WHAT IF THE WRITING BRAIN NEVER TURNS ON AGAIN?
I fear, every morning, that today will be the day when the brain DOESN’T clear.
There are days like that, but I most fear the day when IT stops happening forever.
With an illness like CFS (or whatever the heck they’re calling it this week, other than CURED), you never know what the progression will be, whether when you come back – if you come back – it will be on a lower level of functionality, enough, maybe for brushing your own hair, but not enough for intellectual work.
And, trust me, writing is intellectual WORK. What goes on the page is the product of research, reading, studying craft, and creative thinking. I don’t seem to have the angst much any more (except to worry that I’m producing melodramatic trivia), and I know that the only way is through writing the next piece, IF there is a way through.
Trust the writing process
I do the things I do every day: I take my few meds that sometimes work, I get the can of caffeine dripping into the veins, I sit in the chair (butt-in-chair has its own acronym all writers know: BIC), I turn the computer on.
I am ready, but is the brain ready?
The brain fog is thick, murky, viscous.
I wait agonizing minutes. An hour. Another half hour.
I play games of Sudoku, gauging my mental speed. Nope, not there yet.
I can’t make decisions. How then could I possibly write?
Finally, something clicks. The magic number is 7. If the hard Sudoku is done in less than 7 minutes, the brain is ON! I feel the click. I don’t really have to spend 7 more minutes to test it – I can feel the synapses firing faster AS I do the puzzle, locating the numbers and the patterns and filling in the boxes, seeing connections, REMEMBERING where that 4 will go.
I CAN MAKE DECISIONS!
That is what I’m waiting for: the human capacity to make a decision. To pick one word and not another. To see a pattern and sequence in the story I’m trying to tell: this goes first, that goes later, and this is how she would say it.
The fear is allayed for another day. Maybe. This is just the BEGINNING of writing, that feeling that I can.
I still have to DO it. The most important decision, the first one, is to block the internet.
Am I procrastinating?
No. I’m sitting here. I want to write. I know what comes next.
Why can’t I do it sooner? I can – but not on the day when the actual writing happens, the assembly, the effort to launch.
Because my brain insists that, if it no longer works, it wants to spend the rest of its life stroking itself, looking for SOMETHING online to make it feel better. It doesn’t want to do yoga and stretch and breathe or anything useful (that would be against BIC). It is petulant, wants brain junk food. I won’t let it have sugar, so it wants the next best thing: endless surfing.
See now, brain. We are capturing reality, creating out of nothing, observing our self. Surely it is good enough?
Now can I go write?
Finally something happens. It is actually on again. I only required patience. And sitting here.
I block the internet. I locate the right files. I try.
End of day
It is night, and I’m posting this.
One more day of beating down the fear – the writing came mid-morning, and the scene I’ve been agonizing over for days finally cracked the shell and emerged. It showed me its path – a different one from every other scene before it. Again, as seems to happen as I get near the end, I will ask my readers, “Is it too much?”
They have been kind.
Me, I don’t know – once the pieces are assembled like molecules in beakers on a bench in a chemistry lab, the result seems to determine itself by some rules I don’t even know I’ve invoked.
All I did was assemble, mix, and add fire.
I now have a fine hard-boiled egg.
Beloved children’s author Roald Dahl famously spoke about this. According to him,
“A writer of fiction lives in fear. Each new day demands new ideas and he can never be sure whether he is going to come up with them or not.”
I have this post hung up in my bathroom where it’s the last thing I see each night and the first thing each morning. That said, my writing brain mostly doesn’t work in the morning beyond the ability to substitute specific words for other, better words in the writing I did the night before, or to write a badly-punctuated stream-of-consciousness idea of what should happen next.
I have a day job to go to in the morning, and have no interest in getting up at 5am to write. I don’t care how many case studies I’m presented with about successful writers who do dark and early; it’s not for me – not now, maybe not ever. I work much better at night after a long day doing other things while my writing brain sorts itself in the background, like the virus scanner on your computer that runs unnoticed while you update your Facebook status or whatever. I actually find I can’t write day to day unless I’ve had a good think about what’s coming next. I have to work hard to stay ahead of the curve, and I always hold a little bit back for tomorrow.
“I can’t write day to day unless I’ve had a good think about what’s coming next” – that’s me, too, except that I can only think in the morning. So some days are spent thinking (and taking notes about the thinking), and others are spent actually writing fiction.
I don’t have a day job – and even if I’d had one recently, I’d probably be retired by now.
As you’ve proven, if you want to write, you will find a piece of your day in which to do it. If not, you have a good excuse/reason/explanation – but no writing.
Don’t be afraid of the day it doesn’t come back. Promise yourself you will write with or without it. I’ve had to start doing that – baby is no excuse to my internal taskmaster.
Can’t write without that brain function – that’s why I’m so scared. I can plot, come up with snippets, write notes until I’m blue in the face – I do this all the time.
I can’t write. The Assembly doesn’t happen, the words don’t get created, NOTHING comes OUT. I can’t tell you how many days I’ve spent trying, sitting in the chair, working the process. No attitude, no angst, no problem – NO OUTPUT.
Creating fiction is a higher-order brain task. I get a couple hours’ worth of it on the good days. It isn’t writer’s block – it is neurobiology.
Well bless you for acknowledging writing as higher level brain task – a lot of people don’t. Maybe for some it is not. I think you and i wrote in similar ways. I have had to give up the elegance of making it (mostly) right the first time, but it is not freein the way some people claim. Just longer dithering over the words before i say “screw it” and write them almost-rightly.
Really? Writing isn’t a higher-level brain function for some people? I’d hate to read their writing.
Sometimes you have to get things down because there’s a flow going on, and other times you can futz about a bit with the wording as you write.
I always run things through AutoCrit when I’ve done as much as I can on my own – and I always find several things that need work. Repeated words, using the same word with different meanings too close to each other, repeated phrases, uncommon words, words from my question it list, overuse of ‘generic’ words such as very and really and such, cliches, redundancies,… The list of my faults is endless, BUT I’m getting better. I still think AC is the most useful thing out there for me: it trains me as it points things out, and is completely non-judgmental. Human editors ARE judgmental – I’m not good with that. I’d hate to have to work with ME.
The important think is that we keep writing, keep trying. It means we’re serious about this.
Every post i read about “get it down and fix in edits!” is to me a way of saying writing is not a higher brain function. That it’s verbal diarrhea and the point in the process for which individual words need to be considered is revision, that revision is the higer level task while letting “the madman” out and “just writing” is…not critical thinking. I don’t write narrative words without considering them. Composing them. The whole point of that scene progression series i have is taking words from the loose just-write place (for me the only time that happens is a conversation with no narrative around it) to proper writing. It’s why I write relatively slowly but also only need to make 3% change in revision, if there are no structural changes.
I still boggle at hard Sudoku in less than 10 minutes. I [i]don’t[/i] have CFS, or anything like that, and it takes me 10-15 minutes for an easy-medium Sudoku. I give up on the hard ones after the second or third time I’ve made a mistake and restarted (spending nearly an hour).
Phoo! I forgot not [ i ]. Too much bulletin board posting, lol. 😀
Grrrr. I wish there was a preview function. *sigh*
Glad it’s not just me with the formatting!
I have found that the ability to hold 5 missing numbers in a sequence in my head, and try those numbers in each box, remembering the results, is the key. If my brain is on, I can do it, possibly slowly. If the brain is off, I can only do it in writing – and even then I make mistakes and don’t see things.
It’s a stupid way to measure brainpower, but it works. I don’t even try to work if the brain can’t solve.
