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.

stgeo

The Aphasic Horror – or, the Flip Side of Hypergraphia

When, literally, there are no words, there is no self.

Last time, I wrote about the phenomenon of hypergraphia as part of a collection of possible attributes that comprise Geschwind Syndrome, itself sometimes a feature of temporal lobe epilepsy. Having an over-abundance of words can be a wonderful “symptom” for a writer to have. But in my case TLE has on occasion led to a frightening, albeit brief, type of seizure producing aphasia: the complete loss of words. There are TLE seizures that are enjoyable when I’m given the leisure to entertain them: euphoria, dreamlike, dreaming-while-wide-awake, all-encompassing deja-vu states that hyper-stimulate both memory and creativity. But of all the unpleasant seizures that go along with TLE, none that I experience are anywhere near as horrible and frightening as the aphasia one.

I must be forgiven for complaining, because my seizures are relatively mild (and after Cymbalta was invented for my fibromyalgia I began to get quality sleep and the seizures have all but disappeared) and, being temporal lobe seizures, are usually undetectable to the outside world. But appearances most absolutely and certainly can be deceiving.
I know that the dreaded sensation I’m about to describe lasts probably only a second or even less, but believe me, it feels like an eternity while I’m “in” it.

It begins with a metaphorical “aphasia cattle prod” that hits me right between the eyes and it’s almost as if I’m being physically struck backwards; in the same moment my mind is wiped utterly blank. You can’t even imagine how blank. I suddenly have NO WORDS–none, nothing to think with. And the sensations are overwhelming: I feel as if I’m falling in total blackness, my hands clutching the air and finding nothing to hang onto, and with that/because of that I’m feeling utter terror, just about the worst terror I’ve ever known. (You can’t see me right now, but as I try to put myself back into that place, my hands are actually clawing at the air.)

During this eternity-moment I feel like I’m not even alive anymore; it feels as though I’ve been instantaneously relegated to a strange nether-world or limbo where life and death are the measure of nothing. I have no words so I can’t think! I may as well be a non-sentient slug in a petri dish. You can poke me and I might have an autonomic reaction, but I won’t be able to think about my past or my future or why I’m being poked. I can’t even think about thinking. I can’t think about myself as being apart from the petri dish or the poke or the pok-er or the pain. There is no form or structure for my consciousness; I’m not human when I have no words.

Of course my entire description of the experience is only possible in after-thought, and certainly what the experience is not occurs to me only as part of a sensation during the actual seizure. Falling and flailing in blackness and in terror is as much as I know at the time. It’s more than enough.

Afterwards I have a residual pressure (absence of pressure?) fogging me up right between and behind the eyes, a bit of fatigue after the aura, but a profound sense of relief to be standing on firm ground again. Sensory input flows through my mind again and the little talker in my head assigns what I experience words and descriptions and I exist once more.

The capacity for aphasia even for a moment scares the daylights out of me, and I can only begin to imagine the horror for people whose neurological impairments are more long-term. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and writer, has described in multiple books some of the more strange and painful variations brain-damage can exhibit. There are more familiar conditions like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and the catatonic conditions seen in the film Awakenings, based on Dr. Sacks’ work. These are conditions which, like Geschwind Syndrome, can challenge one’s very definition of personhood and sense of self. I appreciate every day not being on that end of the spectrum.

So hard-wired wordiness aside, I honestly don’t take for granted that my reliance on words, my love of words, my very self-perception and definition through words is a given. Rather I know that it is a gift, this indicator of sentience and human-ness. I see words for the magic they are and I’ve understood for as long as I’ve used them the drive to tell stories with them, to make something that wasn’t there before I took pen to paper.

Aphasia

I’m hard-wired to be a writer? Whoa

hyperg-poster
Driven to write…

As it turns out, finding out you’re neurologically “hard-wired” to be a writer isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Hypergraphia, the urge to write excessively, is one of a cluster of characteristics forming Geschwind Syndrome, which is itself a personality-affecting phenomenon that often goes along with having TLE, or Temporal Lobe Epilepsy. Unlike better-known epilepsies affecting the motor-control areas of the brain, TLE influences the sensory-input processing part of the brain, also the part that controls language and memory access. (You may have heard how the “smell” part of the brain resides close to the “memory” part making smell one of the strongest senses that can evoke memory–well, TLE seizures can entail sensory hallucinations such as smell and complex deja-vu hallucinations.)

I had infant febrile seizures–they put me in a coma for about a day. But it wasn’t until about 15-20 years ago I began to learn about TLE and the fact that a scar on one or both of my temporal lobes had left its mark on my very personality for as long as I could remember. An obsession with language, the drive to write, a strong sense of social justice and the tendency to become mildly-obsessed with worlds of the imagination (cartoons, TV, movies, but most often books) could all be attributed to my neurological irregularities. I wrote stories and sometimes when I was too impatient to wait for inspiration I simply copied my favorite books from the library by hand. The thing with hypergraphia is, you want to write a lot; it isn’t necessarily good. Some people write loads of crap. Some who have little imagination just doodle their name all over everything.

