I woke before dawn yesterday to the news of Senator Kennedy's death. I slouched in bed for a while, watching MSNBC as every pundit from Doris Kearns Goodwin to Pat Buchanan weighed in on his life and legacy. The wordsmith in me was fascinated as modifiers and titles were bandied about: lion, scion, patriarch, titan. Then Goodwin uttered Hemingway's lovely line, "The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places." Meanwhile, photos of his smile and family ties were flashed across the screen.
With images of the Kennedy family echoing in my thoughts, I'm going to take the plunge and describe how I wrote much of my latest book while recovering from a head injury. I'm writing this post because in all the years of working with writers I've heard every belly-aching excuse and lameness for why someone doesn't write, or isn't more prolific, or cannot make the time, or is afraid to write the book he or she was born to write.
I was rear-ended by a young woman searching for her cell phone while she was driving at a fair clip last July, and can finally write about it since my short- and long-term memory are returning and I'm regaining my ability to spell correctly, and remember the words I was groping helplessly for this past year. I had other injuries, but mostly things went to hell because my brain got whacked, anddespite the fact that I was seriously tweaking for many months, incurring a head injury is actually fascinating.
For me a head injury was like peering in a fun house mirror and the image staring back is distorted and freaky, not a bit of you aligned or normal or in balance. You recognize the weird parts of yourself — your tendency to be easily distracted or little compulsive behaviors. But damn, after a brain injury even your ears look like they belong in a side show. When I was diagnosed I was slipping fast and when the neurologist asked me to repeat strings of seven numbers I got none of them right, nor could my eyes track, nor could I keep my balance if I moved my eyes. By this time my eyes watered constantly and my vision was blurred; I was tired all the time, I had a piercing ringing in my right ear that continues to this day, and my hearing was slipping on and off and when friends or family phoned, half the time I didn't recognize their voices and couldn't hear the doorbell.
When I was being examined for the head injury and I asked the doctor what was wrong with me, he said, "Well, either you have a brain injury or Alzheimer's." But all I heard was Alzheimer's (it runs in my family and hangs over us like a vampire's curse) and stumbled out to the parking lot unable to find my car, sure that I was doomed. The truth is that I couldn't find my car a lot in those days and often had trouble finding my way home from doctor appointments, nor could I remember where familiar streets were located, and to this day cannot spell any word with au in it such as because. And discovered that if you're a writer you use because a lot in sentences.
I was forced to stop writing for a few months, a decision that left me shipwrecked and terrified since I never miss a deadline and writing is what my days are centered on. I couldn't use my eyes much so was unable to read, which left me so lonely for stories and language that it was like the death of a beloved, lifelong companion. I spent months lying on my couch or bed listening to the radio or television or the rain, longing for intellectual stimulation but unable to handle it. Besides medical appointments, I rarely went out because the sensory assault of grocery stores, live music, bars, restaurants, shopping malls, dinner parties, or driving made me ill for days. I tended to fall down and wobble a lot and blather when asked questions that required simple facts or a recollection and dribbled all over my oversized bosoms when I was trying to talk and eat at the same time.
Then, because I had no choice, I began working again on my book in 20-minute increments because I had nausea, vertigo, and fatigue from working at a computer, sort of like sailing the Good Ship Disaster in the middle of a blizzard in the North Atlantic in January. So I'd write a bit and go to bed, the room spinning, my guts churning, and if I was lucky, would conk out from the effort. If you've never experienced severe vertigo or nausea, drink a gallon of castor oil then balance on a ledge on the 40th floor of a skyscraper while spinning yourself around about 600 times while playing ear-shattering head banger music and flashing purple strobe lights at your head.
But those short writing sessions and the book I was crafting became my lifeline, although frayed. Funny thing was that since I was a kid I'd always believed that I was filled with a constantly bubbling creativity, sort of an endless well I could always dip into, from all those years of making do with leaves and scraps of cloth and a walk in the woods. But when the long walks and books and movies and lectures and teaching were stripped from my life I felt like a husk of my former self, possessed of an inner desert so pitiless not even a lizard could survive. Ditto for my abilities to analyze and problem solve — I couldn't even find my keys half the time, much less figure out how to fix sentences or manage a flow of logic in a chapter and was so jittery and anxious that just sitting at my computer was difficult. And when someone tried to break into my place in the middle of the night, I was clueless about how to respond so didn't dial 9-1-1.
Because my neurotransmitters were apparently on strike,for a while I became as neurotic and strange as a hamster crossed with a Chihuahua dosed on caffeine, Oxycontin, and meth. Some days I couldn't recognize the thoughts in my head, the moods that were the wet slate shade of winter sky, and I had so much trouble concentrating on a single task that it became laughable. I became irritable and short-tempered and self pitying and argumentative and have never felt more isolated.
Last week I was celebrating my new book with friends and I said out loud "I'm happy," and it was just fricking amazing to utter those words and laugh that night. In fact, laughter is what saved me because when I wasn't cranky or self-pitying, it's actually pretty funny when you cannot remember "yellow" or "suitcase" or your phone number or whether you've just taken your medications or paid your phone bill. On the serious side, I'm trying to avoid dementia, because if I had it for real the humor of the situation would fade quickly.
I'm still paying a toll for my brain injuries every day, especially when I use my computer and have another year of recovery ahead. And I know how serious head injuries can be and that I'm lucky that I wasn't permanently injured. But I've never felt more gratitude and in sync with what I do with my life. So you know what? If your dog died and your boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife just dumped you, and you discovered your hero is a fraud, or if your sister is sleeping with your man, or if in any way your life truly, truly sucks and you've lost your way, you can still write (or fill in the blank for the passion that's missing in your life). And writing just might save your ass. Writing just might be the window you can climb through to something altogether golden that was waiting there all along.
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Jessica Page Morrell is the author of Bullies, Bastards and Bitches: How to Write the Bad Guys in Fiction and The Writer's I Ching: Wisdom for the Creative Life. She works as a developmental editor and was formerly the writing expert at an online magazine. Morrell teaches writing at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and leads a series of workshops in the Northwest.
Books mentioned in this post
Jessica Page Morrell is the author of Thanks, But This Isn't for Us: A (Sort Of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected