Tuning into Radio You: A Conversation with Writer-Songwriter Ellen Adams
Ellen Adams is a singer-songwriter and prose writer who splits her time between Seattle and Montreal. She has been a Lambda Literary Fellow for nonfiction and a Fulbright Fellow researching politically engaged contemporary art in Thailand. Her essay “The Something I Am Telling You” was selected by author Meghan Daum for the Ploughshares Emerging Writer Award. Daum says of Adams’s essay: “There is lyricism and soulful reckoning here but there are also synapses, receptors, electricity. It left me feeling more alive than when I started, jolted into attention at the strangeness and fleetingness of life.”
As a touring singer-songwriter working in folk and country traditions, Adams has played throughout North America. Through her songs, she explores longing, queerness, and the lies we tell ourselves and others in love. Adams has been awarded residencies by the Banff Centre, Hedgebrook, and Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, among others. Her current projects are supported by grants from Artist Trust, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Elizabeth George Foundation. She’s hard at work on a nonfiction book about how learning another language shifts our sense of self and belonging.
This interview was completed when Adams visited my (virtual) creative writing class at Pacific Lutheran University. I am grateful to my students for their input on the questions.
Wendy Call: In your nonfiction writing, you bring such different voices to the page, even as each of your essays has a strong and distinctive voice. It seems that just as you are multilingual, you have multiple voices as a writer in English.
Ellen Adams: One byproduct of being both a writer and a musician is that certain feelings, ideas, or concepts arrive with a particular container. That little angel of inspiration on my shoulder comes associated with a voice and a specific form. When I have the feeling that I want to write, I usually know if it’s going to be a song, a poem, a short essay, a vocabulary quiz, or fiction. One thing I really love about fiction—as a reader as much as a writer—is getting to inhabit how people talk. I listen to a lot of roots and country music, which has its own register and vernacular, and I read a lot of works in other vernaculars. When I’m writing nonfiction, I’m trying to express my own voice, but I think we each speak in multiple registers. The important thing is to allow for that voice and what it needs to say. A painter friend of mine, Madeleine Eve Ignon, calls it “tuning into radio you.”
We’re all just trying to survive and create and love each other in this meantime.
Call: How does being a musician inform your writing, or vice versa?
Adams: I have been thinking about this question a lot because I haven’t been able to write music during the pandemic. For me, music is a direct portal to an emotional landscape, and in the loss and grief of the pandemic, the door to songwriting has been closed, in part because it would open wider than what I’m capable of right now. I’m trying to find ways to work around that, like practicing songs of those who’ve come before, including classical music. We’re all just trying to survive and create and love each other in this meantime.
Music helps us access a different kind of consciousness, and I welcome that when I write. For some people, that might feel like a trance. For others, it’s just being more open to the radio signals. The first time I heard Portland instrumentalist Marisa Anderson’s album Cloud Corner, I thought, “That’s the sound of my book.” So now when I write that nonfiction project, I put that record on.
I came to music first, in terms of serious attention and effort. I started playing shows when I was fourteen. Over those earlier years as a musician, writing sad songs and breakup songs, I developed a certain emotional openness in my creative work. I suspect it’s easier for me to access that same emotional portal in my writing than, say, if I had come to writing strictly via reading. Not that reading isn’t also transcendent, but the emotional nature of my songwriting helps me open that door in prose.
Call: It is possible to write something that encapsulates a musical work? Do you riff on the lyrics in the songs, or the actual chord progressions, or the tone of the song? What are the qualities of the music that you draw upon?
Adams: There’s a reason that writing and music are distinct creative expressions. They offer different things, like how dance feels entirely different from opera. I’m leaning heavily on the particular virtues of music in a novel I’m drafting right now. I have a twenty-song soundtrack for it: Martha Wainwright, Rachael Dadd, Diane Cluck, Alela Diane, Songs: Ohia. The soundtrack gets me into the mind-set of a gal from the Inland Northwest who’s out in Alberta, in a whole lot of trouble. The songs take me to that landscape, that emotional place.
For me, queerness includes living outside 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, urgency of queer lit in my formal education. In the years since, it’s been a downright gift to read queer writers in abundance. I see parts of my own story in their pages: Eli Clare, Garth Greenwell, T Kira Madden, Danez Smith, Maggie Nelson, Ocean Vuong, Jeanette Winterson. For me, queerness includes living outside the narrative of “normal.” Whatever identities a writer holds, though, every writer’s lens is at least a little bit outside a normative story. One of the gifts of being a writer is that it’s our job to be observant, to tend to that beyond.
Call: In your essay “The Something I Am Telling You,” the narrator circles in wide arcs toward the essay’s revelation. Can you talk a bit about the process of writing that essay?