Problem is, when I can’t do them, I ALSO can’t make the decision to go to bed – a decision that resets things a bit. Oh, well. 🙂
My brain is almost always in a fog,and flipping through channels rapidly (mild case of adult ADHD here) on top of it,LOL,it doesn’t always make for the best day for me to try and write either,my friend (explains lots about my drivel,doesn’t it? 😛 ),and I’m one of those peeps who just has to be “in the mood” to do anything (anything of any subject,not just to write)…Add to that whatever this middle aged (I’m 41) brain-memory-funk that’s setting in the last few years and I often don’t get much accomplished.
For eg,some days I will go to the fride knowing full well what I want and why I’m there,but my adhd kicks in and my mind gets distracted by somethnig else for just a second or 2,and I completely forget why I’m there or what it is that I wanted. So I stand there for a second,and figure “it HAD TO BE bacon”,I fix myself a BLT (minus the L and the T ) sammich and life’s good XD
IDK that this helps any,my good friend,but hopefully gave you a smile picturing me standing there dumbfounded at thefridge about to fix some bacon 😛 🙂
I LOVE bacon. If I hadn’t had it for breakfast, I would now be having a bacon sandwich – based exclusively on your suggestion.
I had breaded mozzarella sticks instead of lunch – I finished a scene this morning AND sent off a tax letter I have been struggling to send out for two years. Cause for celebration! Reward? Favorite foods!
Can’t do it often, but you must celebrate what you can.
What was your reply about? You said ‘bacon’ – I went off on a reverie. 🙂
You had me at “had it for breakfast”,LOL! I had donuts 😛 They were fresh off the line Krispie Kreme donuts though (I had a hankering for em and drove to a neighboring town to get some fresh ones 😮 Ah…the Beetle hadn’t been ran in <a week anyways and needed it XD ). Mozzarella sticks sound great right about now too! In keeping with my health-food diet for the day though,I'll be grilling (it's cold out,but dry,no precip heeheehee) bacon cheese burgers,baked beans and fries for dinner…
YES celebrate what you can! Congratulations,my friend! One step closer to finished 😀
Now I want cheese sticks with my bacon burgers….shame on you 😛
Donuts??? Why’d you have to go and mention donuts? That’s the third mention in three days – which means I’m supposed to go out and eat donuts, only there is NO SUCH THING as a lo carb donut, so I’m out of luck.
Maybe some lo carb cookies. Hmmm. Can order those online. Shame on you. Now see what you did.
Thanks a lot!
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LOL,sorry 😮 😛
Isn’t this all normal, Alicia? I have brain foggy days, but after a hot shower, a couple of cups of coffee, and a brisk walk, I’m ready to go. Congrats to you on doing Sudoku. I’ve never been interested in trying, but I’ve recently started doing a daily crossword before I go to bed.
It is normal, yes – but it is a matter of degree. A matter of how large a proportion of the total functionality available for the day is used in the process.
Take, for example, walking. Is it marvelous that my husband can get into the car, drive to the store, pop in and walk around, buy the 10 items on his grocery list plus a few more he thinks up good recipes for because he sees the ingredients, walk to the checkout, stand in line, carry the groceries to the car, drive home, bring them in, and put them away? Then he has coffee and a fresh danish (one of the extras), and, having spent an hour of his day, goes on to whatever is next?
I can still do that: if I’m willing to spend all my energy for today, and pay for it with losing the next day or so. Maybe longer. Days in which I will stare at the wall or the computer, because the energy to make a decision has been spent on other things. It is rarely worth it to me to expend that much physical and mental energy, and future energy recovering. I do it for one thing: singing in church on Sundays in a tiny choir at the Princeton chapel, because even we who have no energy need to get out once in a while. And every time, I ask myself if it is going to be possible to do it again.
On some lucky days, I wake up and my brain is just on. I pack lunches and see the kids off to school. Then I open my laptop, review the last few paragraphs of what I wrote the day before, and start writing.
Those days are rare, but no longer so rare that they don’t throw me off stride for the other days. 😉
On other lucky days, I know I need to do writing about the scene, before I can write the scene or write more of the scene. So I ask myself questions – what is my POV character thinking about and feeling? what does he or she think he or she must do next? want to do next? what is present to see, to smell, to touch, to hear? – and write the answers to my questions.
