Nonfiction reader Alex Carroll recently had this exchange with Issue #39 featured nonfiction author Peter Galligan. Here’s what he had to say about how music informs his work, revisiting traumatic times, gaining agency through writing, and more.
What inspired you to write “Take My Hand So I Can Walk”?
When we first learned of our daughter’s diagnosis, my wife and I were devastated tothe extent that I knew I would eventually need to write about it, if only for therapeutic value. I started the essay last spring in a creative nonfiction workshop. Some of the events in the essay unfolded during the class, after I completed my first draft, so the story took a surprising direction at the end.
In part, “Take My Hand So I Can Walk” is about coping with a child with Spina Bifida. What do you hope people take away from your essay, especially those readers who are parents?
Having a child with a disability has helped me see my daughter as her own person early on, one who will have experiences I won’t be able to relate to, whose story will not be an extension of mine. The paradox is that I feel like I know her better due to that difference, because understanding her needs takes work. I hope the essay serves as a reminder to recognize and celebrate what’s unique about our kids, especially those differences that we may preconceive as being deficiencies. It’s worth the effort.
Have you read many personal essays or narratives that include themes of birth defects? If so, what are some good essays being published right now, either online or in print, that share narratives of birth defects that our readers may find helpful?
Andrew Solomon’s book Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identityis an incredible work that explores the experiences common among families who have children of different exceptional conditions. He connects the experiences of raising children with severe physical disabilities, Down Syndrome, Dwarfism, prodigy talents, children of rape and other circumstances that make offspring different than their family. As a new father, I found relief in the accounts of parents that were feeling the same that I was, and I found hope in the lessons that embracing Katie’s disability would lead to better outcomes for all of us.
Another essay I’d mention, while not about a birth defect, is about disability and is impressive in its literary quality. John Cotter’s “Losing Music,” is a work about the degenerative hearing condition Ménière’s disease. I am envious of the skill for prose and the self-awareness John Cotter writes with. It’s very sad and worth reading.
In your bio you mention that you are also a poet and an EDM producer. How does writing poetry and producing music influenced your prose writing?
I like experimenting with repetition and refrain in my prose, which I’m sure is derived from poetry and music production. Creating a good song or a strong piece of writing comes down to extensive revision. In music, I sequence and mix best when I listen to an unrelated style of music between recording sessions. It helps with returning to the mix with fresh ears. Similarly, I’ll read poetry or magazine features when editing fiction. I’ve read novels or short stories when revising essays. Anything to disrupt the rhythm.
How do you balance work, familyand other obligations while still keeping time available for writing?
Writing each day, that frequently cited rule for success, just isn’t possible for me. My wife and I each take two nights off from kid duties every week. I’ll use at least one of my free nights for writing. I think it’s important to be scheduled, but realistic and forgiving, and to understand that the writing isn’t going to disappear if we don’t get back to it right away.
What did you learn anything about yourself or your family during the process of writing this essay?
Katie’s first year, our first year as a family, was rough. In revisiting some of the traumatic times, I realized how far we’ve come, how much joy is in our lives now. It was a lesson in gratitude.
Do you consider yourself an advocate for children with birth defects and disabilities? What are your thoughts on writers using their voices to advocate and bring awareness to social issues?
I certainly hope to be an advocate, and I am a believer in using writing to amplify our voices. Reading stories has improved my ability to empathize, so I hope that sharing my experiences with my daughter’s disability can help folks understand the needs of disabled children and their caregivers. During times in my life where I felt I had no control, I’ve found agency through writing, so I also hope to model that self-advocacy for my daughter. She’ll need those skills as she gets older.
When it comes to creative nonfiction, there’s a lot of talk about truth, and the line between fact and fiction. What is your perspective on this topic? What advice do you have for creative nonfiction writers who are walking the line between disclosing truths that impact others and withholding the fullness of truth to protect others and/or themselves from a critical audience?
The primary advice I would offer is to participate in a writing group and solicit opinions from folks you trust. We become stronger writers by taking on progressively challenging pieces, and in my experience, it leads to an increasing amount of moral complexity to deal with. I think a trusted reader is invaluable in helping understand how certain biases or decisions may be perceived by an audience.
Since we’ve grown out of a writers’ workshop, we like to ask: what was your most memorable workshop experience? What’s the importance of feedback for you? How do you incorporate it (or not) into your work?
My most memorable workshops have occurred at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, a cultural gem in Denver. It currently occupies the Milheim House, a historic Denver Square. The expansive home is in fact the largest structure ever moved in one piece in Colorado, having started its life further down Capitol Hill along Colfax. So the house exudes a story-telling vibe. I remember stories in those workshops that were told from perspectives unlike anything else I’ve read. Risks seem more common in independent workshops than in classes for college credit in my experience. They don’t always work out, but they do leave lasting impressions.
I seek feedback as much as possible and think workshops are invaluable, but I have a hard time receiving feedback in live, face-to-face workshops, where the format includes a discussion of each terrible first draft. My emotions prevent me to be objective in person. I greatly prefer feedback delivered in writing. It decreases the likelihood of an off-hand comment that becomes destructive in its thoughtlessness. If I can review comments a few times, it depersonalizesthem, and I usually can tell which suggestions may be beneficial and which to discard.
You are involved in a variety of creative activities. What are you working on now?
I’m making final revisions to a novel about eight years in the works. I’ve promised myself I’ll finish it by the start of the fall semester. And my brother and I recently collaborated on a book-length collection of poetry. For the foreseeable future, we will be editing it and arguing about who gets to title it.