Adams: That essay is about learning that I had a tumor inside my skull. It was discovered because I was experiencing bouts of aphasia, unable to access my maternal language of English. Because acquired language is stored in a different part of the brain, I could access my French. So, I was speaking French in contexts that I should not have been, which led to finding the tumor. When I wrote that essay, I still didn’t know the ultimate outcome of this medical diagnosis. I was blocked in every sense of the word: emotionally, creatively, personally, spiritually. I knocked on doors when I needed help with the challenges of this tumor and the fear. Behind those doors, I didn’t find the support that I needed; I felt really alone in all of it.
At one point, I was staying in someone else’s home and, like a whoosh, the words just came. I sat down and they all flowed out. But I didn’t know how to end the essay, in part because I hadn’t reached the end of the story in real life, and in part because I wasn’t ready to be honest about how it had impacted my ideas about being alive. I just sat with all that really quietly, in solitude. I tried to be patient with myself as I revised and revised. I think the privacy of those revisions reflects the privacy that I maintained about my health condition. I showed that essay to only one person before I submitted it for publication.
My whole life was just a fist of white knuckles.
Call: How do you write so openly about such difficult medical experiences? How did the tumor affect your writing process?
Adams: When I wrote the essay, I was in a years-long process of tests and terrifying appointments and monitoring the tumor. There was a year when I couldn’t write at all. My whole life was just a fist of white knuckles. I would say to any writer, to any creator: dry years like that might happen. It doesn’t mean we aren’t still 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 am grateful every damn day for that outcome. I try always to remember how lucky I am. I got a hall pass back to health. Good health is never a given. It’s always a gift; I didn’t appreciate that gift until it became a question mark. There’s a recent and incredible book about this very topic. Suleika Jaouad’s Between Two Kingdoms explores how to make sense of the before and after of serious illness.
Music-wise during that time, I was going out and playing old songs around Seattle. But I couldn’t write anything new; the portal was closed. And that’s what I feel right now about music, because of the pandemic. The door is closed; the waters are not going to pass through. Because I had that prior experience with the tumor, I tell myself: This is a temporary season. I sometimes think about it as crop rotation. We can’t keep forcing the same practices on the same field. Eventually, that field is not going to yield. So in my own creative life, whether in writing or music, it’s more fruitful for me to allow for different seasons.
When I feel that the well is empty, I might spend the day reading. Being immersed in the work of other inspiring writers is how I get the light to come back on. One writer who’s been an incredible mentor for me in that department is Kyo Maclear. She emphasized how important it is to stay close to our permission texts—books that make us want to create, that are doing some of what we’re aiming for—when we’re writing, whether the fields are fallow or not. Her book Birds Art Life is exquisite, soulful, centering wisdom about creative practice, and definitely on my “permission texts” shelf.
Call: Your essays became permission texts for some of my students. For example, “Military Coup Matching Quiz,” written in a received form, which appeared in Kenyon Review Online. What was the genesis of that essay-as-vocabulary-quiz, with words like rehabilitation, surveillance, wan nèung, and xenophobia?
Adams: I initially wrote it from a workshop prompt for an acrostic, but I wanted to push it further and decided to turn it into a quiz. I was in Thailand on and off for a number of years, in a few capacities, including teaching literature and English. At the time of the 2014 military coup, I was researching politically engaged contemporary art, so my work revolved around artists on both sides of the spectrum, those who loved representative government and freedom of speech and those who didn’t. In the aftermath of the coup, I observed such tension around the true meanings of words. What does “reform” mean? Well, for this side it means one thing, and for the other side it means something totally different. I decided to put those tensions into the form of a quiz. Those vocabulary words are received terms; we presume to know what they mean and we think we know how they operate in the world. With this quiz, I wanted to invite the reader in, as an agent of reasoning and discernment.
I am white, have a US passport, and was in Thailand as a guest. So that quiz-essay was also considering how to engage with those events as an outsider, as a guest. Part of the question of the quiz was: How do I relay facts, and also the true events of individual lives, and also a national-scale catastrophe? Anyone could list certain facts of a military takeover, but putting it through the filter of their own life and their own associations changes the narrative. And of course, the forces of these competing narratives predate 2014 and continue today.
Call: What advice would you give to your younger self?
Adams: That painter friend Madeleine Eve Ignon sometimes describes creativity as “a little bird” that lives in the chest. Take care of it. Nurture it. Celebrate it. I would tell my younger self, and any other writer, for that matter: Your writing is yours. It’s for you. It’s not anybody else’s. After finishing my formal education, it took me a while to sort out all the messages of what writing should be from what actually emerged in me intuitively.
And! When you head to the bookstore or library, go with the questions that you’re seeking answers to—for your life, for your country, for your community. Read toward those questions.