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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Controlled Chaos – Art Imitates Life

It all started when I brought home Peaches. Tonka the best-companion-dog-or-cat-a-girl-ever-had Lynx Point Siamese and I had been living on my third-floor condo alone together for over a dozen years blissfully happy in our own self-contained, magical world. (The personal trauma that led to my withdrawal from humanity has been touched on in another blog.) Though I was the condo Pres I could escape to my top-floor retreat above the fray. Not much dirt or salt ever got tracked all the way up the stairs; it was clean and bright. Everything stayed where Tonka or I put it and we were settled in our ways. And she was truly my partner in life from the moment I saw her in the shelter, and the rainbows arced and birds sang and butterflies soared all around us and it was meant to be. We walked everywhere with her leash, she rode around in the car with me to Tim Hortons then the park on weekends, she always greeted me at the door, talking. Life was well-ordered.

Then I had to go and start volunteering for the cat-cuddling program at the local shelter. You go in a few times a week and play with your adopted cat(s) to help socialize them. Tonka was very much a single-cat-in-the-house cat so I didn’t see any danger in my becoming attached; what creature could ever be as smart and communicative and bossy and bold and fearless as my amazing Tonka, anyway?

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A Sheltered Cat

Peaches the timid calico dilute wasn’t even “my” adopted cuddle cat. She always seemed to be one of the cats let out when I was there; not fighting with the other cats, but not paying any attention to them either. Neither did she seek out human companionship; she just went away and did her own thing. I held her sometimes and she let me, but she rarely played with the toys as the other cats did. She would never make a move that called attention to herself. In retrospect I realize she was probably a bit shell-shocked; at two years old, she’d been found outside during the bitter cold Polar Vortex, then had a stint with a foster while she recovered from a very serious upper respiratory illness. Who knew what demons ran around in her little head to make her so cautious?

She was cute, for sure: there were definite over-tones of Grumpy Cat in her big, limpid blue eyes. But I was a cat snob; raised with Siameses because of my dad’s allergies, I knew from long experience that they were clever, and all other cats were pretty airheads by comparison. One day, though, Peaches did gain a bit more respect from me when a boisterous tom tried to hone in on her spot on the cat tower and intimidate her out of it. So quiet that only the other cat and I heard her, Peaches gave a low, solid “Grrrrr….” –and held her ground. So shy, timid Peaches had a tiny, little core of steel in her backbone after all!

For two months I visited the shelter several times a week and Peaches was still there. We have a pretty animal-friendly community and I was growing more and more amazed: she’s so incredibly cute, why hasn’t anyone taken Peaches home yet? I began to worry that her reticence was being mistaken for coldness and that she’d never find a home. Then one day lightning struck–just not as soon as with Tonka: I awoke and sat straight up in bed and realized: the reason no one’s taken Peaches home yet is because I’M supposed to take her home!

Pulling a thread…

Tonka didn’t agree, of course, and it took my installing a screen door on the spare bedroom during unsupervised times for several months before they adapted to each other. For the first six months Peaches was happy to live under the bed. I could only get her to play at first with a shoe-string: it was a victory when she moved her paw. To her, that was already bringing too much attention to herself. But after patient coaxing and several months she became the cat she was meant to be, playing with more joy and less self-consciousness till the day she took a flying belly-whopper leap through the air then hunkered down, shocked, when she hit the ground: was that really me? did anyone see me? Always a little chunky, she was that much cuter as she became more active: the amazing Peaches even once did a somersault off the bed, catching the ribbon in her teeth mid-air, and stuck the landing perfectly.

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Tonka was getting older and after awhile seemed happy to watch someone else play most of the time. At night we all piled into bed together, though they each kept to their own sides. I had done the unthinkable: I had brought another cat into our lives and we had survived the change. And something else happened after the shake-up of my self-induced escape-from-the-real-world: I began to write again. NaNo kick-started me, and soon I was in a community of real, like-minded folks for the first time since grad school. And they were nicer.

Breaking all the eggs

Just as the three of us finally reached our stride all living together, the economy and chance brought me to find and buy my dream house. Tonka had a back yard to play in; she’d been getting too old and tired for actual walks anymore. She just liked to sit. (Peaches’ demons keep her inside.) This past year in the house has been one of real upheaval: I had to take on my sister and another renter to afford it, and my sister had another elderly alpha-female cat–and this time the screen-door was permanent. My cats and hers had a time-share arrangement out on the main floor; Tonka and Peaches lived with me up in my bedroom loft the rest of the time.

I had to get used to sharing a bathroom–with people not as fastidiously clean as I tended to be. Don’t even get me started on the kitchen: my sister and I are absolute polar opposites. I have trouble breaking a few eggs to start a project; breaking eggs is all she can do. I’ve had to work my tail off on home-repairs and keeping up the half-acre as I prepare to convert that huge, back shaded lawn into a cottage garden, and do most of the physical work and cleaning inside. Suddenly money-management has become a myth as home projects constantly blow cannon holes in my credit (but what was I building all that great credit for anyway?) Rent doesn’t always come in on time and creative financing has become fantastical.

I went through the trauma and winter depression following the death of Tonka, who as I said had been sick for some time (her elegy is the unwritten blog…) I drudged through a second NaNo to try to keep the horrible pain and emptiness at bay. Several family members were hospitalized for this and that, and my older niece has become pregnant. Then my sister’s cat also passed away, and then, some weeks later. . .George arrived.

