Emily Harris Adams on her book For Those with Empty Arms

Cover of Emily Harris Adams book For Those With Empty ArmsEmily Harris Adams is a Mormon poet and essayist. Her book For Those with Empty Arms:  A Compassionate Voice For Those Experiencing Infertility was published earlier this year by Familius. In the book, Adams combines poetry and personal essay with Christian thought and a bit of self-help to tell her story in a candid, thoughtful way that those struggling with infertility (and their friends and family) will find relatable, touching and useful. Adams is also a perennial Mormon Lit Blitz finalist. Her poem “Second Coming” took fifth place in the Mormon Lit Blitz in February 2012; in May 2013, she won first place in the Mormon Lit Blitz with her piece “Birthright”; and she’s also a finalist this year with her poem “Faded Garden“.

Could you tell us about the process you went through to decide to prepare what is very personal writing into the book that Familius published? Why do it and what decisions along the way were easy and what were hard?

I first decided to write about infertility after a disappointing trip to a local bookshop. It was early in my infertility journey and I was looking for a book to help me cope with the overwhelming disappointment I was facing. Instead of finding any books about infertility, I found an entire shelf of books on parenting and childbirth. When I saw that wall of books, I felt more isolated even than when the doctor had given us our diagnosis. I decided I didn’t want anyone else to have that experience. So, as a writer, I felt my best option for preventing a similar experience was to write a book.

The hardest decisions to make were really just matters of transparency. Trent and I had to decide together how much we were willing to reveal about our diagnosis, treatment plans, and such. Personally, it was hard for me to reveal the times I didn’t behave well. In particular, there is an essay called “Envy” where I talk about how I started to become bitter about my situation. I almost removed the essay from sheer embarrassment. In the end, I decided to leave it in because I realize that many suffering infertility do have feelings of envy. They need to know they aren’t alone, and that they can overcome those feelings. 

Why talk about what you were experiencing in both personal essay and poetry? And when you sat down to capture an experience or thought, how did you know whether it was a poem or an essay?

I started this whole manuscript based on one poem called “Sufficient Faith.” Before writing that poem, part of me felt like I needed to be very clinical about writing an infertility book–like an article. After writing the poem, I realized that there are much better clinicians out there. They can write the articles. I’ll write the poetry.

Though I originally wanted the manuscript to be mainly poetry, as I wrote, I found that some topics needed more exploration than a poem could give. I use the poems to give a quick dose of raw feeling. But some aspects of infertility require deeper consideration. I wish I could say that I had a refined system of finding which topics required a poem and which merited an essay. In the end, it seemed that if I felt the urge to add a line-break, the piece became a poem. If not, the piece became an essay.

I enjoyed all of the poetry, but the one I keep thinking about is Psalm of Not a Mother. In it, there’s a line that says: “Fill my ears with the white noise of living.” What is it about silence and stillness that is so painful when couples are dealing with fertility issues? But also what is it about the noise of living that transforms much of it into white noise when you have that kind of pain?

I can only answer this question for myself, though I imagine many who suffer from infertility (or other devastating losses) will empathize with my feelings. When I was in the first stages of grieving over the diagnosis Trent and I received, I started to notice that I couldn’t stand to have things quiet. If Trent wasn’t home, I listened to music, audio books, or turned the TV on. If it was quiet, I could think, and if I could think, I would think about the fact that we might never have children. And I did not want to think about that. Noise became my most effective anesthetic.

Of course, it wasn’t just the silence I tried to fill, it was purpose. I was suddenly thwarted in my ultimate purpose: motherhood. Instead of raising children, I tried to learn to sew. I took up baking. I tried to relearn all the Italian I’d forgotten. But those activities weren’t enough to fill the spot in my heart that was supposed to be filled by my children. In that sense those activities were white noise: somewhat soothing, but not really important.

You talk a lot about language in For Those with Empty Arms. Part of the reason is because you are a writer and that’s how you interact with and process people and the world (and yourself). But it’s also because the language around infertility can be so fraught. What advice do you have for the friends and family members of couples dealing with infertility who want to be sensitive in their use of language but may not know what to say (or not to say)?

I always have a hard time answering this question. People always feel so anxious about saying the wrong thing to those suffering infertility, which is good and kind of them. However, sometimes, their worry causes them to avoid talking to those who suffer infertility. With that in mind, I would say that the best thing to do is to keep talking. Eight times out of ten, saying the wrong thing is better than saying nothing at all. For the other two times, I’ll give some general rules of thumb.

When asking about the cause of infertility, never ask whose “fault” it is. The person you are asking will probably know that you mean, “Which of you is infertile?” Still, it hurts that there is an implication of “fault” when they cannot help having the medical problems they have. Also, the actual diagnosis might be something they wish to keep private, so I suggest steering clear of this topic altogether.

