Ellen Adams is a singer-songwriter and prose writer who divides her time between Seattle and Montreal. She was a Lambda Literary Fellow for non-fiction books and a Fulbright Fellow for research into politically active contemporary art in Thailand. Her essay “Das, what I tell you” was selected by the author Meghan Daum for the Plowshares Emerging Writer Award. Daum says of Adams’ essay: “There is poetry and soulful reckoning here, but there are also synapses, receptors, electricity. I felt more alive than at the beginning and became aware of the strangeness and volatility of life. “
As a touring singer-songwriter working in folk and country traditions, Adams has performed across North America. In her songs she explores longing, weirdness and the lies that we tell ourselves and others in love. Adams has received residencies from the Banff Center, Hedgebrook, and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, among others. Her current projects are supported by grants from the Artist Trust, Canada Council for the Arts, and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She’s working hard on a nonfiction book about how learning another language changes our sense of self and belonging.
This interview was completed when Adams was attending my (virtual) creative writing class at Pacific Lutheran University. I am grateful to my students for their contributions to the questions.
Wendy Call: In your nonfiction book you bring such different voices to the page, even if each of your essays has a strong and unmistakable voice. It seems that as a multilingual English writer, you have multiple voices.
Ellen Adams: A by-product of being both a writer and a musician is that certain feelings, ideas, or concepts arrive with a particular container. This little angel of inspiration on my shoulder is associated with a voice and a certain shape. When I feel like I want to write, I usually know whether it’s a song, a poem, a short essay, a vocabulary test, or a fiction. One thing I really love about fiction – both as a reader and as a writer – is how people talk. I hear a lot of roots and country music that has its own register and slang, and I read a lot of works in other slang languages. When I write non-fiction books I try to express my own voice, but I think we are speaking in multiple registers each. The most important thing is to take into account this voice and what it has to say. One of my friends, Madeleine Eve Ignon, calls it “turn on the radio”.
We are all just trying to survive in this interim period and create and love one another.
Call: How does being a musician affect your writing, or vice versa?
Adams: I’ve thought a lot about this question because I couldn’t write music during the pandemic. Music for me is a direct portal to an emotional landscape, and in the face of the loss and grief of the pandemic, the door to songwriting has been closed, also because it would open wider than I currently can. I’m trying to find ways to get around that like practicing songs from those who came before, including classical music. We are all just trying to survive in this interim period and create and love one another.
Music helps us gain access to a different kind of consciousness and that is what I appreciate when I write. For some people, this might feel like a trance. For others, it’s just more open to radio signals. The first time I heard the album by Portland instrumentalist Marisa Anderson Cloud cornerI thought, “That’s the sound of my book.” Now when I write this nonfiction project, I’ll put this record on.
I got into music first, in terms of serious attention and exertion. I started playing shows when I was fourteen. In those earlier years as a musician, when I wrote sad songs and break-up songs, I developed a certain emotional openness in my creative work. I suspect it is easier for me to access the same emotional portal in my writing than if I had come to writing solely through reading. Not that reading isn’t transcendent too, but the emotional nature of my songwriting helps me open that door in prose.
Call: Is it possible to write something that embodies a musical work? Do you riff the lyrics in the songs or the actual chord progressions or the tone of the song? What are the characteristics of the music that you fall back on?
Adams: There’s a reason writing and music are different forms of creative expression. They offer different things that make dance feel very different from opera. I rely heavily on the particular virtues of music in a novel I am currently designing. I have a twenty song soundtrack for it: Martha Wainwright, Rachael Dadd, Diane Cluck, Alela Diane, Songs: Ohia. The soundtrack puts me in the mindset of a girl from the northwest of the country who is in big trouble in Alberta. The songs bring me to this landscape, this emotional place.
To me, weirdness means living outside of the narrative of “normal”.
Call: How does queer identity intersect with your identity as a writer and creator?
Adams: I didn’t have much exposure to the brilliance, tenderness, and urgency of queer that shone in my formal education. Reading queer writers galore has been a real gift in recent years. I see parts of my own story on their pages: Eli Clare, Garth Greenwell, T. Kira Madden, Danez Smith, Maggie Nelson, Ocean Vuong, Jeanette Winterson. To me, weirdness means living outside of the narrative of “normal”. Regardless of a writer’s identity, every writer’s lens is at least a little outside of a normative story. One of the gifts of a writer is that it is our job to be attentive and beyond that to take care of it.
Call: In your essay “What I tell you” the narrator circles in broad arcs in the direction of the essay’s revelation. Can you talk a little about the process of writing this essay?
