First Wife, and Tennessee Williams, I wrote a “trial balloon” essay about my quest that was published in Shenandoah in 2016. I was thrilled to have it out in the world. I had published poetry for years, and this was my first legitimate prose publication.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
I think I absorb aspects of many writers I admire—no one writer stands out to me as a primary influence. When I was writing a lot of poetry, I gravitated toward Emily Dickinson, Claudia Emerson, Charles Simic, Sylvia Plath, Marie Howe, Jane Hirschfield, Alan Michael Parker, Eric Pankey, and Jennifer Atkinson.
There are certain books of prose that I return to again and again because they speak to me in some way. One is Deborah Tall’s lyric essay, A Family of Strangers, and another is Jane Bernstein’s memoir, Bereft: A Sister’s Story. Sometimes I will reread passages from those books before I write because I so admire the style and the emotional wallop of each.
At the root of all my influences I would have to mention my father, who was also a writer. He was the consummate storyteller, and he taught me a great deal without trying to about pacing, character development, and how to draw a listener into the story.
What other professions have you worked in?
I have been a high school English teacher since 1999, but prior to that I worked in advertising and publishing as a copywriter. In my earliest working days, I shelved books at the local library, waited tables, and made cold calls on the phone to tell shoppers of upcoming sales at a local store. That last was a job so deadly dull that I and a coworker entertained ourselves by trying out different accents and concocting hilarious backstories to spin when the people we called asked us where we were from.
What did you want to be when you were young?
I had several aspirations—two of which I achieved. I wanted to be a teacher and a writer. But an early dream was to be a comedian. Telling my parents of that ambition earned probably the only laugh of my short-lived comedy “career.” I also thought about becoming an architect, and was forever drawing blueprints for fantastic houses I might someday live in; subsequently, I learned that math was essential to being an architect and that was very quickly the end of that.
What inspired you to write this piece?
For several years I had been noticing a steady decline in my ability to hear. In my career as a teacher, such a loss is more debilitating than it might be in some other occupations. The struggles I was having awakened for me many memories of my father, who was profoundly deaf. His inability to hear had a considerable impact on me growing up, and my perspective on those early experiences began to shift as I found myself trying to cope with some of the same issues that affected my father.
I felt a measure of shame and alienation in losing my hearing, and I began to appreciate how those same feelings lived within Dad, as well.
There’s surely irony in writing an essay about wanting to hide my hearing loss and then having it published so that my secret is exposed. I do feel compelled to mention that when I wrote this essay, I had not yet made the decision to use hearing aids. At the beginning of this current school year, I began wearing hearing aids in both ears, and this has had a powerful and transformative effect on my life.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
When I am actually in the process of writing, I can’t listen to any music at all—even instrumental. I need total silence to be able to think and create. In the developmental/planning stage before I begin writing, music is often a useful propulsion device. I listen to music I associate with the time period in my life that I am writing about. Songs that were important to me at a certain time in my life will spark all kinds of memories and details that I might not have accessed in any other way.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I like to walk. I’ll take long walks when I am in the process of thinking through something I want to write. I find that walking frees my mind up to ponder ideas and strategies. Maybe it’s the endorphins released by physical exercise, but I usually return from a long walk energized and brimming with ideas for where to go next. I will often take paper and pen in my pocket so that I can record epiphanies mid-walk, so I won’t lose them.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
Generally, that would be my beau, Chris. (“Boyfriend” is a silly term for someone my age to use, and “partner” conjures up images for me of square-dancing and also implies that we live together, so I’ll stick with “beau.”) Chris is a willing and thoughtful reader. But I am also part of a writing group, and they are invaluable to me.
If you could work in another art form what would it be?
Both of my daughters are painters and I like to think that their talent didn’t come out of nowhere. I always loved to draw when I was young and I had a knack for it. I might have pursued a life as a visual artist if writing hadn’t called to me much more strongly.
What are you working on currently?
I’ve been working on what will become a kind of memoir-in-essays about my life as a high school teacher over the last twenty years. The essays range from dark memories, such as what happened in my school on 9/11, to more upbeat pieces about ways I have tried to bring social-emotional lessons into the classroom. One of those pieces, about a Valentine’s Day activity I have done every year, recently went viral on The Washington Post site in a way that really surprised me. I’ve never had anything like that happen to me before.
What are you reading right now?
One of the results of becoming a high school English teacher that I never anticipated was how little time I would have for reading for pleasure. I spend most of my time reading my students’ essays and rereading the classics I teach so they are fresh in my mind during discussions.
On my table waiting for me are Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, and Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House. I’m hoping that the coming Spring Break will free up some reading time.
MELANIE MCCABE is the author of the memoir His Other Life: Searching For My Father, His First Wife, and Tennessee Williams, as well as two books of poetry, What The Neighbors Know and History of the Body.