I Have A Brain Injury, But…

I have a brain injury. There. I’ve said it. Publicly. It’s so much easier to not say it, to not admit it, to not talk about it. Because I don’t like to talk about it. I don’t want to explain how I feel, or discuss my symptoms, or detail how my healing’s going. I’d rather my injury not be there (and I know how obvious and stupid that statement sounds). I’d rather not be injured, but I am. I have what neurologists classify as a traumatic brain injury, a TBI.
Specifics: For the first time in my life, I can’t spell. Since the car accident on December 4th, 2014, I’ve had to relearn more than 500 words. Sometimes simple words. Three days ago, I relearned the spelling of the word “sandwich” (a complicated word – I know). Yesterday, I relearned the spelling of the word “wiggly.” Today – to copyedit this article – I had to relearn the spellings of “dissipate” and “avocado.”
Small words sometimes. Uncomplicated words. The thing is, I don’t know what I don’t know until I come across it. I’m writing, and I have to spell a word and I start typing…
…and a vast blankness appears in my mind like a gray sheet of paper has slid in front of my eyes. There’s nothing there, and I have no idea. I can’t even guess.
Also, I have headaches. Regular and significant headaches. If I get stressed or it’s too loud or there are too many things happening all at once, I get a dull ache above me eyes, and the ache spreads its spider legs into my cheekbones, down along the top of my nose, over my scalp and behind my ears. I have to spend 10 minutes in the dark, or try to go to sleep, or take migraine medication, or do all three of those things. Sometimes I put a pillow over my face and lay on the floor, waiting for the throbbing to dissipate, feeling ridiculous.
I get confused a lot as well, sometimes about little things, memories, who said what when, and whether or not I know something that I do or don’t know. I’m not sure. I ask people to tell me things twice. Three times? I sometimes ask the same question five minutes apart. I feel foolish when people tell me that they’ve already told me the answer to my question that I’ve already asked. For me, it can be a new thing each time I hear it.
So I’m not able to teach right now. Obviously. I’m on medical leave from the school district and will be for the rest of this year while my brain heals. Everyone’s going back to school tomorrow – after spring break – but I’m not. And just this week I got a letter about “permanent disability,” a term I don’t even want to think about.
This is a crazy new reality.
But there’s the issue of writing as well. My other job.
This last year, while dealing with the aftermath of the car accident and its effect on my brain, I struggled through the revision of my new novel This Is The Part Where You Laugh and the first four drafts of my next novel Too Shattered For Mending. I’ve never worked so hard to write so slowly. I didn’t always feel creative. I never felt talented. I did my work – completed my revisions and turned in my next novel – but I’ve never worked the way that I did. I’ve never struggled the way that I struggled. To make my brain work. I still loved writing (I always will) but writing this last year sometimes felt like three 1000-piece nature puzzles heaped together on a single table like some kind of cruel joke. I was the little kid trying to put all three puzzles together.
Is this the border of the undersea puzzle?
Or the border of the Yellowstone vista?
Or the edge of the stream in the Appalachian forest?
So many shades of green.
So many variations on the color blue.
Yet…
Yet…
I think of the Apostle Paul writing, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds…”
Consider it pure joy…
Whenever you face trials…
Pure joy…
Why would he write that?
And how is it possible?
How is ‘pure joy’ created in a time of trial?
It’s a difficult question – something I’ve come back to again and again – and this is what I’ve decided: Because we have to take joy in the trials and the triumphs, the whole of life, this complicated yet singular experience in it’s entirety. To enjoy life as it is – real life – we have to know struggle as well as ease. Pain as well as wonder. Suffering as well as comfort.
The understanding of life’s duality means learning empathy, acknowledging true differences, finding the capacity for a diverse and vast love.
Also – and this is not a small thing for me – I may have a brain injury, but my life isn’t filled with struggle. I may be experiencing some difficulty currently, but I have a wonderful life. I have a life I don’t deserve, great joys that outweigh any number of trials I’ve experienced. So focusing on joy is then a choice I can make.
With that in mind, I think of all the good things, and begin my own gratitude list:
Sitting with Jennie next to a warm fireplace and reading together or drinking coffee on the porch on a sunlit morning while the neighborhood is waking up.
Rock climbing at The Columns with Roo, or hiking up the hill together and chilling in that one oak tree that overlooks the Washington/Jefferson Street Bridge and the western half of the city.
Buying ice cream with Rain while we make sarcastic jokes in our local Safeway, then standing in the kitchen back at home and eating Ben and Jerry’s Half Baked, laughing about our days.
Reading a book in a chair, barefoot on the grass.
Listening to new music on the radio while I drive, or listening to old rap CDs in my kitchen while I do the dishes.
Going on a family night-hike by the light of the moon.
Watching Jupiter rise like blazed chromium in the east.
Camping in the desert and seeing my dog Bob Dylan run coyote circles in the afternoon dust.
Reading contemporary poetry.
Viewing collections of art.
Hanging out with friends.
Hanging out with my dad or Maddie.
Joking with the student leaders in my outdoor program.
Eating dark chocolate or avocados or quesadillas or breakfast-for-dinner whenever I want to.
Finishing a good novel and starting a new one.
Also, I realize what an amazing life I’ve been given in this country, how I’m part of the global 1% economically with my house and my car and my refrigerator and my bank account and my bicycle and my book contract and my backyard and my hammock and my laptop and the clean running water that comes out of the tap, water that I can drink any time without fear of dysentery or cholera or water-born parasites. I live such an easy life in a home set to 67 degrees right now while it’s 44 degrees outside.
Realizing that my list could go on forever (that I stopped myself from writing fifty other things), I understand that gratitude creates an infinite capacity for joy. This is the wonderful life I live, and if my life is this good, this easy, then what will I do with my hours? How will I help other people? How will I encourage and love and foster and develop?
Also, what am I holding onto that doesn’t really matter? What do I call “important” that has no eternal value? What objects am I grasping in my tightly-clenched pathetically-weak human fists?
I keep Mary Oliver’s famous poem “The Summer Day” next to my bed and I’ve reread it ten or so times lately. To end that poem, Oliver writes, “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

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Time Is Not Linear – Art Inspires Art

Here is my explanation of time – the way that I understand time – with images of art interspersed (great art affecting the way that I think).

First, while writing a novel, I don’t worry about time, not in draft stage. I write any scene that’s important, in any order that I think of it. There’s no order to it at all, only madness. And sometimes I trust that madness and never put those scenes back in what people think of as time order.

The Tree Of Life, 1905, by Gustav Klimpt

The Tree Of Life, 1905, by Gustav Klimt

In my memoir, The End of Boys, time was thematic, meaning that scenes from my life linked to other scenes of any time period based on theme, an overlapping view of my own reality that isn’t based on chronological progression but instead on thematic development of the person. I tried to help the reader by showing time switches in italics, an italic switch being a trick I learned from William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Kesey studied Faulkner as well, and also used the italic switch in his brilliant Sometimes A Great Notion.

Notary, 1983, by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Notary, 1983, by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Time is Circular. The image I see of time is one of overlapping circles, maybe circles pushing forward, or maybe circles dropping back, but then they might loop around and push forward once again.

I had a friend from El Salvador explain that linear time is a modern way of thinking about time. He said that in the Bible, time was thought of as circular or cyclical, that God is eternal and that the earth is a living series of cycles. THAT is how I like to think of time. This modern push to mechanize and count seconds digitally doesn’t interest me. The theory that all of the world could be on the same exact clock to the nanosecond because of satellites and cell phones is an idea that makes me think of Nazis, a “perfect” sterile image of a Northern European or US technological ideal. But ideals are not interesting to me. Imperfection is interesting to me.

The Tower of Babel, 1563, by Pieter Brueghel

The Tower of Babel, 1563, by Pieter Brueghel

In my work in progress, Too Shattered For Mending (Knopf, 2017), I’ve used present tense for the progression of the current story (in time order) and past tense for interlaced scenes that happened in the past. Again, I don’t worry about any of those old scenes being in order because I trust the intelligence of the reader and know that she’s capable of recognizing chronology or of not needing linear time at all.

Guernica, 1937, by Pablo Picasso

Guernica, 1937, by Pablo Picasso

A Writer Needs A Mother

I’ve often thought that writing is like the paper route I worked for three years as a kid. If you want to write, get up early every day, in all weather, no matter how little sleep you got the night before – whether you partied until 2:17 AM or tucked yourself in quietly with a book at 8:35 PM. Go to work. Write. Stay in your seat. Work for an hour or two, then move on to the rest of your day. This has worked for thousands of writers before you and it will work for you as well.

In interviews and essays I’ve talked about work ethic. Writing is not about talent but daily practice – Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird ideas – that writers need to write every day, to accept the fact that our first drafts will be terrible, that we must revise and edit repeatedly until we have created something of true artistic value. Writing is not complicated. It’s about personal integrity and commitment, daily meditation, meeting personal goals and standards.

All of that is true. Sort of. But a writer needs influences. A writer needs that person around him who values writing, who encourages writing, who makes a young writer into a better writer by challenging him to push further, to never settle, to do one more round of revisions.

A writer needs a mother. Not a literal mother – it could be a teacher, another writer, an inspiring friend, a fellow artist, an uncle, an aunt, or a father – but a writer needs a mother of some sort. So this essay is about a mother. In this case, my real mother.

 

A Writer Needs Someone Who Reads Books Aloud:

My mother read the Bible aloud to us. She read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, Where The Red Fern Grows, The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle In Time, Agatha Christie mysteries, and The Child’s History of the World.

She read aloud to us while she drove 80 miles per hour on road trips across the Southwest. She read in a different voice for each character. She read with one hand on the book, three fingers on the steering wheel, and a Pepsi pinched between her index finger and thumb.

Because she couldn’t put books down, because I saw her sneaking away to finish her latest Dorothy Sayers novel, because she wouldn’t go swimming until she’d finished a chapter, I always wanted her to read to me. When she read, I was enraptured. I didn’t talk. I stifled any coughs. I told other people to be quiet. To be read to by my mother was to enter a European cathedral and stare up at the improbable miracles of stone and stained glass.

A writer must hear the written word. There should be a recognition of sound as the words go down on the paper. Fingers should elicit syllables. But this is only possible if someone has read to the writer, if the voices of the spoken word are in the writer’s head. And it’s not too late. If no one ever read to you when you were young, or if no one reads to you now, go to readings at local bookstores. Listen to poets at the library. Listen to MFA students who need audiences for their thesis projects. Ask your husband or friend or colleague to read a passage to you.

If you’re hard up for a reader, watch the movie “A River Runs Through It.” In that movie, Robert Redford commits to passages from the original text by Norman Maclean, and the writing is beautiful.

 

A Writer Needs Someone Who Values Creation:

I grew up in an artist’s home. My mother drew with charcoal, pencils, and pastels. She painted with acrylics and oil. Experimented with mixed media. Sculpted with clay, chickenwire, and papier-mache. My brothers and sisters and I collected animal skeletons from the desert around our home in Tucson for my mother’s bone mobiles. If an animal we brought home was too fresh, my mother would boil the carcass in bleach, making the smell of warm bleach a smell I still associate – thirty years later – with bones and bright copper wire.

Living out in the desert, my mother home-schooled us, and we studied art history, literary history, and myths. She had all of us choose a favorite artist, get to know that artist’s work, and begin to create art ourselves. We drew and painted. We sculpted. We made collages.

Although I’ve heard some people argue that writing is not really art, that it is part science, part business, or part theatrics, I disagree with that core argument. Writing fiction, poetry, short narratives, or memoir takes incredible imagination. Writing is, at its core, art. Works cannot be repeated, and that dynamic requirement demands creativity. Imagism and evocation are products of the creative mind, so valuing creation of new and engaging mediums is paramount to any writer.

If you didn’t have a big creative influence when you were young, surround yourself with creative people now. But the key is to be around creative people who actually practice art, who produce, who struggle and fail and succeed with real works of art. Find those people and learn from each other, or at least commiserate.

 

A Writer Needs Someone To Say, “Go Write”:

I dropped out of college after my sophomore year to write. I’d taken two creative writing classes and I wanted to simplify my life and focus on writing. I had a part-time job as a supervisor at a drug store, and that job generated enough income to cover rent, utilities, and food bills. So I thought I’d write and work, nothing else. But I quickly got into the habit of working and adventuring, rock climbing and hiking and mountain biking when I wasn’t at the drugstore. I wrote very little. Then not at all. Months went by without me writing a single story.

My mother called me out. We were at a Christmas party and she came up to me and reminded me why I’d dropped out of school. She said, “You said that you were going to write every day.”

“Right,” I said, “Oh yeah.”

She smiled and looked me directly in the eyes. “You said you were going to be a writer.”

“Right,” I said. “I should do that.”

She pointed out my lack of focus, how I had failed to stick to the plan I’d laid out, and I’m grateful for her doing that. I never forgot that moment.

This is an important truth:

A writer isn’t someone who talks about writing or plans to do a writing project. A writer isn’t someone who wears tweeds and a scarf, someone who thinks about lyrical poetry while smoking long-leaf Tobacco from an antique pipe. A writer is someone who writes every day. That’s what a writer is. Published or not.

 

A Writer Needs Someone Who Teaches About Words:

Home-schooled for seven years at the school my mother called Hoffmeister Country Day School, or HCD for short, we studied the Calvert Day School’s traditional curriculum that we ordered by mail from Baltimore, Maryland. Calvert was founded in 1897 by a Harvard scholar who intended to teach the classics. My mother chose Calvert because of its focus on language, on reading and writing. We read, spelled, wrote, and studied words every day. We learned Latin and French, studied vocabulary, roots, prefixes and suffixes. We poured over our dictionaries, noting Greek word origins and highlighting etymologies.

I wasn’t the most serious student in my family (my older sisters studied and learned far more than me), but my background with words still helps me to this day. I have linguistic aptitude because of that word work. I am capable of using a thesaurus without being intimidated, and I feel intimate with my dictionary who I’ve named Big Honey.

A writer must love words, study words, think about sounds and meanings, care about origins and connotations. If that wasn’t part of your educational background, it’s never too late. Get an unabridged dictionary and go to work. Memorize definitions. Highlight roots. Learn synonyms and antonyms. If you get to know two new words each week (everything about those words), that’s more than 100 words per year. Over ten years, that’s more than 1000.

 

A Writer Needs Someone Who Values Individuality:

My mother let me sleep outside, swim in the river by myself, wear a beret for all of fourth grade, make up my own language, sleep on my floor in my clothes like a Spartan, and catch poisonous spider to keep in jars in my room. Maybe my mother wasn’t being wise or discerning, or maybe she understood that I needed to be my own person. No one else in my family was like me, but my mother didn’t try to make each of us like the other. She championed differences between individuals.

In the publishing world, a writer who is like every other current bestseller is not a great writer. If it’s difficult to tell the difference between two thriller writers, they’re not going to be read in 50 years. If you want to write something of permanent value (not that most of us have yet, but we hope to), then you have to be an individual. Think about science history, and consider Galileo in particular. There were thousands of scientists who didn’t believe in Galileo’s theories, and what were those guys’ names? Who were the accepted great scientists of his day? If “The Earth Is The Center Of The Universe” guys were writing right now, they’d be writing the new vampire book or The More Hungry Games. But we have to leave cheap imitation to boy bands and NFL touchdown celebrations.

Write something new. Write from you.

 

Could You Be The Mother For Someone Else?

Finally, if you value great writing, you might want to consider a harsh possibility: Maybe you aren’t an incredible writer. Maybe you don’t have it in you. Maybe you’ve put in the work, every day for ten years, and none of your books are going to be the next great American novel. Maybe draft ten is similar to draft two, at least in terms of excellence. I’m not saying to give up, but consider the possibility of influence. What if your passion for writing could be passed on to someone else? What if all of your knowledge and experience is meant to help someone else become great? Think of all the wonderful writers whom you admire. They were all influenced by others, raised by mothers (real or metaphorical) who valued the written word, who encouraged them to produce great art.

Maybe you are someone else’s mother. Maybe you can teach and encourage. Maybe you can help that younger writer to get her first poem published, or place an essay in a magazine. Or maybe you can teach process, structure, or narrative arc. Maybe you understand character development even if your own fictional characters aren’t that original.

I teach a high school creative writing class each year, and I require my young writers to submit two pieces of writing to literary journals. When a few are accepted each year, it’s a wonderful moment. It feels like a victory for the entire class. And who knows? Maybe that first publication is the start of something great. Maybe one of my students will far outshine my literary star (or, more accurately, my literary barrel of burning crude oil). My passion for writing and understanding of craft might not be important for me. Maybe I’m meant to help someone else. And maybe you are too.

Wall Street Journal and Biblical Perspectives On Novels

Two Biblical perspectives on Graphic the Valley in the past day. Interesting. This weekend, the novel was reviewed in The Wall Street Journal Saturday/Sunday edition as part of an article that connected Graphic to J.M. Coetzee’s new book, The Childhood of Jesus.

Also, freelance writer Andrew Weber blogged about Graphic the Valley, an interesting take as well (…The core of the story’s conflict lies in the tension between two versions of the human ideal…).

Click here to read Weber’s post.

Because many people aren’t online subscribers to The Wall Street Journal, here’s the full text of the WSJ book review.

‘There are prophets and there are judges. . . . Both are holy, but they have different jobs.” So says a character in Peter Brown Hoffmeister’s “Graphic the Valley” (Tyrus, 271 pages, $24.95), a vigorously original retelling of the Samson and Delilah story set in Yosemite. The speaker means that judges must be men of action; he is talking to Tenaya, a Yosemiti Indian who has been charged with the duty of protecting the valley from commercial developers and is our stand-in for the Bible’s ultimate wild man, Samson.

Tenaya was born and raised in an illegal settlement in the park, where he was taught by his zealous father never to forget his people’s ancient claims on the land. Mr. Hoffmeister, an experienced outdoorsman and magazine writer, marvelously harnesses the valley’s natural wonders to convey Tenaya’s strange magnetism toward primal violence: “Ravens fought in front of me,” he observes upon climbing a solitary mountain pass, “a physical argument, not loud with squawking, not like the crows on the Valley floor. I saw one raven drop and slam the body of another from behind, the second one rolling.”

Inevitably, Tenaya is seduced by his Delilah, in this case a woman named McKenzie who works in public relations for the development firm bringing fast-food franchises and other sacrilegious tourist traps into the park. At moments, when the story forces its one-to-one connections with Scripture, a bit of allegory exhaustion settles over the book (the infamous haircut scene, for example, is shoehorned in almost as an afterthought). But the avenging destruction wrought by both Tenaya and the natural world is captured with beauty and aplomb. Mr. Hoffmeister brings a newfound sense of urgency to one of the Bible’s oldest and strangest tales.