Adams: This essay is about finding out that I had a tumor in my skull. It was discovered because I had aphasia and couldn’t access my native English language. Since the acquired language is stored in a different part of the brain, I was able to access my French. So I spoke French in contexts I shouldn’t have been, which led to the tumor being found. When I wrote this essay, I still did not know what this medical diagnosis would ultimately be. I was literally blocked: emotionally, creatively, personally, spiritually. I knocked on doors when I needed help with the challenges of this tumor and fear. I didn’t find the support I needed behind those doors. I felt really alone in all of this.
At some point I was at someone else’s home and like a rustlethe words just came. I sat down and they all flowed out. But I didn’t know how to finish the essay, partly because I hadn’t reached the end of the story in real life and partly because I was unwilling to be honest about how this affected my ideas about the Its had an impact on life. I just sat really quiet in solitude with all of this. I tried to be patient with myself as I overworked and overworked. I think the privacy of these revisions reflects the privacy I have maintained with regard to my health. I only showed this essay to one person before submitting it for publication.
My whole life has been just a white knuckle fist.
Call: How do you write so openly about such difficult medical experiences? How did the tumor affect your writing process?
Adams: By the time I wrote the essay, I was in a year-long process of testing and terrible appointments and monitoring the tumor. There was a year when I couldn’t write at all. My whole life has been just a white knuckle fist. I would tell every writer, every creator: Such dry years could happen. That does not mean that we are not yet writers and creators.
The tumor was the loudest radio station in my life. After years of monitoring and testing, the specialist concluded that I was likely born with this tumor, which is the best possible outcome. I’m grateful for this result every fucking day. I always try to remember how lucky I am. I got a hall pass back to health. Good health can never be taken for granted. It’s always a gift. I didn’t appreciate this gift until it became a question mark. There is an up-to-date and incredible book on the subject. Suleika Jaouads Between two kingdoms explores how to understand this In front and after this of serious illness.
Musically, I went out during this time and played old songs in Seattle. But I couldn’t write anything new. The portal was closed. And that’s exactly what I feel about music because of the pandemic. The door is closed; The water won’t go through. Because I had this experience with the tumor, I say to myself: This is a temporary season. I sometimes think of crop rotation. We cannot always enforce the same practices in the same area. Ultimately, this field will not give in. In my own creative life, be it writing or music, it is more fruitful for me to take into account different seasons.
If I feel like the well is empty, I may spend the day reading. When I immerse myself in the work of other inspirational writers, I get the light back. One writer who has been an incredible mentor to me in this department is Kyo Maclear. She stressed the importance of staying close to our permission texts – books that make us create, that do some of what we aspire to – when we write whether the fields are fallow or not. Her book Birds art life is exquisite, soulful, centered on wisdom about creative practice and definitely on my shelf with “permission texts”.
Call: Your essays became permission texts for some of my students. For example, “Military Coup Matching Quiz”, written in a preserved form that appeared in Kenyon Review Online. What was the creation of this essay-as-vocabulary quiz with words like Rehabilitation, surveillance, Wan Nèung, and xenophobia?
Adams: I originally wrote it from a workshop prompt for an acrostic, but wanted to take it further and decided to turn it into a quiz. I was in Thailand for a few years, in a number of roles including teaching literature and English. At the time of the 2014 military coup, I was engaged in politically engaged contemporary art, so my work revolved around artists on both sides of the spectrum, those who loved representative government and free speech, and those who didn’t. After the coup I saw such tension over the real meaning of words. What does “reform” mean? Well, to one side it means one thing and to the other side it means something completely different. I decided to take this tension in the form of a quiz. These vocabulary are terms preserved; We assume we know what they mean and we believe we know how they work in the world. With this quiz, I wanted to invite the reader as an agent of thought and discernment.
I am white, have a US passport and have been to Thailand as a guest. This quiz essay also thought about how one as an outsider, as a guest, can deal with these events. Part of the question of the quiz was: How can I pass on facts and also the real events of individual life as well as a disaster at the national level? Anyone could list certain facts of a military takeover, but as they run them through the filter of their own life and associations, the narrative changes. And of course, the powers of these competing narratives go back to 2014 and continue to this day.
Call: What advice would you give your younger you?
Adams: This painter friend Madeleine Eve Ignon sometimes describes creativity as “a little bird” that lives in the chest. Take care of it. Maintain it. Celebrate it. I would say to my younger self and any other writer: Your writing is yours. It’s for you. It’s not someone else. After completing my formal training, it took me a while to sort through all of the messages of the writing should be of what actually emerged in me intuitively.
And! When you go to the bookstore or library, you go to the questions you are looking for answers – about your life, your country, your community. Read about these questions.