Ever wonder which train you’re on?

This has been coming up like a portent in my life in one way or another for a few days now: the message behind the oh-so-true aphorism, Man proposes, God disposes. Or, the best-laid plans of mice and men. . .Or the quote I just saw on Twitter: Embrace uncertainty. Some of the most beautiful chapters won’t have a title until much later (Bob Goff).

How many times in my fifty-three years of life have I proven this?!

So I wonder why someone’s so bent on sending me the message now.

If you’ve followed this blog, you’d know that I had fifteen years of relatively uninterrupted bliss in a condo at the top of the building with the best friend I’ve ever had, a loud, bold, curious, in-your-face high-maintenance SCARY-smart Siamese cat named Tonka.

Then two years ago all hell broke loose–and a lot of good stuff, too. I defied the odds (and the draconian lender requirements) and bought the house of my dreams–the perfect little bungalow with the big back yard, a half acre backing up to the wooded town swamp right in town. A conservatory/dining room with windows all around jutting out into a back yard right out of a Disney cartoon: deer and bunnies and constant birdsong. LOTS of mature trees, a shaded patio, a lovely bedroom loft, a hammock and a tree swing would come, and I’m still working hard on the creative financing needed to score a white gazebo. Even as I convert the back lawn into an English cottage garden.

My Writing Retreat, right at home.

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So why have I scarcely moved in? I’ve only just now given up painting the ugly mustard dining room so-I-could-even-use-it myself and hired someone? Every single room (except my loft) the same dull color: I love coffee with two creams but not on the walls.

Tonka was already old; she enjoyed several months having her own back yard, then passed away. A profound depression ensued. And the Goff quote above applies to the sad chapters of life, too: depression has a way of fooling you into not realizing you’re not in it WHILE you’re still in it. Just. . .nothing happens.

I occupied my new house; I didn’t LIVE in it. With nothing painted, nothing decorated my way, and half my possessions still in my parents’ basement, I felt like I was staying in someone else’s house. My sister and a roommate live here, too; the rent was sorely needed to finance central AC and gutter guards and the evicting of seven red squirrels from where they lived in my basement ceiling.

For months I juggled finances and the cat situation: my second cat Peaches was terrified of my sister’s cat, who had to stay cooped up her bedroom all day till she could come out, supervised; both suffered till my sister’s cat, also old, passed away a few months after Tonka. But not till after a bizarre episode when my sister broke up a cat fight and her cat inflicted infected wounds on her hand that turned so bad she was three nights in the hospital and six weeks on a pik line antibiotic!

Then there was a heartbreaking episode with the new Siamese George: we loved him but he was an energy that could scarcely be contained, our possessions in constant danger, and the stress was too much for Peaches, and we had to let him go.

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I tried to warm up my numb, cold emptiness and assuage the constant ache of a genuinely broken heart with the activity of keeping up a new house. I almost lost my writing altogether. A lot happened but I was on automatic.

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Last summer brought a flurry of joyous family weddings and a new baby in the family, my great-nephew, who is SO clever and engaging and cheerful and funny. Then, one year after Tonka died, the life that was finally being saved and buoyed up with joy sank to the lowest point yet: my brother had stage 4 cancer. Having metastatized from the colon to liver, there was talk of chemo, but he never regained strength, and I knew in the back of my mind what not everyone accepted. He passed away on Christmas.

This time I thought I was going to embrace depression for what it was, but in truth I was in denial mode from day one: I began hiding out at the coffee shop, before and after work, my head down as my writing flowed. Still doing it. But gradually I’ve stopped feeling sorry for myself every day, feeling the most gut-wrenchingly angry I’ve ever felt and nothing to be angry at, and spring finally happened.

I’m not done with winter yet

Spring in my yard is, in spite of my half-hearted efforts, pretty spectacular. Tulips and daffodils everywhere, and now, the most fragrant peonies will soon open.
And spring brought the most joyous wedding yet, my (very) young niece. My great-nephew grows and is the miracle that pulled my family through the suckiest winter ever–especially my parents, burying a child.

