Blinded by Faces
Heather Sellers is both a remarkable author and person. She is a professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan and won an NEA grant for fiction. She also recently appeared on 20/20 discussing how she suffers from prospognosia, a perceptual disorder, often referred to as "face blindness." Her new collection of poetry, The Boys I Borrow, was released two weeks ago from New Issues Press. Her poetry and essays reveal the vision of someone with an extremely unique perception of the world.
What is face blindness? What have some of your challenges been, both generally and as a teacher and artist who is face blind?
It's a perceptual disorder -- I can't remember or identify the internal features of the human face -- faces look more alike to me than they do different. The challenge is social, and it's profound. I am capable of walking by my family members or best friends and not knowing who they are. It's excruciating. As a teacher, it's easier -- the students look alike to many of my colleagues, so I sort of blend in! I just keep telling them to tell me who they are -- they are much more ready to do this than my peers. Many of them are named Katie, so it's actually kind of a wash.... As an artist, I'm lucky. The disorder makes me pay superbly close attention to the complex ways in which we are different.
In a recent essay, "Sails with Good People," you wrote a bit about the consciousness of academia. Though you didn't go so far as to call the academy "insane," you suggest that it has something in common with mental illness. Can you explain this? What has your experience been in academia?
I don't think the academy is insane. I had an expectation it would always be a force of kindness and goodness. That was crazy. In the essay, I argue that one thing the academy has in common with mental illness is certainty -- a sureness of purpose that is at once very convincing, very attractive, and unnerving.
To be a productive artist, you have to create structures for yourself that allow access to and communion with other like-minded creators -- that's a very very different kind of engagement than one gets from (or should expect from) the academy. Our work is housed in uncertain hallways. Doubt and conflicting purposes and not-knowing -- the state of wonder Tony Tanner writes about so smartly -- that's where the artist thrives; he isn't certain.
My experience in academia has been extraordinarily positive. The job security I have is a rare, rare thing in this world. I thank God for it every day. The academy offers the artist a sheltered place to work. Without my students, I'd be lost, lonely, sick of myself.
Do you think that the literary memoir or "creative non-fiction" is a new genre? How do you respond to those critics who call it "navel gazing?"
I don't think it's a new genre. Montaigne was writing reflections on daily life, braiding his own experiences with his observations, reading, questions, information from other fields. I don't think it's new at all. It's old. It's the original genre, isn't it? The creative nonfiction writer is looking out, at the world, and the navel is along for the ride!
I define it simply: we are writing true stories, absolutely faithful to fact, using three tools of the fiction writer in order to present the facts dramatically: scene, dialogue, and imagery. It's a visual form, like film and fiction. Because of film and television, we like to get our information in this form. We like to look at a real thing.
What are you up to lately and what vision do you have for your work in the future?
Riding my Bianchi as much as possible before the snow flies. Collecting as much windproof clothing as my budget allows. My vision for my work in the future? Right now, I 'm working hard on my memoir. I've invested a lot of time in it and it's nothing like how I really want it to be; it hasn't come out as I envisioned it would. I'm on my fourth major draft.....dang it is so hard. I was thrilled that a section of it was listed in the Best American Essays as a notable essay for 2006 -- that was very encouraging!! I'm trying to work in all this brain science, a divorce, and face blindness -- I'll get there. It's called Face First.
I started a series of found poems last winter and I would love to return to those. Another series of poems wants attention: Squalor Galore.
Pablo Cassals has this great quote. When asked why at the age of 91 he still practiced every day he said, "I'm seeing progress." That's my vision for my future.
You can check out Heather's work at her website.
Heather Sellers has a PhD in English/Creative Writing from Florida State University. She’s a professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. She won an NEA grant for fiction and was part of the Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers program.
Her books include a short story collection, Georgia Under Water, a children’s book, Spike and Cubby’s Ice Cream Island Adventure, three volumes of poetry and three books on the craft of writing. She has also taught at the University of Texas—San Antonio and St. Lawrence University.Tweet