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What It Means to Write: Creativity and Metaphor

by Adrian McKerracher

Voice: Adam Pottle on Writing with Deafness

by Adam Pottle

What does it mean to create? And how can one’s circumstances constrain or liberate creativity? Two Canadian academics and authors – Saskatoon’s Adam Pottle and Toronto’s Adrian McKerracher – sensitively and distinctively tackle these questions in a pair of spring titles that combine personal memoir, literary analysis, and a passion for expanding our notions of literature.

Human disability informs creative expression, says Pottle, who teaches at the University of Regina and is the author of the novel Mantis Dreams, the novella The Bus, and the play Ultrasound. Says Pottle, who was born deaf in both ears, “my deafness has made me into a writer, and writing has become my way of fully inhabiting the world.”

A short volume, Voice recounts Pottle’s childhood and coming of age, then probes the distinctive details of his oeuvre, which is focused squarely on issues of deafness and disability. Pottle’s prose is crisp, vivid, and frequently humorous, as in a series of imagined pep talks between his teenaged self and Lemmy Kilmister, the deceased front man of the metal band Motörhead.

Pottle describes an upbringing that was a mixture of positive experiences, friendships, and romantic relationships but also marked with a degree of existential loneliness. The profound alienation Pottle experienced resulted from being forced to live in a society designed and structured for hearing people. The very things that helped him integrate – hearing aids, a frequency modulation (FM) system that allowed him to better hear his teachers – marked him as different. “My FM system became a symbol of my position in the world. It connected me to the hearing world while also separating me from it.”

The challenges he faced imbue his literary output with uncommon characteristics. In part because of the “accent” deafness can create in speech, deaf people experience a bifurcation between interior voice versus spoken language. Pottle’s relationship to voice, text, and the page is different from that of hearing writers. His style draws deep syntactic and rhythmic influence from the subtitles and closed captioning that mediate his encounters with pop culture.

When writing his play Ultrasound, one particular obstacle involved crafting typically realistic dialogue; a deaf person values silence and communicates with others in highly specific ways. But that difference is also an inescapable facet of his literary creativity. “My deafness allows me to retreat into my imagination, and my imagination has become a bizarre and beautiful garden because of the greenhouse effect my deafness has had.”

Adrian McKerracher’s What It Means to Write: Creativity and Metaphor announces its grand ambitions in its title and its premise in its subtitle. Though a universalizing assertion to explain the creative process sounds audacious, McKerracher is both passionate and charmingly self-effacing as he describes his quest to glean the metaphors that inspire other writers’ work.

An illustrator, writer, and academic who has lived on multiple continents, McKerracher travels to Buenos Aires to immerse himself in another language, which he then uses to connect with authors and discuss their feelings about how and why they write. In the process, McKerracher enacts what he calls critical metaphor literacy. He describes this practice as “learning to read the personal and social significance of phenomena by the metaphors used to narrate experience, and generating new metaphors that expand possibilities for thinking otherwise.” 

As McKerracher refines his own linguistic capabilities – meeting Argentine authors both celebrated and obscure – he collects metaphors. Creativity is conceived of as play, an algorithm, illumination, innovative deviation, and formal evolution, among others. Which metaphor feels most apt? They all do. McKerracher observes, “I was coming to understand that no metaphor worked alone. There were always multiple active metaphors, each one modifying the meaning of creativity.”

The structure of What It Means to Write involves a careful and intentional interplay between sections of the author’s academic musings, a recounting of his interviews with working authors, and excerpts from his quotidian life trying to embrace and be accepted by a different city and culture. McKerracher notes that some of the episodes of his daily life in Buenos Aires were themselves selected and articulated such that they became metaphors for creativity.

Such excessive cleverness can be forgiven. In describing his journey in What It Means to Write, McKerracher displays a voice that is both accomplished and deeply human, vulnerable, and yearning for connection and understanding.