The dining room is new and waiting to be filled again with the table where I can write comfortably at last–and save a fortune on coffee shop bills. My painter’s taking on the kitchen next. Maybe the ball will keep rolling–I don’t know, life is STILL in flux. But I hope I continue to embrace my new home and allow myself to actually enjoy it, to make plans again, to find peace.

Chapter: not yet named.

 

Am I Ready for a Writer’s Conference?

The answer is yes. I don’t even know you, but that’s the answer. Still, if you’re curious about this infrequent phenomenon or need convincing, read on.

I’m fresh off back-to-back writing workshops/conferences, and I’m geeked and inspired and feeling pretty much like an expert, so I’ll share what I’ve learned for anyone wondering if a writer’s conference is for them.

What a Writer’s Conference isn’t

I stopped going to professional conferences while a grad student in the last century–literary presentations by academics at places like the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Newberry Library. New Historicism textual studies were just taking off and I always came home, my messenger bag stuffed with xeroxes of Shakespeare’s quartos or the title page of some Marlowe play whose illustration I’d colored in out of mild boredom.

I never mingled well afterwards, either, preoccupied as I was with whether there was a run in my unaccustomed-pantyhose or if I’d spill the *&%# punch. Everyone was there to impress everyone else and I could barely walk in high heels. I’ve been to weddings with less ambient tension. I confess, it was about the third time I started ducking out of the presentations in order to check out the awesome museums nearby that I realized I probably didn’t have a future in this particular field.

What you can expect

Well, a writer’s conference is nothing like academia. I’m less shy; others are more at ease to begin with. You could get away with jeans if you look nice; business cazh if you’re pitching an agent. We the attendees speak up more at the talks; we’re there to meet other writers, too, and the organizers know it. Getting to know each other is actively fostered. There is still that charge of excitement running through: many writers are going to pitch sessions throughout the day, those speed-dating table hops where you have ten minutes to try to sell your novel and hook an agent. You see those folks who are pitching off in corners through the day, nervous, silently practicing their 250-words-or-less.

And appropriately, many of the talks address how to craft the perfect pitch or the perfect query letter, for those of us unpublished and looking for agents to guide us through the exacting and competitive world of publishing. Most of the speakers are Real Live Agents, too, the faces on the other end of the monster-scary query letter, but you’ll also find authors speaking and signing their books. Still other sessions may discuss a particular genre or some other aspect of writing and publishing in the 21st century. Your fellow attendees will represent virtually every age group and level of experience, from newbie NaNos to published authors.

Book nerds are in heaven.

Born too early

I am so freaking envious of young writers in the internet age! Time was I wrote long-hand in notebooks in a vacuum; today you have an entire internet community to teach you the craft, to discuss popular books with, to bounce ideas off of. Every tiny aspect of writing a novel is discussed in some forum somewhere: how to name characters and “build worlds” consistently, when you need to do a little research, or when your protagonists won’t vacate your dreams at night. You can learn online how to navigate the worlds of self-publishing or traditional publishing and where and whom to query.

You can write and transmit your story digitally to beta readers you also find online (infinitely better than running your story past friends and relations) without ever getting the entire thing printed out only to find a typo on p.26 and that the pagination went sideways on p.49. Ditto for querying the agents: in cyber-world you can always fix the mistake, and “free” is so much easier than marching a heavy package with your double-spaced, single-sided manuscript down to the post office and paying postage over and over again through the nose.

And when you need a real live comrade in the trenches, the internet can hook you up with local NaNo write-ins or writer’s groups or the occasional writer’s conference. I’ve spent very little money on this whole endeavor of becoming a novel writer again: bought a laptop, a couple of flash drives, and my own domain for this blog. The writer’s conference will become, for you, the exception.

Money well-spent

The conferences aren’t free, and often neither are the pitch sessions, but there’s a whole lot at a writer’s conference that makes it worth the expense. You might spend $100-200 on a local (state) conference, and even more on a national one–plus the expense of travel and accommodations–but no reason you can’t stick with local.

Finding other writers near you and especially practically doubling your number of Twitter followers overnight when you promote each other after the conference is already money well-spent. And following these folks will keep you in the loop on future writer-related events in your part of the world.

Meeting agents, either in the sessions or while pitching them, is probably the most valuable take-away of the writer’s conference. You can read online twenty or thirty times how to interact with an agent and get your query noticed, but it doesn’t really sink in until the genuine article tells it to your face. You get a better appreciation for what their job entails–and what your own job as a writer is.

On the one hand, you’re writing for an extremely competitive market, and your job is to show how your work is fresh and worth-the-agent’s-while to try to sell, and to do it in a few short words, maybe only 250 of them. But on the other hand, your work is valuable: it is, after all, what publishers need, and they are looking for it. And it’s not a lottery; it is possible to do your research online and know what’s selling, what publishers want, and what agents are looking for. (Search tweets for agents’ #MSWL – “manuscript wish list”.)

What does it mean to pitch an agent face-to-face?

Larger conferences might include a couple of free pitch sessions with the different visiting agents, but at the Michigan Writing Workshop it was $29 for 10 minutes with an agent; at Rochester Writers Conference it was $50 for 15 minutes.

Your actual pitch only takes about two minutes! The rest of the time is valuable one-on-one time with professional feedback, whether or not you’re asked to query later. But do research the agent you request (this has to be done ahead of time, at registration)–not all agents represent the genre or audience you’re selling to.

YOU DON’T HAVE TO SIGN UP FOR A PITCH SESSION! Unless your manuscript has been through a couple rounds with betas and several revisions, and probably also a professional free-lance editor (another necessary and worthwhile cost), you’re not going to be ready when that agent says, “E-mail me the entire thing! I’m interested!”

Or you may, like me, have been practicing writing a query because (BONUS advice) it’s a good way to focus your novel’s core points and locate the fluff, and you want to practice your practice query on a pro before you send it out in a written query, and that’s all right, too.

You don’t even have to have a finished (started?) novel

So you show up for the conference with no agent appointments–even better, you won’t have to be a bundle of nerves till the pitch is over! You can sit back and relax and socialize when you can. You may have heard you should bring author business cards to a conference, but that’s an expense you certainly don’t have to pay if you’re not ready. The word is, those cards are more for trading with other authors than they are for the agents anyway–but as long as you jot down Twitter handles, that’s all you really need to keep in touch.

Make sure you know if there will be coffee or not–because if there isn’t, well, you’re a writer and the caffeine withdrawal headaches will ruin your day. One of my conferences included no sustenance at all; the other provided a light breakfast AND lunch. So you can’t assume.

Of course, you’ll also want to suss out parking, how long to get to the conference, and all the usual. Have a pen and a notebook (when do you not?) and soak up the wisdom from agents and colleagues. Usually there are multiple sessions/topics going on so you have to choose the one you most want (you don’t have to sign up or reserve or anything), but wandering in an out isn’t at all frowned-upon, especially since some folks have a pitch scheduled.

Lastly, you may want a watch. At lunchtime I discovered I had a dead phone, the hotel lobby was huge and no clock, and I had a pitch in a couple hours!! I awkwardly had to keep asking various folks until it was very nearly time, when I sat near enough the agent I could tell when she was ready for me. That was a bit of added stress I didn’t need before my very first agent encounter. (My novel wasn’t done, it isn’t cut down nearly enough, but I was asked to query her.)

Google “writing conference” and your state or region, or ask around. There may be a shot of enthusiasm waiting for you one day soon.

All-righty, maybe I’m not the expert yet! Have you been to a conference or two, or more? Please share your advice or your juicy conference story in a comment!

Writing to Exorcise Profound Grief, Part 3

I don’t often write poetry these days, and really this poem was more to be written than to be read–though I have some hard-fought wisdom to share about Exorcising Profound Grief Through Writing:

It doesn’t work.

But writing passes the time, and time, perhaps, helps a little tiny bit. What are those 7 stages again? I’m hitting quite a few of them. Anger: I don’t live in a world without my big brother by choice, and though the hubris of it isn’t logical, the fact does make me angry. And depressed. And even afraid.

