11 March 2008

Sound and Fury

I'm about to write on something that most people will probably not care about. It's a turn from what I normally take the time to say - stuff about movies or books or life as a college student. This is a little different.

From the beginning I'd like to make it clear that I am not representing the deaf or hearing communities. I'm just putting my thoughts down on a debate I've been having in my head for a while.

I'm in a Deaf Culture class right now. I've taken two years of sign and in order to get my language credit passed off, the University requires me to finish off with a semester studying deaf culture. BYU is unique in that all of the ASL teachers are deaf. It has provided me with a really unique learning experience and I'm glad that I've had the chance to learn sign. I think it is a beautiful language.

I've been struggling a bit with my 301 class, though. It frustrates me to go in a class and learn about how hearing people are "bad" or "oppressive" and to be deaf is "right" and "good" compared to being hearing.

Part of this frustration is warranted. The deaf world has been through the mill in the last hundred years. The fact is, there are more hearing people in the world than deaf people. 95% of deaf children have hearing parents, and most of those hearing parents haven't had exposure to the deaf world before. They don't know what to do. The hearing world literally revolves around sound. We know when to get up because of an alarm. We hear our phones ring or the doorbell. We know when to feed our children because we hear them cry. We know when to stop a lane change because someone honks at us. We know that something is wrong downstairs when we hear the sound of glass breaking. We have a literal obsession with recognizing sounds and understanding where they come from. For a hearing person with little exposure to the deaf way of life, the idea of living without sound is incomprehensible and frightening. Even now as I'm writing I've got my music on. The Beatles. What would life be like if I couldn't hear the Beatles? I would wager that nearly every student on campus would spontaneously explode if someone cut the cord between them and their iPod.

We watched a movie yesterday in 301 about a family who has a deaf son. They focus so much on his inability to hear that they inhibit him from acquiring any knowledge at all. His mother says over and over that she just wants him to be able to talk and order his own food at a restaurant, etc. She says having a deaf son is like expecting a child with legs and getting one with fins instead.

But that's not quite right. He doesn't have fins. He still has legs. And expecting a deaf child to live like a hearing child is ridiculous. He can't hear.

Prior to watching that movie I'd wondered about what I would do if I had a deaf child, even though I do know sign and can communicate well enough. As an English person, I struggled with it, because there are some major drawbacks in deaf education at the moment. Public education made the mistake of throwing most deaf kids in with other handicapped children with mental disorders. Deaf children aren't stupid. They just need a bit of help. What's happened is that you have hearing parents desperate to teach their kids to talk, and by the time they learn sign later on in life (if they do) they're well behind in other subjects and can't have the independence their parents wanted for them in the first place. Most kids educated in ASL are well behind in English. They can't write or read as well. They can communicate perfectly, but they struggle to communicate with the outside world in a written way because ASL is not a written language. I decided that if I were to have (or adopt) a deaf child, I would stress importance in understanding English. Just as I would stress the importance of learning English in a child I adopted from China: to survive in America, to become truly educated, it is vital that you be able to present yourself well.

The trouble I have with this class is that the material is outdated and, in many ways, I see the deaf community as crippling themselves. The Gallaudet Revolution in the late 80s did great things for the deaf world, but it's still so close to the hearts in the leaders of the deaf community that they have trouble breaking out of the "oppressed" mindset, just as some members of the black community struggle because of Civil Rights movement backlash. Sure - there are people that genuinely do not understand the struggle and don't want to. But there are many people who would be willing to help if they knew what to do. Most of the materials we use in the class are outdated. I feel frustrated when I read long chapters in books about how hearing people are mean and it's all their fault that deaf people have a horrible life, etc. It makes me want to stand up in class and say "look - you don't need to tell me that it's better to use sign. I'm here! I'm trying. Tell it to that stupid mother trying to yell into the ear of her deaf son so that he could 'hear'-"

I have hope for the deaf world though. I have a feeling that the farther we move from the Deaf President Now campaign, the more willing people will be to come together. I think the study of deaf culture will expand and grow into something better. Right now, though, I struggle. It's not my fault I can hear. Blame the powers that be, if you want.

