Features Interviews

“I am a big memory box”: an interview with Olivia Muenz, author of Where Was I Again

By Catherine Hayes

As a writer who writes about the neurodivergent community, I am always interested in reading works by other writers in the neurodivergent community and supporting their work. I felt an immediate connection to Olivia Muenz after reading her chapbook, and her concise yet honest writing style made her discussion of her personal struggles and mindset approachable, accurate representation that reflects the experiences of those who are neurodivergent. After publishing a review of Muenz’s book at New Pages, I reached out to Muenz to ask about conducting an interview so I could learn more about her story from the author, herself. 

Here is my brain,” Says Muenz as she provides a glimpse into her mind and introduces readers to her story about trying to navigate her neurodivergency—in a world that struggles to understand and accept her for who she truly is.“It is writing this. For you. In Times New Roman. To make us both feel. Better. We feel even. Here is my brain. Here is my brain on drugs. No eggs this time. Only the good ones. The doctor ones. Perfectly legal. I feel fine. Perfectly regal. I don’t feel pain. The earth is. Rotating on its axis and so. Is this room. And so are you. We are. Fine. Welcome to my book.”

Catherine Hayes: Olivia, your book was originally published as two separate poems. What inspired you to make the shift from poetry to nonfiction and how do you think form and genre have impacted the way you write?

Olivia Muenz: I still consider this chapbook to be poetry, but it’s definitely hybrid. I have moved towards nonfiction in the last few years, but I don’t think of that in opposition to poetry, just in tandem. I’m naturally a very interdisciplinary person. Writing in all genres, I find that each genre opens something new in another. Thinking about narrative and scene has helped my poetry. I write prose like a poet—lots of lyric essays and fragments. Formal experimentation, especially in poetry, is critical for me. The shape of a thing is as important as what it’s saying. It carries language. Working in a lot of different forms, as well as genres, has impacted the way I conceive work. Often an idea comes to me with its form and genre intact dictated by the work. It’s not really a logical conclusion, more an amorphous feeling. And that’s been a really useful framework because I know what I’m doing very early on and just have to execute. 

CH: As a neurodivergent writer, what drove you to write about your experiences? Were there certain authors or works that you felt helped to inspire you or encourage you to share your story?

I write very intentionally about disability. Partly, it’s to sort myself out, and since I’m disabled, that’s going to encompass disability. Partly, it’s a form of advocacy.

OM: Being multiply disabled, I think I have a different relationship to my neurodivergence and mental health than I would if I wasn’t physically disabled. Disability is a lens through which I’m forced to see the world out of necessity. I’m always scanning my body, rooms I enter, people I meet. There is no me outside of disability. And so there’s really no way to write outside of this experience. I don’t have any other brain to use. But ironically in this case, I realized I’d been endlessly accommodating of my physical disability, would never try to force my body to function “normally,” but when it came to my neurodivergence, I wasn’t as accommodating. I was working against its natural mode. I wanted to write a clear sentence. Being bedridden for two months, unable to write “normally,” I realized I was waiting for conditions that may never come. So out of fear of never writing anything, I decided to let my brain write in whatever way it could. Instead of normifying it, I let it loose. And I think that’s really an extension of one of my central goals in art: total representation, which is a total fallacy. So really, I just wanted to replicate my brain. And my brain happens to be neurodivergent. But it’s more than that too. I write very intentionally about disability. Partly, it’s to sort myself out, and since I’m disabled, that’s going to encompass disability. Partly, it’s a form of advocacy. A way to share my experience and the experiences of so many people like me, and hopefully contribute to conversations that make the oppressive structures in our lives less oppressive. If I had to trace it back to its source, I don’t think any of this would have been possible if I didn’t have to write an imitation of Tender Buttons for an assignment in college. 

CH: What do you hope that your readers will take away from reading your chapbook?

I want disabled people to feel recognized.

OM: I don’t really know if I hope for anything in particular. In terms of audience, my writing in general tends to fall on a spectrum of ability/disability—some of it shows the experience of disability to able-bodied people, some of it would only really be recognized and understood by other disabled people. I think more than most things I’ve written, this chapbook is for disabled people. I want disabled people to feel recognized.

CH: What were some integral parts of your writing process that helped you to touch upon your identity?

OM: In this case, I was just high. A very particular kind of high. A very legal high. I was taking my prescription medication that augments my associative way of thinking while I was bedridden. I actually wasn’t really thinking much at all. There was very little conscious intention behind what I was doing. I was just going. The chapbook is almost entirely unedited. I wrote each section in one sitting, the whole thing in 1-2 weeks. I think keeping my brain on the same page as itself was the real critical part, writing in that short period of time, as was leaning into the chaos of my brain. 

Olivia Muenz; photo courtesy of the author

CH: In the book, your line “I’m giving you an out. Well if you don’t want to take it. That’s not on me” was one of the most impactful moments in your story, at least for me. When you wrote that line, did you feel as though you were addressing that with specific people or past experiences in mind?

OM: In general, the “you” in Where Was I Again is both very specific and very general. I’m often talking to multiple specific people, myself, my brain, my body, the medical system, society, an Other. A real kitchen sink. I can’t remember what I was thinking when I wrote this line, but if I had to guess, the “you” was probably my partner at the time who wasn’t a very committed person and sometimes made me feel like a burden with my disability. But I had also just lost a very important relationship prior to that and generally struggle with feelings of isolation as a disabled person. So though it may have been particular to my partner in one sense, it was also a general expression of reclaiming control of abandonment by my body, my loved ones, the medical system, my government, society. 