And yet, somewhere WA-A-AY deep inside of me is a small part of my psyche that’s at peace, and even grateful. I must be grateful that in all history and in all the world, my brother was given to me, and I walked the earth with him for a time. Maybe soon I’ll be able to write about that.


I turned my back on the sun.
My long shadow drags itself over rocks and freshly-mounded dirt,
and hickory hulls,
Refuses to look up.
My long, dark shadow has more substance than I do.
It finds the cracks in the earth and dives down fast to Lethe.
Silent splash, achingly cold.

I turned my back on the earth.
I walk wooden, work hard, I look sad and cry angry.
No day, no night, nowhwere to hide. So I write.
Got to get away quick and stay gone.
(If I don’t remember, he’s not a memory.)
Always behind my eyes, something behind my eyes,
Maddening. The tight lump high in my throat. Maddening.

Aching somewhere far away.
Maddening.

If I don’t remember you, you’re not a memory.
Never a stupid, hollow mistake, what an obscene and ugly word: memory.
I lose. I lose forever and ever.

I turned my back on the world because you weren’t in it.
You went somewhere, didn’t you?
I stare at a mound of dirt and ache, something behind my eyes.
Because you went somewhere swiftly
And I stayed in no place at all.
Where the quiet comes from,
The cracks to the void at the center of the earth.
The void that was you at the center of me.

–Gabriella L. Garlock, March 2018

Waiting for the Eagles

Dear God, this has to stop. I didn’t know people could react this way; I’ve never known such a great loss before. I didn’t know I could so awkwardly push aside the thought of someone I claim to love, and a month later I’m still in high escape mode.

Before and after work at the coffee shop; now my novel is in the hands of beta readers and I’m committed to furiously reading and critiquing at least four other stories. Guilt-ridden that my cat is so lonely. I’m too old to run from my feelings by blasting music in the car. I’m too aware to keep being such a coward.

“Best Big Brother Ever”

Because Michael deserves me thinking about him, not forgetting how much I need him, how much I need to know I’ll see his wry smile again. He deserves better than being brushed out of the way by words on a screen until all I have left of him are the mere glimpses that bubble to the surface inevitably in the course of any given day.

It seems I’d rather turn myself into whatever-this-is, I’d rather feel guilt than the pain of grief and losing my brother. Because it still doesn’t feel real. How do you go from the point where he’s alive and part of your life to the point where he isn’t and you’re used to that? No, I’ll never get used to that! I refuse to.

It seems I have a long way to go.

One Does Not Simply Walk Into Mordor

Because no one ever simply walks into Mordor. You trip and fall, painfully you slide over broken rock and turn aside into the beckoning arms of forgetfulness, frozen in time.

And you never come back from Mordor whole–isn’t that what I’m running from? You have the scar from a Morgul blade, you can see the Thestrals, you can see Both Sides Now.

If I remember him, he’s a memory

Why on earth do people always die at the END of stories? How does that help me? How am I supposed to know what the scene looks like after he’s gone? How do I write the rest of this stupid story that just won’t stop playing out?

Michael doesn’t deserve to be a memory avoided; I don’t even yet know how to make him a memory at all. Not JUST a memory; he’s so much more. But if I remember him, he’s a memory. Certainly if I memorialize him, then I can’t deny that now he exists only as a memory.

The Seven Stages of Falling Off a Cliff

And if I sublimate what he means to me in a work of fiction, have I buried him once and for all? If I imagine myself one day explaining, Oh, yes, that’s how my brother inspired me. This is what he taught me. This is why I wrote this story. There I go–trying to paint a future without him when I can’t even see-feel-touch the present without him.

It’s so much easier to talk about myself, how hard I work and what I think about and what I avoid like a coward. Look how busy I am, look how well I’m carrying on.

Don’t look at the lost little girl, heartsick, waiting for her wandering brother to come home and make it all better. Because he always came back home. Just when I needed him. I just need to wait a little longer. I’m told that the eagles are coming.

No, one doesn’t simply walk out of Mordor, either, do they?

