Pathologically Disconnected, or, Why I Write Novels

“Here.” I handed my college buddy a small magazine clipping with a photograph of some place with trees and water. I’d just had a very nice visit there, in fact. Then I ripped out the page I was looking at and cut the place out.

“What is it?”

I was excited to explain the birthday gift. “It’s a. . .it’s a ‘place-to-be’. You look at it and you can picture yourself in the picture, anywhere in the picture you want. . .Like I did. When I looked at it; it was a really cool picture that way.”

This was all falling apart really fast; I could see he didn’t get it. And I couldn’t say it any more clearly than that. Here I was, a writing major, and I couldn’t find the words to express something this important–and stupid me, I just assumed he would understand what I meant and finish the thought, complete the gesture. I just assumed it happened to everyone: a certain photograph in a magazine ad or travel book just hits you the right way, and you’re transported. In a virtual, euphoric trance your mind takes you right into that picture, to the exclusion of the present; you are–if “you” can be taken as your consciousness rather than your body–quite literally suddenly someplace else.

Well, I tried, and it sure didn’t come across as the tremendous gift I had intended it to be; my buddy just saw a little slip of paper. And since I failed scissors in the third grade it wasn’t even a perfectly square picture.

Why don’t you get it?!

I tried again with other friends but in the end only this first buddy was ever nice enough to see it meant something to me, and for a few years when we wrote back and forth after college I still sent occasional clippings. But I had no illusions anymore; these trances were mine and mine alone. Wow. What did photographs even exist for, if not to blow your mind and give you a waking dream, a whole new mood, a new atmosphere to exist in for some time?

I’ve written already about my TLE seizures, but knowing what’s happening to me, while a relief on one level, doesn’t really solve the underlying problem: Geschwind Syndrome sees to it that your very personality and being are affected by a scar on the temporal lobe, and you are who you are who you are. As proof, I had most of the tell-tale personality traits since earliest memory, long before the seizures appeared. My lifelong struggle to connect was now understandable but it wasn’t over.

My childhood made a lot more sense; my friends never seemed to get lost in books as completely as I did, they never understood when I said they were magical that way, I didn’t just mean it figuratively. Then came the mind-blowing discovery that I could write my own stories, my own worlds, my own friends. I was teetering at the mouth of the rabbit-hole.

And it wasn’t too long after high school that I no longer needed books or photographs; these trances started to occur of their own volition, more intense, a déjà-vu moment that wasn’t just a moment.

Still freakily abstract

“I just had one of those really good déjà-vus,” I told my grad school apartment roommate.

“What do you mean, the ‘good’ ones?”

“You know, the kind that last a long time. The good ones–the ones that feel good.”

“Déjà-vus don’t last a long time; they just hit you.”

“I know, usually they do, like a ping pong ball hits you and bounces off. But the other kind hits you like a velcro ball and sticks. You have a déjà-vu of another time you had a déjà -vu, and that was maybe about another even earlier déjà-vu. . .”

“Yeh, but a déjà-vu is just a hiccup in your brain; it can’t last more than a second, because it was an accident.”

“Okay, maybe you don’t call it a déjà-vu, then, maybe you call it something else.” I wasn’t ready to give up; she and I already got along well in so many uncanny ways, maybe this was the one friend who would get what I was trying to say. “Like looking into a mirror with a mirror behind you, a feeling of something that keeps echoing back into infinity.”

Yup, I realized with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, there it was: the look. She didn’t get it and she didn’t mean to but the look said I was a little off, somehow. I waffled, “Anyway, it’s a really cool feeling. That’s why I wasn’t paying attention.” . . .And then she had the look like she thought I was making it all up. And my cheeks burned and my hands tingled and my head buzzed with nervous embarrassment. And it wasn’t because of any déjà-vu that that felt so familiar.

It’s what you aren’t experiencing, obviously

“Why don’t you just shut up?” I’ve asked myself over and over. I’ve gotten so used to people not believing me when imagination takes over and my mouth starts running that I’ve become apologetic about practically everything. And I should be: long ago I learned that my words–so effective in every other area of my life–just weren’t the right language for explaining to people what it was they weren’t experiencing and I was.

