Discovering every detail: writing about disability
During the last weekend of October, while the sun was high and bright, I boxed up my home office. In a few days I would be driving my station wagon across the state, moving from wide open agricultural plains to a small town nestled at the base of a thickly forested mountain range. I had left this task until last. It seemed easier to scrub and sweep every other room of my rented flat. I knew that I would be slow and sentimental as I organised the piles of paper scattered throughout the office. Each pile contained research and handwritten notes that I had made while writing my memoir, ‘The Shape of Sound’.
Some of the drafts are written in a cramped and careful style, each word precise and considered. In other drafts my handwriting grows bigger, looser. I can remember my hand racing across the page, unable to keep up with whatever memory bubbled up.
The process of writing about your life is one of discovery. Even though you’ve lived every moment of it, recalling events and emotions can be haphazard, rather than neat and orderly. Memories can be slow to surface. Others can come in a rush, one connected to the next. More often than not, once I had started writing my book, memories arrived unbidden—ambushing me at the supermarket carpark or waking me in the middle of the night. Whenever this happened, I would jot down each thought on the back of envelopes and receipts. Now, as I sort through my desk, opening and closing each drawer, it feels difficult to throw any scrap of paper away. The writing process, though challenging, had been exhilarating and continually surprising.
When I first started writing my memoir about being born deaf, I focused on what my life was like at the time. I wrote reams about being in my twenties: working; living in share houses; travelling; dating and socialising. I wrote about how my deafness allowed me to sleep despite living with a collective of DJs who practiced for hours each night, as well as my apprehension when asking managers for workplace accommodations and access.
It was only when I started to share my writing with others, that the questions started coming: What was it like growing up deaf? Why did you only begin to learn Auslan as an adult? Why don’t you wear hearing aids?
With each question I returned to my desk and wrote to fill in these gaps in my story. In doing so, I began to realise that so many things that I took for granted—such as needing to use closed captions while watching TV or experiencing listening fatigue—were considered interesting and unusual to others.
Through writing, I discovered that every detail, no matter how small or seemingly mundane, was worth paying attention to and noting down. And while many of these notes haven’t made it into the final manuscript, the act of sitting down to write has shone a light on what is important in my life.
For instance, learning Auslan in my late twenties has become a central part of my memoir. Initially I was terribly embarrassed about this experience. After all, I was not fluent. Not even close. I assumed that I needed to become an expert before I would be allowed to write about Auslan. And so, instead of writing about my own experiences, I looked for books written by deaf people, including Jessica White, Donna McDonald and Ilya Kaminsky. While each story was enlightening and entertaining, none of these stories mirrored my own experiences. Eventually, I realised that there isn’t a ‘correct’ way to write about deafness or disability. I didn’t need to become an expert in Auslan to write my own story. In fact, not knowing the language formed the basis of my manuscript. The next time I sat at my desk, I asked myself: despite being born deaf, why wasn’t I taught sign language?
This simple question sparked a sense of curiosity within me. While researching deafness and deaf education, I learned that it is common for deaf children to be denied access to sign language. Increasingly, many of them, like me, have sought sign language classes as adults. I began to notice and write about how sign language made me feel: stumbling my way through each class; the shy and tentative conversations I had at each Auslan meet-up; the friendships that I developed with other deaf people; the delight of conversing with others in crowded rooms, without feeling lost or overwhelmed; the relief of finally feeling at home within a language and within my body.
Typically, stories about deafness and disability represented in movies and novels are either heroic or grim. These stories tend to follow a predictable narrative arc: the disabled person learns to ‘overcome’ their disability. But, in reality, being disabled doesn’t mean that your life follows a certain trajectory. Every story is unique and deserves to be told. There is power in finding the words to express yourself.
Rifling through the piles of paper on my desk, I’m reminded of all the questions and concerns I had as I wrote my manuscript. The nervousness I felt about writing so openly about disability. But as I slow down and look through each draft, I can see how much pride I’ve developed in my deafness. Hearing loss is not something that I have ‘overcome’. Rather it is something I celebrate through sign language and Deaf culture.
Soon, at the end of March 2021, ‘The Shape of Sound’ will be published. And even though I have finished writing my memoir, I continue to sit down at my desk and write about what happened during the day—noticing the speckled shells of free range eggs; a conversation with a friend; the feeling of driving out of town en route to my new home. It’s likely that most of these stories will never be read by anyone else, but the process of writing and thinking keeps me engaged with small, everyday moments.
About Fiona Murphy
Fiona Murphy is a Deaf poet and essayist. Her work has been published in Kill Your Darlings, Overland, Griffith Review and the Big Issue, among other publications. In 2019, she was awarded the Overland Fair Australia Essay Prize and the Monash Undergraduate Creative Writing Prize. In 2018, she was shortlisted for the Richell Prize and highly commended by the Wheeler Centre Next Chapter program.
Her memoir, ‘The Shape of Sound’, is forthcoming from Text Publishing in March 2021.