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Self-Pity and Resolve: Fighting for a Happy New Year

Real Life gets really real, the final part–I sure hope

I don’t know what I expected to find, the morning after the grayest day. It was still bitter cold but–typical Michigan, harsh just when it’s breathtakingly lovely–the sun was shining, on the snowy lake, the hills, the snow-covered trees, the newly-mounded dirt at the base of the hickory tree just inside the cemetery gate. Even though the roses were now frozen, ferns and lilies waving slightly in an arctic breeze, I thought I could still smell them in the air the way it smelled through the funeral.

I’m not at all superstitious about graves or earthly remains–and I’m still not, because apparently this morning wasn’t spiritual at all. God, give me this last minute of self-pity, here on the last day of the year, then I promise I’ll try to move on with life. I cried and cried finally–a good old-fashioned, wipe your red nose on your icy gloves kind of cry. I wasn’t crying for my parents or my sister-in-law or my little great-nephew Archie who won’t know the best uncle ever as he grows up. This was all about me. All the many ways I feel small right now.

Unattached. Lost.

The sun was shining and there were even birds singing and I did hear my snow-boots crunching on the ground, so the earth was definitely still turning, logic said it was, but I hardly felt like I was attached to it anymore. I don’t mean just light-headed or light and airy; I honestly stopped feeling like I belonged on the earth. What was I doing here? It feels like the whole world can see that I’m all alone: it feels like there’s a big sign around my neck telling the whole world I’m a lost little girl who doesn’t have a big brother. Any more. So what’s the point of me now?

Michael was there when I was born. He left home–to stay the summer with his grandparents, but when my sister was born he came back and decided to stay with me, because I cried so happily when he returned. He left home when he graduated to walk the length and breadth of the country, but he always came back. I was very sick on the couch one time he was away and woke up in the middle of the night and saw his silhouette in light from the dining room, and I was just as giddy as the toddler seeing him again. He watched over us all and waited patiently through three sisters and two nieces until finally after sixty years little Archie came along–but Michael was already sick, we just didn’t know it yet.

Avoiding pain as motivation

When we did find out his time was limited, about two months ago, I went into severe escapism mode. I bragged about learning to get up an hour early to write every single day at the coffee shop before work and most weekends. I’ve been more productive revising the novel in two months than I’ve been in two years. Only in retrospect do I see that that kind of intense focus is particularly effective for avoiding pain. When all is said and done, I know I should have spent more time with Michael. Time spent struggling not knowing what to say but spent with him all the same.

So after a frenzy of funeral preparation, now the friends and distant family have visited and gone and I woke up to the empty disbelief that it really was final. No, that’s another euphemism: I woke up no longer able to avoid the fact that it’s Too Late. So somehow I ended up back at the cemetery in the obscenely brutal cold.

Guilt motivates even more–till it paralyzes

I don’t know what I expected to find, but I told myself somewhat self-righteously I was only going there to “check things out” after the brief, frigid graveside service the day before. The big blue tent was gone now. Everyone was gone now, and it was just me and the palpable absence of my brother.

Still, it’s a pretty place, the kind of place nature-loving Michael liked to walk in; in the summer there will be squirrels and some rabbits and in the spring even the rare soft-shelled turtle up from the lake to lay eggs. They have long necks and run really fast: zip across the cemetery path, zip back to the safety of the water. I mean, I’ve been taking walks here all my life because it’s that much nicer and more peaceful than the city park next door.

Forever attached to the earth

I have five generations of family buried here–no, now it’s six. My dad went to try to buy a plot for Michael and found he inherited, like, a dozen, in the oldest family spot here by the gates, places now for me and my sisters and still some more.

Huh, I realized. I’m standing here bawling my eyes out on my own grave.

God, please let me get through this last minute of self-pity. It feels like I’m drowning in it but I know I have to crawl out. I don’t have any kids but surely the next generations need me. My cat, at least, needs me. I need to accomplish something in 2018. Even if it’s just putting my brother in the dedication of my first book.

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“The earth is rude, silent, incomprehensible at first; Be not discouraged – keep on – there are divine things, well envelop’d; I swear to you there are divine things more beautiful than words can tell.” –Walt Whitman

…from the obituary for my brother Michael. My first best friend and hero.