02 March 2008

"If I weren't going to be a writer, I'd go to New York and pursue the stage..."

I looked at the date of my last post today and got a bit of a shock. January 21st? Goodness. In my defense my life has been busy and I haven't had much to write about, but still. Shouldn't I have a plethora of things to say all the time?

Which leads (somewhat roughly) into my topic for the day. A few weeks ago I sat down with one of my professors. He more or less tossed an imaginary gauntlet on the floor of his office and said something to the effect of: "Joni, you can be a professional writer if you want to be, but you'll have to work harder."

Well. If that didn't smack me back into place a bit.

When I was twelve I was determined to be a writer. I wrote little short stories all over the place, one of which was a twenty or so page epoch tale of a girl on the Oregon Trail complete with birth, death and (naturally) cholera. All the Oregon-Trail-Tale necessities. I remember very vividly telling my sixth grade teacher that one day I was going to be a real published author and that I would dedicate my first book to her. This enthusiasm for the idea of being a writer carried on into high school when I started writing a magical-realism book about a girl in Ireland. She lived in a house with a field of daffodils around it that drove the neighbors mad because they were just so conspicuous. My creative writing teacher told me over and over again that I ought to write professionally. I scorned the rest of the "kids" in my classes that wrote really horrible, sappy poetry. I managed to get published in a magazine. It was a good year.

Then, of course, I went to college. I took one creative writing class that I really didn't like because (a) I didn't have any inspiration to write and, (b) my professor's theory on how you write stories irritated me. I thought it was a load of poo.

I don't know that I've written anything in the creative department since then.

I'm starting to get a bit of that bug back, though. That urge to write something wonderful. In working with this professor on my writing, though, he was speaking specifically about being a professional essayist. Only I don't want to be a professional essayist.

This last statement has a bit of irony to it, really. What have I done the last three years that was anything but essaying? Journaling, I suppose, which is a form of essay. Personal narratives. Nothing creative. Why is that?

Well, I suppose that part of it is because I read a lot of crap. I've always wondered at how some authors manage to get published with the junk they write. It's such an impossible industry to break into and most of it is a load of really horrid writing that somehow manages to strike a literary (or imaginary) chord. Take Twilight for instance - the books are not well written (don't even try arguing with me on this), but they've been selling out all over the place. Nearly every teenage girl in the world has read them and/or made their boyfriends read them (why any high school boy would do that for a girlfriend, I don't know). Or maybe that example isn't fair. I'd use Harry Potter but everyone knows how that turns out too - another random, twist of fate chance that opens up an empire. But what of the great unknown books? There are some incredible storytellers out there that get completely overshadowed in the young adult fiction world by ripping yarns like . . . The Babysitter's Club. One of the reasons why I think I haven't written is because I don't want to write junk.

Then of course there's the fear that all I will have to say will have already been said by someone. Heaven forbid I steal from someone else. I need to be original!! But how can I be original when there have been billions of other stories told? Well, I can't. I don't know that there's any such thing as a truly original story when you pick off all the fluff. I just have to find a way to tell the same story in a new enough way that it tricks people. How do you do that?

Hindrance number three: I'm a historical purist. I don't want to write anything modern, but if I'm going to write something historical I want to make sure I do it well. And, while I'm at it - I don't much fancy setting anything in America either. I suppose the upside is that I would get to travel back to my beloved England for field research . . . maybe this isn't such a hindrance after all . . .

Another question, then - why did I have to grow up into a realistic sort of mindset that keeps pestering me by saying "chances are you'll fail, why even start"? What ever happened to that twelve year old inside me that said I would put my teacher's name on the dedication page of my first book and knew that eventually I would? Whatever happened to "the glory and the dream"?

So for now, I'm trying to come up with ideas. I still rather like the idea of that little story I was working on all that time ago. With a little refinement of course - maybe I can come up with some solid conflict and say something worth reading. Until then, though - it's definitely given me some things to think about. What is it about growing up that makes us so boring in how we dream? What's wrong with wanting something wonderful? Or is it just that our idea of "wonderful" shifts? Is that settling? Or is that just living "responsibly"?