An Interview with Eileen Cronin & Tim Dalton
Eileen Cronin & Tim Dalton | January 2016
The Writer to Writer participants of Fall 2015. In this series of conversations, we invited mentors and mentees to share their recent experiences in the mentorship program.
We at AWP had remembered Tim Dalton’s application from an earlier session. He had expressed the desire for a mentor who understood issues of the disability community, and we did not have any mentors with that experience. We told him we would keep looking for him.
When Eileen applied to serve as a mentor this past spring, we immediately thought of Tim and the match was soon made. We asked them to share some of their perspectives on the program, writing, and disability.
Eileen Cronin: So, how did the mentorship work for you?
Dalton: Looking back at my original goals, I see that I was concerned with the “intimate politics of representing individuals with disabilities.” I think that it’s definitely still a concern but the focus has shifted from the politics piece to the intimate piece. And that’s something that working with you, an intensely skilled personal narrative writer, influenced me towards.
Cronin: Did it feel like your writing benefitted from these discussions?
Dalton: Definitely. The mentorship pushed me toward an approach to nonfiction that I wasn't initially comfortable with. All of the vulnerability and revelation of fiction without any of the protective oh-it’s-not-real magic dust.
Cronin: That's true. What are some of the things you’ve learned? As a result of getting input on your work from me, what would you say helped you the most?
Dalton: Our discussions about audience in particular were really helpful. Writing about disability for what is generally an audience of temporarily able-bodied people is something I don’t always know how to approach.
I sometimes alienate the able-bodied reader when it’s not totally necessary to alienate, right? I go for the stick much more than I go for the honey, and I think your book Mermaid does a great job of using the honey. In that book you challenged the status quo by developing a female character yourself who has a physical disability, and you made the book about her sexuality. Many still assume that women with disabilities are not sexual. Confronting a reader about a complicated assumption like that, which touches on ability and sexuality and gender, is tough. Using narrative is, like we talked about at one point, the David Sedaris approach to liberation. It’s telling a story and showing through the actions in that story that liberation is both possible and necessary.
Cronin: Agreed. And the story is both painful and funny. Most assumptions don't allow us to laugh at disability, even if the storyteller has a disability. But this is hypocritical because often able-bodied people joke about disability, or "serious writers" dismiss the topic as "cheesy" or "inspirational." Publishers tend to want more "inspirational" work for the commercial value, but that diminishes the artistic potential of disability as subject matter. My editor, Amy Cherry at Norton, was not at all interested in the formulaic inspirational approach, and I'm so grateful for that.
There are 56 million Americans with some type of disability, according to a recent study in the Journal of Rehabilitation Psychology, but there are few literature programs that incorporate disability literature. Many schools have programs specializing in literature from various ethnic groups or in LGBTQ studies. Disability is a huge part of life and it crosses every ethnic and gender boundary.
Dalton: After my second brain operation to remove a tumor that had grown back with increasingly malignant cells, analytical reasoning became much more difficult. This required some minor accommodation in graduate school, because even though fiction is creative, aspects of it, like plotting, are analytical. The ability to find a way to sequence is a fundamental part of that job, and the physical facts about my brain meant I had to find a different way to sequence. Federal law is concerned with how disability affects a major life function—such as work. And writing for me isn’t work as in money-making, health insurance-granting employment, but to do this task I need to adapt the process to my particular brain and its neurotypicality, its neurodivergence. Let’s call it disability because that’s a term that includes a lot of people who get ignored or whose disabilities aren’t visible. This program presented me with an opportunity to be visible as a person who has become atypical—a person whose brain worked one way before an event and a different way after that event—and through that visibility, hopefully, some change could start to happen.
Cronin: Right. Well, what we’re talking about is two sides of the story of disability in the working world: attitudinal barriers and physical barriers. The latter is a tangible, quantifiable issue that can be solved and worked out in terms everyone can agree on; everyone can participate to the maximum amount necessary to achieve a level playing field. It could be accommodations in the classroom, and that’s really important for AWP because its membership includes mostly writers in academia. But the barriers are also in the attitudes. Some workshops and retreats make their scholarships contingent on working in a kitchen or as a waiter, and they advertise that people who are unable to perform those tasks will be given alternate tasks. That’s fine as long as they are actually seeking physically disabled writers to fill those alternate roles. Hopefully that is being done in an inclusive fashion. Inclusion is now standard language in all definitions of diversity.
