As a participant on the “Dating for Dummies” panel at this year’s Conference on World Affairs, I realized that my fellow presenter, Michael Chorost, and I had a lot in common. Yes, we were both, in fact, dummies when it came to dating. (Michael is now happily married, and I will be soon!) But, moreover, we had each conquered life challenges—and went on to write about it. Like me, Michael’s dream of writing actually helped him, in many ways, to overcome adversity. When he became completely deaf almost instantly in his thirties, one of his first thoughts was, “I can write about this.” And he did. Some might say that he wrote his way through the pain and confusion. His dream, alongside medical technology (he had a computer implanted in his head to let him hear again!) pulled him through. This is why Michael Chorost, author of Rebuilt and World Wide Mind, is my first “Dream Big” interview. Thanks, Michael.
Feel free to comment and ask further questions. Also, I would love to hear your dream.
What was it like growing up hard of hearing?
My mother had rubella when she was pregnant with me, so I was born with severe hearing losses. I had no way of communicating my wants, or of understanding what was going on around me. Without language, a human being is just a bright animal. Also a very screwed-up animal, because the human brain needs language to develop properly. I had temper tantrums constantly, and I was scared to death of just about everything – swimming pools, the beach, strangers. I was very lucky that I got hearing aids at 3 ½, while there was still time for me to develop language normally. Another six months and it might have been too late. After that I learned spoken English well enough to go to school with normally hearing children.
Having a hearing loss made it hard for me to hear people in groups. But there was also a more subtle effect: I grew up not knowing things that most people learn automatically. People normally learn by overhearing. I didn’t know people went out on Saturday nights until I was in high school and someone explained it to me. I think that resonates in my writing, the desire to communicate and to be included.
Tell us about your first book. I am not talking about Rebuilt, but the one you self-published as a small child!
Oh, that – I stole yellow lined paper out of the supply closet in third grade and wrote a story, “It Was A Dark And Stormy Night,” inspired by Snoopy’s archetypal novel in Peanuts. I stapled cardboard covers to it, wrote the title, and on the inside front cover wrote, “Copyright 1972. All rights reserved.” I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew that real books had that inside them. The funny thing is that I now know that writing it in there actually did make it copyrighted – I would have had a solid legal claim had the kid at the desk next to mine plagiarized it. I knew at a very young age that I wanted to be a writer. It’s too bad it’s been lost; I wish I still had it today.
Can you describe the experience in your thirties of becoming completely deaf– almost instantaneously?
It was completely unexpected and every bit as shocking as you might expect. I was on a business trip and had just arrived at the car rental counter. Suddenly my hearing sounded soft and vague; everything was fuzzy. I thought it was my hearing aid batteries, so I changed them. Nothing happened. I switched my hearing aids. That didn’t help. I was also suddenly feeling dizzy, and it was that that convinced me that the problem wasn’t my equipment, it was my ears. I got into my rental car and drove it straight to the emergency room in Tahoe. Over the next four hours I heard less and less, and by the time I left the hospital I couldn’t hear anything at all.
Getting back to the airport was an adventure. I returned the car after hours, when the place was closed and deserted. There was a phone with a sign on it saying, call for a ride to the terminal. Wow. I had just a tiny bit of hearing left in my right ear, and I called and asked the operator just to say whether a car was on the way, yes or no. I thought I heard a yes, so I hung up and waited, fidgeting with my suitcase handle as the sun went down. I wrote up that scene in Rebuilt, and it’s very dramatic. Fortunately, the car arrived ten minutes later.
I was leading a project at the time, and of course I couldn’t interact with the client anymore. Meetings and phone calls were out of the question. So I holed up in my office and focused on writing reports and proposals. Fortunately, it was a slow time and other people were able to pick up the client-oriented stuff.
Ironically, being deaf was the loudest experience of my life. I was suddenly hearing noises as loud as jet planes and chainsaws every waking moment. I heard fragments of obscure poems chanted over and over again, and incredibly accurate renditions of movie soundtracks. This is very common in people who suddenly go deaf, but no one really knows why it happens. One theory is that when the brain suddenly stops getting sound, it begins hallucinating in an attempt to make up for the loss. Amputees have phantom limb; I had phantom ear. I knew what was going on, so I wasn’t worried about my sanity; it was just annoying. Fortunately, when my implant was activated three months later, it stopped the auditory hallucinations cold. It was really remarkable how fast they went away.
How did your longtime dream of being a writer help you to cope with becoming deaf? (Now, please tell us about Rebuilt!)
I had long thought of writing a book about deafness, but I didn’t really have a story. Of course all that changed the day I went completely deaf. Now I had a story! My two main thoughts on the trip home were, one, now it’s time to get a cochlear implant, and two, I bet I can write a book about this.
The night I came home from the airport, I sat down at the keyboard and started writing. I wrote the book while I was going through the process of getting the implant. It definitely helped me come to grips with what I was going through, because it helped me see the process from a narrative perspective. It let me see my journey as a story of growing and learning, which it most definitely was.
I kept a diary of my experiences over the next few months, as I went through testing, diagnosis, surgery, recovery, and my first experiences of hearing with a cochlear implant. That diary became a book proposal, which let me get an agent, and that agent quickly sold it to Houghton Mifflin. It really happened very fast. There was one day when my agent took me around Manhattan to talk to editors, and I was like, “Wow, I’m visiting publishing houses with my agent.” It was just like stealing yellow paper out of the supply closet in third grade.
Rebuilt came out in 2005 and has done very well, getting tons of good reviews and selling decently as such books go. It also helped me launch a career as a freelance writer and speaker; so far I’ve published in Wired, New Scientist, Technology Review, and other places, and given over 140 talks. And I published a second book, World Wide Mind, in 2011. Writing also led directly to my getting married, as I was invited to do a visiting professorship and met my wife in Washington D.C. during that year. I also hear better with cochlear implants than I ever did with hearing aids. I’ve been very fortunate.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Michael’s interview.