The Noise that Wasn’t There

Last night I heard a noise. Pretty sure it was mechanical, like a garbage disposal left on, except not quite that. It was coming from upstairs (my neighbor loves to share her radio listening). I couldn’t pinpoint exactly what room it was coming from or even be 100 percent certain it was originating from upstairs (but where else?). I set my ear to my refrigerator, thinking maybe it had developed a new tone to run beneath its usual whirring.

By the time I went to bed half an hour later I’d considered that maybe I didn’t hearing anything new. I’m absolutely certain I did, but it was at just the right pitch, what in other circumstances would be called the sweet spot but for me was instead just shy of the same pitch of my tinnitus. That, fortunately, meant that the mystery noise didn’t prevent me from falling asleep. I’m using to the incessant pitch that sings me a private symphony. But it also made me feel like a dog chasing her tail. Where did it come from? Was it really there at all? I couldn’t localize it because there comes a point at which I don’t know if I’m hearing the noise inside my ears or the noise outside of them, and that’s really weird.

Listening for the mystery sound.

Listening for the mystery sound.

A friend suggested that I need a Third Party Hearer. Yes, please. I can think of several situations in which this would be handy. She also suggested that someone develop an app to help figure out where That Sound is coming from. Again, please, yes, let’s have this. Then, the next time I close my hearing aid into its case with the battery still engaged, I won’t call maintenance to figure out how to make the noise stop. (I used to wear my hearing aid nearly every day, but not that day, and now at work it mostly helps me to hear how much louder the keyboard is, and why bother to with that?)

At the same time all of this was happening—or not happening—the writer part of my brain kept trying to figure out how I could use this in a story. It needs a twist, a reason, and that brought me back to the amnesiac alien in my current Work in Progress. Growing up, I always wished I could ascribe some reason to the ringing in my ears. Alien communications malfunction would be such a better answer than “nerve damage/hearing loss” because shouldn’t I hear less with hearing loss? No need for the special sounds, thanks for the offer and all, but I’m returning them for a refund.

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Amnesia! Aliens! Hearing loss? Bees! … Mining?

All of these things are related, somehow, in my head. Years ago I had an idea to use my experience with tinnitus (ringing in the ears) in a novel about an amnesiac alien on Earth who has no idea she’s not native to the planet. The premise was not nearly so coherent when it first occurred to me, and I was busy working on other material so no need to think much about it.

The subconscious can be very wily. In December, as I was wrapping up revisions on one novel and about to begin revisions on a second, I felt the need for something different. So I shook off the preconceptions of what and how I write, metaphorically cracked my knuckles, and when the words started coming, they were about the amnesiac alien with tinnitus. In first person present tense. (Really not sure how that happened.) Only now my alien had a hearing loss too, and something about endangered bees and evil aliens who mine a planet to death.

Bees, somehow very important to my new novel. These bees are in Seattle.

Bees, somehow very important to my new novel. These bees are in Seattle.

The tinnitus aspect of my main character, Deja (DAY-hah), is straightforward enough. If you’ve ever gone to a concert or been exposed to a loud noise, you may have experienced some ringing in your ears afterward. For many people, that ringing doesn’t always have a definite cause, and it never ends. I can’t remember ever not hearing the noise in my head because it was there long before I was ever aware of it. It would be much cooler if the “Beeeeeeep” was the result of something like alien communication. Thus, Deja’s tinnitus gets a Higher Purpose (hardware malfunction).

What I didn’t plan for this book was to incorporate my experiences with hearing loss. As with the tinnitus, I don’t remember ever hearing better than I do. And because I hear well enough despite the loss, it wasn’t caught until I was in elementary school. As I got older, I wised up to the ways in which I was compensating. And I realized that my left ear sucked at its job so the right one inherited phone duties. Combined, they’re an okay team. And now they’re helping me to write a main character who’s not defined by what a piece of her can and cannot do (or several pieces considering the amnesia). My previous MCs have struggled more with ethics than anything else, and I’ve never incorporated so much of myself onto the page before. I’m looking forward to the journey. I’m especially looking forward to that “something about bees and mining” part.

If you’re curious about what the world sounds like with hearing loss, check this out.