And sometime during this pre-writing process I feel momentum building inside me. On the best days, I cannot “finish” the questions and answers, because I feel the scene itself calling me so compellingly that I must answer and write it immediately. On other days, it never builds that strongly, but I feel ready. I start easily.
On yet other days, I feel unready even after extensive pre-writing, but I sense that I am ready, even though I don’t feel it. And I struggle to write the first sentence of the day. And the second. But somewhere between the first sentence and the fifth, it starts to flow. And I know I was right: I was ready.
Those are the lucky days.
Then there are the unlucky days. Days when I think I should be able to dive in as I do on some rare lucky days. But really I cannot and do not. I need pre-writing. And I miss a writing day.
Or I forget that I often need pre-writing. I open up the file, and stare, and then close it again. Or I put off opening the file, and the day slips away.
I write more days than I don’t write. Most days I write. The days I don’t write and I wanted to…those are scary days for me. The days I didn’t write and it was necessary that I did not – like this last week, when I was down with a stomach virus, right behind my daughter and ahead of my son – are not quite so awful. But they don’t feel good. Especially when there are a whole week of them.
I wonder if I have lost my ability to write, as my mind roams in a sick, sleep-deprived muddle. I know that I have been sick and that I have not yet regained my health. Not really. But I wonder when I will feel clear again.
Then, one day, I am clear and I write again. The relief is profound. And it seems obvious. How could I have wondered? But I did wonder, there in the muddle. It’s only clear…when it is clear. 😉
You ask amazingly thought-provoking questions, Alicia. 😀
I write these things, JM, and then I wonder if I’m just a whiny idiot for putting them out there for public consumption!
We all struggle – your answer shows such similarities with my writing process that I had to laugh.
I hope you don’t question whether it WILL happen – that is the part that scares me. You know you have good and bad days – and are managing a full life with children (!) around the writing.
This is the only thing I have. It gets everything I have left. I am so glad I have it – when it decides to show up.
You are not a whiny idiot, Alicia. You are honest. I find your honesty compelling and thought provoking and courageous. Being human is not for the faint of heart. Most of us have challenges. If it’s not one thing, then it’s another. Your courage invites me to embrace my own humanity.
It’s the part that scares me too, because when I’m muddled, I’m muddled. No clear thinking in sight. I hear what you are saying: I’m not dealing with CFS, I’m dealing with ordinary life which includes things like viruses and kids. That is true. And logical. But when I am muddled and fearful due to illness or lack of sleep or any other ordinary thing, logic feels very surfacey in its answers. I can grab the logic hard and go forward in spite of my fears – which is good – but my fears are not calmed, just managed.
Managing our fears is what we grownups do.
I worry so hard – and then I see the little old people in nursing homes on TV – maybe that’s just TV – and I realize some day I may be one of them, and others will care for me, and it will have to do.
It scares me – it’s a very Western thing not to want to be taken care of, once you are an adult.
It’s also the reason I MAKE that struggle daily: I’m hoping fighting is good for the brain (on a limited basis), and that taking the easy way out – not writing, letting someone else do the paperwork and the phone calls – is either the beginning of the end, or a lazy way that will get me there sooner.
But sometimes it’s Enough Already! If I get rich and famous, I’m hiring a Professional Mother – someone to take care of everything for me.
Fortunately for my character, that is unlikely – but it would be nice.
You’re right: muddled doesn’t feel good.
Yeah, my brain usually turns on sometime between my second and third cup of tea.
Reliably? Must be nice.
Most of the time. Occasionally it still refuses, and that’s scary.
It is scary. For a while there I was refusing about a third of the time! We’re better now – but those days come back when I’m too tired, or did too much, or am stressed – and I can’t even talk. I am reduced to working slowly to getting the words out one at a time.
I usually go take a nap, and deal with it later or the next day. Sometimes that is not possible. Eh, well – you do what you gotta do, right?