Confusion now hath made his masterpiece

I thought I’d become used to chaos already. We were told the big, male Siamese was a two-year old, something more settled we needed for Peaches’ avoidance personality, but the vet revealed he was much closer to one: actually kind of a relief, when you consider his behavior. He’s wild and energetic and playful, of course, but he also has no impulse control, no seeming ability to learn (the word “no”, for example), and–even more than the usual Siamese but perhaps not unlike your average adolescent male–always needs to be the center of attention. Lots of attention. He’s chewing on my ankle right now.

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So he may grow out of it. But until then, it’s a miracle how different my life is from one year ago in the condo with my two girls. I wouldn’t recognize myself. Not only is life chaotic now–I don’t even wince when I hear a CRASH somewhere in the house, or Peaches screams, or George tears past me up the stairs at breakneck speed while I balance a laptop and a hot cup of tea–but I don’t see it changing much in the future at all. There is always going to be gardening to do. The sheer limits of money mean that the home-repair and -improvement projects will stretch out for years. Face it, this is a whole new world, and I may never be “settled” inside my perfect little Ivory Tower ever again.

Breaking eggs is something I’ve very much needed to learn how to do, and now it’s getting applied to my writing revision: most of my writing-block paralysis comes from needing, out of fear, to leave well-enough alone. Pull a thread, ruin the sweater. Break an egg, have to clean it up. Add people to a household, learn to compromise. Tighten up the plot, lose the great feeling I had after finishing the first draft.

All of us wild, all free

It’s amazing and more than a little jarring when I look back now and realize that when I met Peaches, well, I WAS Peaches. I was in my own little world, and it was nice and even necessary while it lasted, but it couldn’t last. Trauma doesn’t ever completely go away, but neither are you ever as disconnected from the world as you think. I have a voice, and writing was always that voice, but there was no way I could use it again without leaving the shelter behind. Time to come out from under the bed and play.

. . .What happened to kick start you out of a too-lengthy complacence? Was it dramatic like a blockbuster film, or as quiet as pulling a thread and bringing home a shy, wounded calico?

The Right Writing House–FOUND!

Small town in front, private park in back–couldn’t be more perfect.

I didn’t mention my hopes last blog but this was the “impossible house” I was imagining as I outlined my wish list for the house search:  it was on the market, but for a variety of reasons I couldn’t make an offer YET, I didn’t have my ducks in a row. My heart was broken. Forget the house:  this was everything I ever wanted in a yard.  It stretches WAY back–to include a little wooded area.  I dreamed of English gardens on the back half with a path winding through.

And a white gazebo.

But sadly it came on the market before I was anywhere near ready! My radius of search was SO TINY–what were the odds I’d find another that fit every desire?

THEN, with a little help from friends and family and a great realtor and mortgage broker who did magic, and after I had given up all hope, darned if those ducks didn’t line up like first-rate soldiers.  Straightened up and quacked right. It was a mad race in this seller’s market to make that offer before anyone beat me to it.  And here I am, over my head financially perhaps, but a half acre of my own to live out and retire in my second half century on earth.

I’m normally fiscally cautious:  head down, move along, play it safe.  But the few times in my life I’ve taken that leap of faith into the abyss of financial uncertainty, it’s been SPECTACULAR.  It’s not like I have any innate intuition, and my timing sucks more than anyone you’ve ever met, but I seemed to have it when it counted.

Such as the day my dad kept asking me in disbelief, “Why are you PACKING? You don’t have the tuition!” –for grad school, well, had I not pushed on in a kind of delusional trance I’d never have gotten that full-ride assistantship and fellowship the day before classes began.

I keep waiting for the spectacular leap to fail me. . .Check back in a couple years when the dust settles.  Because it’s all or nothing now.

Here’s the blank canvas, a writer’s retreat in the middle of town.  I know I’m lucky, but just like always, it’s going to be a lot of work to make luck stick.

 

Finding the Right House for Writing

First move in 15 years. . .and counting

Lately writing has taken a back seat to re-locating. The plan had always been to live in my top-floor apartment-style condo for some time before finding a little house to retire to.  Well, retirement’s at least 2 decades away, but one needs to plan.

As much as I love the birdsong and many trees in this lovely, walk-worthy area near the edge of my small-town, those birds compete with shared-building life, kids’ shouting in the pool not far from my balcony, kids’ shouting in the yards, noises from the 5 softball fields by the elementary school across the street, and all the usual noises of many people living in close proximity (and some of the more mysterious and likely illegal ones).

I’m claustrophobic by nature. Many writers and independent scholars are.

As I explained to my Realtor what I wanted in a home, the Top Four demands had nothing to do with the house itself. More  large trees, more birdsong (inspires my writer sensibilities); private outdoor space (for the writer with a laptop), quiet neighborhood near downtown (well, duh); not a corner lot (wasted outdoor space that could be private).

I don’t much care about the house. With imagination and working plumbing one can pretty much live with anything.

But the market is really wrenching for the Buyer this year. No contingency offers (and I’ve already found the perfect downtown yard with small house!), which means. . .one has to find a place within a tiny window of just a few weeks after one gets a purchase offer on her own house!  And my searching radius is only about a mile. How often will a suitable place even come up for sale?  Half a dozen in a year at best?

I’m hearing stories of whole families having to live in temporary housing just to find/wait for the right home. I swear that moving a couple of kids around would be easier than my moving my elderly cat with medical issues and the other one. Living back in my parents’ basement at age 51 here in town with two cats and THEIR two cats? 

But this is what I may need to do to find the perfect writing home for the rest of my life. Wish me luck.

What are your concerns when finding the Right Place to Write?

Geraniums

 

 

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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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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.