Sometimes I think I’ve finally found a common point of reference–dreaming. Everyone has dreams. Remember last time you told someone you had a really cool dream, the first thing you’re asked? “What was it about?” And then you struggle to find the threads of the plot–but that’s useless. Plot’s generally not the impact of the dream; it’s the entire atmosphere taken as a whole. Something might happen in my dream: a young girl is holding a bunny with a ribbon around its neck. But that “thing” in the dream doesn’t convey the concrete “mood”; in this instance my overwhelming sense of dread and foreboding. But how was it any different than the last time I dreamt an overwhelming sense of foreboding? Well. . .just trust me.

Doomed to fail

So maybe I’m doomed never to know if others can bring to the experience I want to share the same sensory and perceptual dysfunction that keeps me living on another plane of existence. It’s lonely without the words I need to make a connection with other people. Gradually I realized that it wasn’t my inability to express or lack of will that kept me apart; it was the failure of the English language, whose words I loved so much I would surely have found the correct ones when I tried.

There aren’t enough words for all the subtly different kinds of overwhelming, palpable moods in a dream, and it’s the exact same way with my little transports. When I describe them they sound intangible, ephemeral. . .but if there just existed enough words you would see they’re anything but. “Mood” isn’t even the right word; I’m fumbling again.

Obviously the rest of the world sees no need to have verbal markers for all the kinds of mental transports that define my life. Alone again. I spend ten paragraphs explaining a meaningful and quantifiable mood that should have required only a couple words–I don’t know, a color combined with a place and a season, a shorthand to convey it all in an instant.

A Vulcan mind-meld might just do it, though

So I suppose this is where art comes in. It’s so patently true it’s a cliché: art can indirectly convey a thought more accurately and more concisely than direct prose. But unless you’re Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra*, I can’t go around spouting to you my everyday feelings in poetic allegory.

I go through life, then, feeling disconnected, but hope I never reach the despair of someone like Van Gogh, furiously painting flowers and fields and potato farmers, internally crying out, “Don’t you get it? Don’t you get it?”

In Cyber-Space, Everyone Can Hear You Scream

But is there an alternative to the intense social and spiritual need to connect to other people? I can revel in my solitary condition but gradually the avoidance of despair takes on the appearance of cynicism–one could stave off the existential angst with wry irony. Isn’t there something more in-between for the self-aware idiosyncratic?

I don’t know about you, but as soon as I asked that question in print a little voice deep inside answered gleefully, “There is! There’s the internet!”

“What? The internet is the answer for disconnected artistic-types everywhere?”

“We all come to cyber-space already an artificial construct.”

“It levels the playing field, you mean.”

“You can rule at last.”

“I wouldn’t go that far.”

I won’t go that far

Like most of us who were the freaks and geeks and wall-flowers in high school I’ve reaped a bit of cathartic revenge ripping apart the willfully ignorant and narrow-minded on various forums on a variety of topics. Fun for awhile. Wearying of that, I turned my powers to good instead of evil and sought companionship among those with similar interests, those to learn from and those to support. But that’s just life writ, well, in writing.

So I’ve come full-circle and returned to the escapism I once thought was dangerous and abnormal: writing novels. Big novels, full-blown worlds filled with fictitious characters and fake-fake-fake-fake-fake.

No, art! Artifice’s more socially-acceptable twin sibling. And if online writing communities had existed back when I was a teenager, well, I might very well “rule” by now.

I’m very curious just how different a path younger writers have had for this reason. Why do you write, and do you still have people in your life who think it’s an unhealthy escape?

 

*Star Trek: the Next Generation’s episode “Darmok”, oft-mocked for its abstruse subject matter, is a beloved favorite of poets and literary types, celebrating as it does the centrality of myth to our world-view.

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A Muse of Fiery Dragons

When it was just me and a tree, I knew it all

St. George and the Dragon Day – something I like to celebrate, as it reminds me of those far recesses of childhood when I began to learn the world was SO BIG, and even bigger when you thought about all history. And in my head I had such a sure, vivid, timeless yet evolving image of all the stages of history in all the places I knew of. What does an “absent-minded” daydreaming six year old who has never left Michigan know? A whole lot! Enough to fill a universe. That’s the nature of the brain.

I suppose these vast conceptions of places like medieval England or colonial America or Neanderthal Europe were informed by folk tale books my mom read, TV and school–but I’ve been around the world and dangerously over-educated in the 4+ decades since and these “forms” (in the Platonic sense) in my mind’s eye have not much changed. This feels very much like a collective unconscious. Somewhere there is and always will be an England of rolling green hills where a maid tends her sheep across the river from a village fair outside a Gothic cathedral, and archers roam the forest and knights in armor ride out from a castle with crenellated parapets. Somewhere there will be a dragon and a St. George to do battle with it.

