Break the Flow

April 5, 2010 at 11:14 pm (Uncategorized)

I worked four hours straight today. I was feeling well enough to go to my office. Once I was there—and away from the distractions of the telephone, the refrigerator, and the novel on my iPod—I lost myself in the process of writing. As anyone who has ever sweated over the right wording in a term paper or restarted an e-mail fourteen times looking for just the phrase to broach a touchy topic knows, this isn’t something to take for granted. I’ve named writing as my profession since 1997 and have been tinkering with words for my whole life—I started my first novel when I was nine—but I frequently find the act of writing difficult and sometimes even unpleasant. I usually feel satisfied when I’m done writing for the day, but I struggle to get to work. I’m not the only professional writer I know who procrastinates and even dreads taking up words for the day. It is challenging to convert ideas and images into language and then organize it all into something understandable. It is hard work. And I never take it for granted anymore.

My ongoing neurological problems haven’t made my writing life any easier. I’ve thought seriously about quitting and trying to find a new profession. But my parents actually weren’t lying when they told me that an undergraduate degree in medieval history wasn’t going to get me a lot of job offers. Seriously, I don’t want to give up on writing—even though the neurosarcoidosis seems to want me to. Simply looking at words causes me vertigo and headaches. And I learned today that pushing myself to continue writing in spite of escalating head pain and vertigo could very well trigger the blind spells that have been bothering me for the past couple of months.

But before I noticed the swirl of the vertigo or the stabbing in my head today, I was wonderfully immersed in the act of writing. I was working on an essay to post on the blog, but I was hoping to end up with a piece that was coherent enough that I could submit it to a magazine or use some of it for my book. But I lost all track of time and purpose. I was having such fun working with two metaphors that it was almost like playing to see how long and how well I could wend them through the piece. Jay called me once on my cell phone after I’d been at my office for a couple of hours. I still didn’t lose my momentum, but dove right back into my essay. And then I discovered that I was dizzy and that no matter how much I squinted at the screen, I couldn’t stop the letters in words and the words themselves from rearranging themselves. My head was throbbing. I couldn’t breathe. In a span of fifteen minutes I had three “white outs,” as I call my blind spells.

My friend Leah picked me up and took me home. I’m still feeling pretty shaky—even after being in bed and keeping away from words for several hours. But I’m so angry, I’ve returned to the computer. It feels important to have something to show for the world of pain I caused myself. My four hours of work didn’t nicely coalesce into a publishable—or at least post-able piece of writing. Just because I was caught up in the flow of words didn’t mean the flow made good writing. I had fun with those metaphors, but I need to prune them. I wrote “around” a few issues—instead of writing through them or about them. I digressed mightily. It was writing I needed to do. I spent a page venting rage; I wrote another page venting sadness. All this is fine. It is the way writing has always been for me. It is the way writing is supposed to be. I usually write ten times more than I need to, and then have to cut it back (usually following my friend Martha’s editorial guidance). I often have to get certain topics out of my system, as I did today. Like any other creative process, writing isn’t necessarily linear and neat.

But for me, right now, there is so little time or space to write outside the lines. When I have only one or two hours to work pain-free, spending four hours entirely as process instead of focusing on a finished product is like throwing time away. Or, at least that’s how it feels right now. It makes me so sad and so angry that I must live so narrowly—with almost no margin for error. If I push my inflamed brain too much, it freaks out and makes me seriously sick. I know this. I should have set the alarm on my phone to break my creative spell after an hour. I should have forced myself to stop writing before I made myself sick. I should have remembered that if I want to be able to write tomorrow and the next day, I need to set limits on what I do today. I should limit the time I spend in the act of writing, as well as the scope of my work. I don’t have the luxury to write around topics and play with metaphors. If I want to write my book, I need to stay on task—and stay neurologically sound. Another week in the hospital would set me back immeasurably.

I know the sensible path. I could wallpaper a continent with my litany of shoulds. But I want a life with lower stakes. I want to make a mistake—to write for too long, to walk for too long, to stand too long in the kitchen—and not have serious consequences like an extra-inflamed brain, snapped ligaments, or broken bones. With one seemingly insignificant slip-up, I can wreak havoc on my fragile status quo.

What’s especially maddening is how little time I have—to write, to hang out with Jay, to read to Andrew—without “overdoing.” As I’ve gotten sicker, every minute has become more fraught. Tick, tick, tick. The clock is always running, and I can’t quite keep pace. The bright side to all this is that I appreciate my time to write more than I ever did. I value the minutes I have and I spend them more deliberately than before. Oh, but I am sick of the bright side right now. I’m ready to stop looking for the positive spin and simply live.

But for now, I must go. Because time is flowing away from me. Because my head is throbbing and these words are dissolving. And the stakes are too high to forget this.

1 Comment

  1. Nancy said,

    OK – another wonderful read – but – I will say again, loose that horrible word, SHOULD.
    That is a judgement and you are so tough on yourself and…you have neurosarcoidosis.. On a good day, I drop one or two of my “shoulds”, and consider that a major victory. My life before this was full steam ahead, everything that I now treat as a gift (no headache, great eyesight, standing with minimal pain, reading, oh geez do I miss reading) was as like air. The more I could cram into a moment, the more I felt alive. You give so much that you don’t even realize – one foot in front of the other may be the best for today. Look in your families eyes and see them – there is nothing better then getting a Mommy fix.

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