Writing With One Hand Tied Behind Your Back: When Medical Issues Intrude

When my neurologist said I had a complicated brain, I didn’t take it as a compliment.

I’ve spent the years since trying to live an even more simple life, not to complicate my psyche beyond recovery, allowing the meds I take for fibromyalgia to blunt the second consciousness I carry around with me, the one I hopefully call my creative writer side, even though we all dream fantastically–I just do it wide awake.

But sometimes during my morning routine a voice deep inside suggests: twenty to twenty-nine pills a day probably isn’t indicative of a simple life, either. And what’s the inevitable outcome to such a story? Medications don’t work the same way on the same conditions forever.

The Brain Oppressed

I’ve written about the effects of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy and Geschwind Syndrome on a person’s life even when the seizures are controlled. The permanent, chronic effects are called “interictal symptoms”–those that are present between seizures. Learning I had the Writer’s Disease had a devastating effect not only on my creative life, it caused me to question everything in my personal life as well. I forced an acceptance of my invisible-to-others split-consciousness, and to cope I developed a great deal of pity for the co-workers and family members who couldn’t understand my life’s turmoil. Like Seven of Nine (Star Trek: Voyager) waking up from a Borg existence, I gave myself social lessons now that there was finally hope for me to pass as human.

And a few years later when meds appeared to treat the fibro, the new-found deep sleep also wiped out most of the seizures, and my assimilation into normal society was made that much easier. Peace and harmony transformed my turbulent life at last!

Sucking at Jeopardy

The decade or so of calm that followed was a decade where I did no writing at all. Cymbalta is notorious for making you slow to find the right word. It also wounds your pride when you start to really suck at Jeopardy. (I knew I knew it! I just didn’t remember the word for it.) At first I didn’t mind: I was, after all, trying to leave behind that uptight, arrogant, intellectually abstract freak of neurology, wasn’t I?

But wasn’t knowing-it-all supposed to be my distinction? And wasn’t writing the outlet I had originally chosen to keep my wild elliptical observations safely out of polite society?

As it turned out, I wasn’t going to have a choice in the matter forever, anyway. Things that are suppressed do surface again. Ducklings submerge then re-appear only to quack all the louder. I’m a deep-diving duckling, hear me quack.

Which is to say, I’m starting to hallucinate a whole second consciousness again.

The Worm Turns. . .To the Laptop

Writing is the time I need to stop all the confusing detail of a life both social and cyber from erupting as the chaotic dream imagery that keeps me forever in my second consciousness. I have to answer the demand to follow the metaphor and meaning of the recurring dream, of the dreams that erupt full-blown in the middle of the day with all the power that a TLE déj-vu has to pull me away from the task at hand.

But writing doesn’t come quite as easily these days, when I know so many words but can’t recall them all that quickly. It’s easy to blame Cymbalta, but even that is masking new fears: my temporal lobe seizures, active as they are in the language centers of the brain, may finally be taking a permanent toll on my linguistic abilities. Before the twenty-some troublesome pills a day there was a genuine medical condition, a complicated brain that never was going to simply settle down and function “normally”. I have a scarred brain; no medicine would ever heal it.

Quitting Is No Longer an Option

Looking back, I lament that there never was a time when my writing skills were reliable. For a few years I successfully channeled all my energy into academia and did very well–right up until I didn’t, and my inability to shut off that second consciousness so I could concentrate with the first caused me to drop out of grad school, with all-but-dissertation defended. This isn’t an insignificant effect on one’s life path.

I’m looking for the strength–or wisdom, or spirit, whatever it takes–not to “drop out” this time, and to find a way to keep writing in my life. I read all the useful writing blog advice on finding the time, fostering the commitment, etc., but the one thing they don’t seem to address is this final hurdle so many of us face: an unpredictable medical condition, one which directly affects, either mentally or physically, our ability to write.

I mean, Beethoven continued to compose after he went deaf. Van Gogh. . .Oh, well. I’m normal; I don’t want any more pain! Is there a better way to handle this?

I really want to hear from you: what is that medical issue that keeps one hand tied behind your back? How do you respond? And have you found a community of support? More power to you all!

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.