What the other realm has to do with inspiration

These places are real in the way everything in a dream feels so much more present and tangible and real than being awake: in your dreams, the smallest thing can be infused with a sense of the greatest symbolism, and what happens next always has the feel of momentous inevitability. This is how good writing works: you set up a world of believable vastness and palpable intimacy, where events or imagery sustain multiple meanings, and the plot develops logically and naturally from the introductory matrix.

When I write I don’t feel like I’m creating a new place, rather, I’m trying to re-capture one that already exists–has always existed–in my mind, which is the same as to say it already exists in the “out-there” where all possible places and settings have always and will always exist. Inspiration is just getting to a point where I can remember it. I’m just tapping into something outside of myself. I’m being reminded by a “Muse”.

But the Muse is elusive! I can only actually write while I’m awake, with all the meaning-less distractions and inelegant minutiae of everyday life crowding in. How can I possible get past all that to a mental state where I can touch that other realm of inspiration? Most of the time it’s as hard as remembering your dreams. You forget just as soon as you remember a piece of one.

And what memory has to do with inspiration

My dad is nearly 82 years old. Since starting up the whole genealogy thing a few years back, I’ve made a point of asking questions about my parents’ childhoods, and I get very frustrated at how little he remembers. Is he holding back? Or can he honestly not remember a day out of his entire fourth grade, or one of the dresses his mom always wore? And yet, since I turned 50, a part of me has started to believe it. I’ve reached an age where I have to face the fact that maybe not remembering that certainty of childhood has less to do with simply not thinking about it lately and more to do with the fact that there are memories that may well be gone forever. You start to get pretty desperate to tap into that world-eternal you had all around you as a child.

I still play this one game sometimes while trying to fall asleep: I scrape and think really hard and try to come up with one early memory from childhood that I haven’t thought about almost since it happened. Maybe it will keep my brain and memory in shape. Maybe I’ll actually learn something about myself. It’s a game because I don’t always win; in fact, it’s quite rare that I un-earth a genuine long-buried gem and the corresponding feeling of supreme satisfaction. For just a moment, I know all the secrets of the universe yet again.

Is education inspiration?

I’ve spent a life voraciously chasing after that complete education, the level of knowing it seems like everyone else must have, a basic understanding of all history and myth, of geography, of the “greatest” writers and artists and musicians, the times of the greatest break-throughs for science and mathematics, how a cell works and how a galaxy is born. Reading every word Shakespeare ever wrote (happy birthday) and doing a dissertation on his histories. I think I always thought that’s how someone achieves enlightenment–er, peace of mind–er, being a real human being.

But apparently my Muse is the same she’s always been: someone who puts me in touch with a conception of the world I’ve always had. Or maybe I’ve just set up a false dichotomy: I suppose even as a child I had to overcome staggering inanity and mundanity. Probably trying to find school-clothes that weren’t laughable and doing homework that was a painful exercise in futility were just as frustrating to my higher self then as these stacks of unsorted receipts and boxes of unsifted cat litter are today. There were bullies then who teased me about my overbite and flood pants and my uncool mind-absences, and there are bullies today who torment me over my awkward bookishness and unfulfilled potential and my uncool absent-mindedness.

Daydreams and distractions, still

I think now that reaching my Muse is more of the same creative selective-attention I learned as a child. For sheer-survival I learned to tune out–as soon as they were gone–the unpleasantness of nose-bleeds on the school bus and that girl who always said out loud how messy my hair was or how I acted like a boy. In my head all that mattered were the woods I played in and the books I read. Today I sit in my condo and listen past the distant road traffic and screaming kids and that jack-ass running his leaf-blower at dinnertime and sometimes I really do manage to hear only the birds outside. I play with my cat and some string and sometimes I really do find myself as single-minded and in the moment as she is.

Perhaps it’s the pernicious TLE déja-vu seizures I have that have me obsessing on capturing something lost from childhood:  in the moment of the seizure it sure feels as powerfully atmospheric as a dream. Or perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve been around the world and still I’m right back where I started:  a daydreamer in a book under a tree, desperate to prove one way or another that what you all thought were “mind-absences” were, in all ways amazing and worthwhile, me being very much present someplace after all.

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