Avoid telling “The Story.” This is The Story where a couple either adopts or has an expensive infertility procedure; then, miraculously they also conceive naturally. I have to admit that this story still grates on my nerves a bit when I hear it. First, because people often tell this story and then say, “All they needed to do was relax and it happened.” While relaxation can help, it is not the best nor most realistic treatment for infertility. Second, because for some people (including myself), conceiving naturally is and always will be almost impossible.

Another turn of phrase that I have noticed in church testimony meetings is this: “I thank God for trusting me with this child.” I understand that what is being expressed is humility and an understanding that parenthood is a tremendous responsibility. It also acknowledges that we are all, first and foremost, children of God. Still, buried within that phrase is an accidental implication that those who have no children are childless because God deemed them unworthy of the responsibility

The hardest but most inclusive bit of advice I can give is to apologize when offense is given. I often find it hard to offer an apology when I meant no offense. I even feel a little offended that the hurt party is offended. Going through this trial, though, has taught me that sometimes even the most innocuous seeming comment can touch a tender nerve.

You’ve done an excellent job of writing the book in such a way that anyone who is a person of faith can relate to and learn from it. This is important because this book is a needed one for everybody–not just Mormons. However, if you were to do an edition that’d be specifically for a Mormon audience what might you add?

Funnily enough, this manuscript was originally written for a Mormon audience. However, I wasn’t able to place it with some of the more well-known LDS publishers (though I received some great encouragement from them). When I went to my current publisher, Familius, I had to edit some of the LDS content out to cater to a broader audience.

I cut a poem about priesthood blessings. The poem explored the strange comfort of receiving deific promises coming in the voice and dialect of a mortal friend. I cut a few scriptural references as well. The most heartbreaking loss, though, was that I had wanted to explore the role of motherhood through Eve. In the Pearl of Great Price, we learn that Eve was called, “the mother of all living,” long before she had (or could have) any children. I thought that was an interesting and touching example of how women are honored for their potential to be mothers. We are, in essence, foreordained to be mothers. Most other Christian denominations do not view Eve in the same light as we do, so, I felt that exploration would be less than effective for my new target audience.

Have you read any of the essays or poems to a live audience? If so, what was that like?

I have. I read “There is No Death With This Blood” at a competition. The poem compares an infertile woman’s monthly cycle to a miscarriage. I expected that I would feel like I was standing naked in front of the audience. It was more like standing in front of them in a hospital gown: covered by something that reveals more about you than nudity does. In the end, my voice started shaking and I felt like I might cry. I finished, but I’ll admit I felt self-conscious. I wanted to let the audience have their own emotional reaction, not see mine. I did advance to the next round, though. I guess the audience was ok with my reading.

Other than that, I recently gave a private reading of “To the Son I am Waiting For,” to my newborn son, Guyer. I didn’t mind crying during that reading. I haven’t yet read a piece to my newborn daughter Marie, but she seems to be ok with waiting for me to pick the right piece.

What creative work (by Mormons or not) have you experienced recently that you’d recommend to others (and why)?

I’ve been enjoying Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archives. If for nothing else, the entertainment value is top notch. If for something more, Brandon is a master of world-building and he plays with magic in a very unique way.

I’ve also enjoyed Mette Ivie Harrison’s The Bishop’s Wife. I’m not usually a big mystery reader, but I absolutely loved this book. Many people talk about the way Harrison deals with portraying doubt. While I agree that she did a good job portraying a faithful doubting Mormon, the real attraction for me was seeing how Linda and her husband interacted. I loved the depiction of how a marriage can work well, even when the spouses disagree on important issues.

Now that For Those with Empty Arms has been published, what’s next for you and your writing?

I recently gave birth to twins via in vitro. For the next few months, I imagine I will be writing at a snail’s pace. However, I intend to write about the in vitro experience. The process of in vitro isn’t often talked about, and mystery often adds to the anxiety of an already stressful experience. I want to remove some of that uneasiness.

Currently, I’m a finalist in the Mormon Lit Blitz, a competition I’ve enjoyed being a part of in years past.

Thanks Emily!

2 thoughts on “Emily Harris Adams on her book For Those with Empty Arms”

  1. As a #1 bestselling religious poet on Amazon, I can personally attest that hardly anyone buys religious poetry today. So I’m particularly intrigued with what Emily has done here. She’s defined a clear audience based not on love of literature, but on a specific life experience. And then she’s layered together non-fiction personal reflection with the more formal voice of poetry into something people can use to process their own experience.
    It’s poetry not as art object on the wall, but as tool packaged for those who need it.
    We should do more of this sort of thing.

  2. .

    Infertility is a challenging thing to recognize from the outside because it looks so much like a choice. I imagine the solution is to do what Emily’s doing: talk more about it. Talking more about it will result in occasional offense, but it may also lead to understanding. Silence never will.

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