But I tried to be a better writer. I began my first novel at age twelve, and by then was probably an even better artist than writer (abstract creativity sort of swirls out of Geschwind Syndrome and related conditions). I studied art in high school and AP English and French, then began a major in art and minor in music that resigned itself to a writing major and the music minor. This writing thing just wasn’t going away. I proved to be a pretty good abstract thinker and was sort of flattered into graduate school in Medieval/Renaissance literature. I adored Anglo-Saxon and the histories of Shakespeare–having already written quite a bit of political-themed stories myself.

By young adulthood, though, I began to be aware that my mini-obsessions, my intensely-curious and driven scholarship (and lack of interest in dating) and overly-developed “inner life” (I think Wikipedia calls it “intensified mental life”) was unusual, and there were some aspects of my routine I had to keep to myself. Color-coded notes and index cards, the tendency to live inside interesting stories and photographs, and always, always the story-writing. I figured it was just me. Er, that is, it is me. Only. . .IS IT?

This is the sinking-feeling reaction and subsequent specific despair that followed my diagnosis. It didn’t matter that I was in good company; many notable artists had TLE (Van Gogh, Dostoyevsky). So did many mystical saints and shamans–Joan of Arc. None of them were very happy in their personal lives, were they?! Destined to be misunderstood outsiders at best.

Far from being elated that I was quite literally hard-wired to be philosophical and detail-oriented and imaginative and a writer, I felt like my entire life of writing was. . .a symptom! It felt like everything that made me ME was simply a medical phenomenon. I walked around feeling like nothing more than a diagnosis. And though it wasn’t a conscious decision, I gradually. . .stopped writing. Whenever I looked at my latest novel I saw it the way a clinical scientist views experimental data: clear evidence of a mind gripped by disease. If I didn’t have a normal mind, how could my observations and opinions ever be valuable?!

And then what happened was, I became Not-A-Writer. For FIFTEEN YEARS. That was the extent of my despair. I had a degree in writing and a Master’s in literature; I had top grade-point averages and won every scholarship and assistantship and fellowship that had come my way. I wrote three doctoral degree comprehensive exams for twelve perfect scores and I had taught writing successfully at the college level for ten years–and still I somehow convinced myself it was all a fluke.

Of course the symptoms still found release during those years; I still told myself some pretty elaborate stories in my head. I had learned to compose and memorize scenes in my head verbatim since those days in high school when staying up late to get just one-last-thought written down became impractical, and I self-imposed a strict “lights-off” schedule. During the writing hiatus I had fantasies after lights-out as lengthy and complex and coherent as any novel I’d ever written–if not more-so because now I was conscious of the need for concise story-telling, since wordiness was a symptom of my “disease”. But I stubbornly refused to write any of it down. I silenced myself more effectively than childhood shyness or low self-esteem ever had.

Still, I read a lot, as many people do, and often I read novels that were okay but I said to myself, “This got published? I’m pretty sure I can do better than that.” Social media netted me some writer friends, then last November 2nd I learned about NaNoWriMo–the online challenge to write a novel in a month. Just draft it. And something about that challenge appealed to me and freed up my self-imposed writer’s block; no one had to see it, you just had to write it. For some reason the time was right and this was the thing that got my butt in the chair and really writing again. Finding the joy in writing again and not worrying about why. That is, I began to feel like a person again some time ago, I found my life, I continued to apply my talents researching and engaging my curiosity. But actually writing every day didn’t happen till last November.

So three months later I had a fairly coherent first draft of 144,000+ words and I guess the dam has burst, the die is cast, I’ve crossed the Rubicon et cetera. Laptops and the Internet writing community make for a very different world since last I was a writer. I don’t know where I’m going from here. But I don’t think I’m going to go quietly.


*Nothing in this post or the reading list should be construed as a basis for a medical diagnosis. If you suspect your symptoms go beyond those of your average neurotic head-in-the-clouds workaholic writer, go say “Hey” to the family doctor. She’s probably happy to see you ’cause it’s been awhile!

…Before my writing break-through, I have to say that I credit Oliver Sacks with finally making me feel human again. His writings about neurological-based disorders were the first I read that asserted his patients were human beings first and beyond any medical problems they may have. He has a belief in the transcendant wonder of life and the abilities of people, probably based in his faith. Alice Weaver Flaherty, furthermore, writes about hypergraphia as both a neurologist and a writer–and a patient.

Altogether this makes for a pretty fascinating beginner reading list:

Flaherty, Alice Weaver. 2005. The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain. Mariner Books.

Jameson, Kay Redfield. 1993. Touched With Fire (Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament). The Free Press/Simon & Schuster.

LaPlante, Eve. 1993. Seized (Temporal Lobe Epilepsy as a Medical, Historical, and Artistic Phenomenon). HarperCollins.

Ornstein, Robert. 1991. The Evolution of Consciousness (The Origins of the Way We Think). Touchstone/Simon & Schuster.

Sacks, Oliver. 1987. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. Harper & Row.