It is troublesome when writers’ institutions are specifically not naming disability in their affirmative action statements. I saw this from a woman's retreat: “We are committed to supporting a diversity of voices: cultural, generational, geographical, LGBTQIA, genre, published and emerging.” Where in that statement is disability? I had to look up LGBTQIA because I thought the “I” stood for inclusion. It actually stands for intersex and “A” is for asexual. That's great, but it's not diversity. Diversity means that no one is excluded, and here the women who have disabilities aren't even mentioned.
It's understandable that mistakes are made. The point is that we need a good faith effort to work toward inclusion. Ignoring inclusion of people with disabilities in choices of faculty, participants, and scholarship candidates is not practicing diversity.
Dalton: After I finished my MFA exam—again, mine was six days long, not the three that the rest of my cohort had—my friend told me, it’s like two people who finish a marathon: one person in two hours and one person in four. And the slower runner says to the faster one, “I can’t believe you ran this race in two hours,” who then replies, “I can’t believe you ran it in four.” They both finished a marathon. And both of them can admire something about the other person’s performance.
Cronin: Exactly. And why do we want a profession where everyone is performing it the same way? How intriguing is that? What’s cool about being a writer is that you don’t need to go out into Corporate America and participate in activities where you're supposed to be exclusive. Corporations encourage their employees to go away for a weekend and run marathons or ski or play tennis to get ahead. My husband rides bikes and does marathons and many of the teams in the races are from major corporations—that’s the crowd. I get it; it’s a bonding experience. But when you have a physical disability you can’t waste your time worrying about all the things you’re not included in, and I certainly don’t waste mine on those things because if I did, I never would have accomplished the things I’ve accomplished. But then I haven't chosen a profession that gets caught up in a mentality that prides itself on its youth and beauty and physical prowess. That's so unidimensional. It's like watching a commercial for toothpaste and believing that it will get you a sexy date.
Dalton: I think writing and disability can work together really productively, because disability is so narrative. I think one really common misconception about disability is that it’s fixed. But disability depends on social situations. Your disability experience today is probably quite different than it was in Ohio a few decades ago.
Cronin: It is and it isn’t. Here’s the thing about people who are open-minded: they don’t have a time period. They have existed throughout history. We know this because of the examples of people who exceeded that mindset of normality and restriction and exclusion—they make history. My point is there were people in the 60s and 70s in my story who were open-minded, and I tried to focus on them because there were so many dark examples. There were people who were way ahead of their time in terms of how they included me and how they saw me.
Dalton: You know, these sorts of conversations have been so very helpful. I recently realized, in part because of our work together, this split in my experience of disability. The pediatric brain tumors and the epilepsy were very physical, and the reaction of others to that tended to be concern and protectiveness, and when I was doing well, a sense of triumph, like “Oh, you’re so strong.” After my second brain operation, I had accommodations for very specific analytical reasoning-type tasks. That was the area of my brain that got, you know, lasered through while the surgeons turned down the anesthesia and woke me up. I put it folksily but this is a thing they did. So as a result of that aggressive treatment, I was basically tumor-free but some specific things got quite a bit harder. The thing was, I looked fine, which created this situation where, after spending the first half of my life hearing "you're so strong," I suddenly found myself saying, “You know I could use a little more time with this, I could use a different kind of help with that,” and the reaction was much more likely to be confusion and resistance: “You don’t seem to need more time.”
So I go from being told I am so strong to be told in so many words that I’m weak. And you know when I don’t need the pity or the attention, when I just wanted to be normal and play youth soccer and go to the strip mall, I ended up on a pedestal; when I wanted and needed accommodation, there was resistance and misunderstanding. In both cases I think there’s a story that has events before and after whatever point in time you’re in. That story shapes the point in time you’re in, and the one that everyone around you who may or may not have a disability is in, too. And that’s where writers have an opportunity to do such good work if there’s a deeper understanding of disability. Writers understand that events lead to other events, and that all of it is captured with and limited to and transformed by what we can get out of language.
Our conversations over the last few months really made me think about my experience in new ways, which in a program like this, feels like a great outcome.
Eileen Cronin is the author of Mermaid: A Memoir of Resilience (W.W. Norton, 2014), which was chosen as one of Oprah's Best Memoirs of the Year by O Magazine. She won the Washington Writing Prize in Short Fiction, and her essays and stories have appeared in the Washington Post, the Huffington Post, and several literary publications. A practicing psychologist in Los Angeles, she is also writing a novel and performing with The Moth.
T.K. Dalton has been published in The Millions, Southeast Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Radical Teacher, Deaf Lit Extravaganza, Late Night Library, and elsewhere. His recent nonfiction has been nominated for inclusion in the Best of the Net anthology and for a Pushcart Prize. Tim works as a sign language interpreter and lives in New York with his wife and two small children.