Quiet Voice in a Noisy World: An Interview with Howard Axelrod
In a freak basketball accident during his junior year at Harvard, Howard Axelrod was left permanently blinded in his right eye. His new memoir, The Point of Vanishing (Beacon, 2015), tells the story of how that accident (and one doomed love story) led him to a two-year pilgrimage in the Vermont woods. Disconnected from the distractions of the modern world, Axelrod re-learned what it meant to see. We caught up with Howard to talk about his experience, how to write quietly in a noisy world, and what he has in common with the Unabomber.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
You’ve been compared to famous figures who also lived in the woods: Chris McCandless (Into the Wild), Thoreau…
Don’t leave out the Unabomber!
True. Can’t forget the Unabomber. It seems like people had a lot of expectations and ideas of what your experience would look like. How did your own experience match up to expectations, both from other people and yourself?
I had no expectation of trying to be like anybody when I went to the woods – certainly not Thoreau, and I didn’t yet know about McCandless. The reason I went was just the opposite: to not have to be anybody. I had no expectations, just need. If you go on a spiritual search where there is already a trail to follow, then it’s not a true search.
A central theme of the book is the idea of moving beyond surfaces to get to the truths beneath. Did your attraction to that theme predate the accident, or did it come about as a result of it?
When the accident happened it’s not as if a new part of me emerged – that impulse towards the depths, to moving below the surface, was always there – but it now became essential to me. My outward vision had changed; I couldn’t trust it and didn’t know how to orient to it. But the inner eye – the way you see when you read – that felt the same. In fact, it felt more necessary. It became the part of myself that I trusted.
The structure jumps back and forth between your time in the woods and two past experiences: the accident, and a love story. Can you talk more about the juxtaposition between these two very different experiences?
What’s compelling about that love story is that it happened at a crossroads. I was just coming into that more literary, interior part of myself, whereas she was just leaving it. When you find someone who feels like a guide into this new part of yourself that you can finally live from, and then that person can only take you so far, it’s a devastating, disorienting blow. You’ve suddenly been given a way of existing that makes sense to you and then you lose it. For me it was raised to another power because I had lost my initial orientation, in the accident. That’s why it’s situated where it is. It’s a secondary disorientation.
In an industry that often places emphasis on loud books, this is a very quiet, introspective book. How did you begin transcribing such an internal experience?
I didn’t start writing it until six or seven years after I came back from the woods. The first thing I wrote was the eye accident, the precipitating event for the whole journey. That scene is pretty much verbatim in the book; I changed almost nothing. I was living with a girlfriend at the time, and I read it to her and knew that it was something. I had no idea what would happen with it; the book is so interior, so to find an arc and some sort of narrative tension would take years. But that scene was right there from the beginning.
A lot of the present story in the woods has to do with learning to quiet yourself and listen to the world around you. How do you find that quiet in a world that is only getting noisier? And how has it affected your writing?
Being in the city has it perks – GrubStreet being one of them – but it’s hard. I go for a walk every morning and try not to think, to just look at what’s around me.
Because it’s so hard to get that quiet in the outer world, I need writing all the more. When I’m writing it’s as though there’s a classroom in my head. There’s the kids in the front who always want to raise their hand. But I just wait for that quiet girl way in the back who rarely says anything but when she does, its true and profound and the whole class turns around and says whoa, where did that come from? Then hopefully the others start to respond and I can just type. That’s where I find the quiet.
How did you transition from fiction and poetry to nonfiction?
I wrote fiction first, and my MFA is in poetry. I had very mixed feelings about turning to nonfiction. I thought I might never get back to poetry or fiction if I turned down that road. But I think the divisions are false. Especially in an MFA program, everyone introduces themselves with Hi I’m Fiction, Hi I’m Poetry, and it’s very misleading. I don’t think any more about what kind of writer I’m supposed to be. I just write about the stuff that interests me in the form I need to write it in.
Is there one question that you’re always hoping interviewers will ask you?
No. It’s the opposite of that, actually. I wish for the question that I couldn’t have thought to ask, that will prompt the kind of answer that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own. Like the question that you asked about the quiet and how that relates to my writing – I’ve never had to articulate that before, though I’ve felt it and been aware of it, this idea that writing protects the silence around me when I walk into the noisy world. I need my writing so that when I walk outside I’m less susceptible to the kryptonite. I’ve never really thought of that before.
Howard Axelrod’s work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Shambhala Sun, and the Boston Globe, among other publications. Axelrod has held teaching positions at Harvard, the University of Arizona, and Wentworth Institute of Technology. He currently teaches at GrubStreet in Boston, where he lives. The Point of Vanishing is his first book.
As Director of Online and Special Programs at GrubStreet, Alison Murphy works on developing new and innovative models for our online and intensive programs, as well as overseeing our consulting program. When not at Grub, Alison can usually be found at her laptop with her faithful basset hound Murray at her feet, writing about war and pop culture, or teaching creative writing to inmates in the prison system. A 2016 James Jones First Novel Fellow and graduate of the 2014-2015 Novel Incubator, Alison is hard at work revising her first novel. Her nonfiction can be found in The Wall Street Journal, Men's Journal, PsychologyToday.com, and elsewhere.See other articles by Alison Murphy