CH: One line in the book that stood out to me when I was reading was when you proclaimed “I am a big memory box,” a statement that simultaneously reflects your own experience yet can also be universally felt by all types of readers and developing this sense of unity between all people no matter their background. Did you set out to write your story with this goal in mind, or is it something that developed during the writing process?

OM: When I first started writing seriously in college, I learned that the way to show the universal is through the highly specific, which is something I practiced for a very long time and has become an innate part of how I write. It’s not something I actively think about anymore. The kitchen sink “you” was intentional, but really a reflection of my neurodivergence. I’m always thinking in multiplicity. Where Was I Again is very self-indulgent, very self-absorbed. There are references that are entirely inaccessible to anyone who isn’t me, inside jokes with myself for my own entertainment. But the fun thing is that it’s not important if those things are accessible to others. When writing associatively, the spectator is a huge participant. There are lots of gaps that need to be filled in. So the meaning has to be rendered by them, not me. The universality is maybe in its pliability and obfuscation. 

CH: What is some advice you would offer to other neurodivergent authors who would like to write about and share their life experiences, but find that they are struggling to articulate their journey or are unsure about how their story might be received? Did you encounter similar thoughts, and how did you overcome them if you did?

When you don’t have an answer, show yourself trying to get to an answer. Partly, that’s a true reflection of neurodivergence. You don’t need to reduce the experience into something sensical so that others can access it. Let it be what it is.

OM: In terms of someone struggling to articulate their experience of neurodivergence, I would say show that struggle. Partly, that’s a writer trick. When you don’t have an answer, show yourself trying to get to an answer. Partly, that’s a true reflection of neurodivergence. You don’t need to reduce the experience into something sensical so that others can access it. Let it be what it is. Make able-bodied people come to you for once. In terms of being unsure how their story might be received, that’s a very personal consideration. Disclosure is not necessarily a safe thing for disabled people no matter the form. For me, I often forget that other people are actually reading my writing. I’m never really worried about showing my disability, though I think I should be more worried than I am sometimes, but I am worried about seeming ugly. I don’t give much thought to revealing that I have migraines, but I do think about how I’m expressing something like the irritability I have when migrained. I try to be honest but still a bit self-protective.

CH: What are you reading right now? Is there any new work from emerging authors that you are excited about?

OM: I’ve been reading a lot of fiction lately. Lots of Sarah Manguso, Amy Hempel, Clarice Lispector. I recently read Patrick Cottrell’s Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, which was so good. There are so many cool emerging writers, it’s hard to pick only a few to name. I love everything Izzy Casey writes and hope she’ll publish a book soon. Ava Hofmann is always making the coolest stuff at an alarming rate, and I especially love love poems smallness studies (Inside the Castle) and that i want (above/ground press). Ian Lockaby has a chapbook Defensible Space/if a crow— forthcoming from Omnidawn that I’ve been fortunate enough to read already and is so so so good. Tawanda Mulalu’s Please don’t make me pretty, I don’t want to die (Princeton University Press) is incredible and deserving of all the praise it’s received. Haolun Xu’s chapbook ultimate sun cell makes me very excited for his inevitable debut full length collection, whenever that time comes.

CH: Now that Where Was I Again is out, what projects are you currently working on that we can look forward to seeing in the future?

OM: I Feel Fine, the full-length version of Where Was I Again, won the 2022 Gatewood Prize and will be out next year from Switchback Books, which I’m really excited for. In terms of work in progress, I’m trying to finish my lyric memoir on my ten year search for a diagnosis of an unknown complex illness. 

Where Was I Again

By Olivia Muenz

Essay Press $12

Olivia Muenz is a disabled writer from New York. She is author of poetry collection I Feel Fine (Switchback Books, forthcoming 2023), winner of the 2022 Gatewood Prize, and chapbook Where Was I Again (Essay Press, 2022). She holds a BA from New York University and an MFA in creative writing from Louisiana State University, where she received the Robert Penn Warren Thesis Award in prose and served as an editor for New Delta Review. A ‘22 Tin House Summer Workshop participant, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in New England Review, The Missouri Review, Gulf Coast, Black Warrior Review, Pleaides, Massachusetts Review, Denver Quarterly, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. She lives in the Hudson Valley. Find her online at oliviamuenz.com.

Catherine Hayes graduated from Emmanuel College in Boston with a degree in English and Communications, and a minor in writing. She is currently a graduate student in English at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts and resides in the Boston area. Her creative pieces and book reviews have appeared in or are forthcoming in Blood & Thunder: Musings of the Art of Medicine, Atticus Review, New Pages, and an anthology with Wising up Press. She can be found on Twitter @Catheri91642131

I'm a fiction and CNF writer, an editor, and a blogger. I earned an MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and am the associate editor of Parhelion Literary Magazine out of Richmond. Find me at my site: rebeccamoonruark.com. An Ohio native, I'm at work on a novel and short stories set in the Rust Belt, and I hype Midwestern authors at my blog, Rust Belt Girl.

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