On Losing My Ability to Read and Write

February 28, 2018 § 34 Comments

27990335_10155488201457496_1176715735_oBy Rae Pagliarulo

Right around my birthday this past January, as I was on my way to a friend’s house carrying a pizza for dinner, I slipped on a sheet of ice, flew into the air, and landed on my head. My first thought was not about the excruciating pain I was in. Nor was it about the pizza that was lying next to me, upside down and probably oozing cheese everywhere. My first thought was, “Please don’t let me have a concussion. I cannot lose my ability to read or write. I can’t.”

A day of willful ignorance later, I went to the doctor. While I didn’t have any apparent physical or neurological damage (a fact that I will be grateful for until the end of time), I did have a shaky, scrambled, and definitely concussed brain that needed tons of rest in order to heal. I gulped as my doctor ticked off all the things I wouldn’t be able to do for the next one to two weeks.

No listening to music (except for soothing meditation music with no beat and no excitement). No television or movies. No podcasts. No going outside. No figuring things out. No knitting. No cooking (unless it was something insultingly easy, like heating up soup from a can). And finally – no reading, and no writing.

The thing I had dreaded was suddenly a reality, and I realized that if I wanted any chance of returning to my state of near-constant mental processing and multitasking, I had to take these instructions very seriously. After all, I make my living as a writer and an editor. My ability to write well is, without question, what I am proudest of. If I couldn’t get my brain back to normal, what would that mean for my life? What would it mean for my identity?

It became painfully clear one day into my “black-out” that my writing life was not only the most important thing to me – it was also something that elicited the darkest, most negative thinking about myself I could imagine. With a quiet house and only my rattled, loopy brain to keep me company, I came face to face with awful thoughts about myself – ones I had previously been able to keep at bay thanks to Netflix binges or happy hours.

This darkness I was facing started to feel like another person in the room whose sole purpose was to remind me of all the ways I was failing. Now that I was expressly prohibited to read or write, I realized how much I missed it, and grew painfully aware of how short I had fallen of my own expectations.

You take all your writing friends for granted. When’s the last time you gave them really good comments on a piece they were working on? When’s the last time you sent them something halfway decent?

You’ll never finish another manuscript. You could only write your MFA thesis because you had someone breathing down your neck the whole time.

All you do is talk about your relationship with your father. Don’t you have anything original to say? Doesn’t anything else interest you?

You only care about sharing things you’ve had published on Facebook so you can get likes. You’re so hungry for validation. Strong people don’t need that. But you do.

You act like you’ve got all the time in the world to write and create things. You waste all this time watching movies and screwing around. Why can’t you work with a little urgency? Don’t you know time is running out?

I started to find myself stuck in a negativity loop all day long. I couldn’t write to convince myself that I was good writer. I couldn’t read to get inspired by other people’s excellent writing. I couldn’t even dictate a halfway-coherent narrative using my voice-to-text app because I kept getting tired and confused. The only weapon that could defeat my darkness was something the Buddhists call maitri – loving kindness towards oneself. And it became clear as the week wore on that I was in desperately short supply.

I wish that I could say that before I recovered from my concussion, I was able to tap into this well of kindness and silence the dark other-person who was hell-bent on convincing me to give up writing for good. But I can’t. Peace only came when I was finally able to read half a page in a book, and I cried from happiness. It came when I slowly wrote down a list of all the things I wanted to do once I was better, and then called my mother and breathlessly read it to her like a manifesto. Once I was able to process language again without severe headaches, and an unpleasant fuzzy sensation that made my eyes heavy and my reflexes molasses-slow, the darkness got lighter. Slowly but surely, I was useful again. I was thinking again. I was myself again.

Now that, a few months after the fall, my symptoms are nearly gone, I’m thinking about how to use that period of darkness to learn something. Sure, being intensely mean to myself probably wasn’t productive (and I’m betting it didn’t help the healing process either), but I can’t deny that there was a kernel of truth in each of those vicious accusations.

Having a full and meaningful writing life – and being proud of my identity as a writer – does mean sacrificing time and energy for my writing partners, so I can give them thoughtful feedback, and so I can reasonably expect the same from them when I need it. It means motivating and pushing myself because I don’t have teachers and classmates keeping me accountable. It means writing about all of the connections that exist in my world, even when they stray from the topic that tends to serve as my identifying narrative. It means doing the work without worrying when I will share another by-line. And yes, it means doing it every day, and doing it while I can, because whether I get hit by a bus or just fall on another sheet of ice and find myself fuzzy-brained and useless once again, time is, quite literally, running out. All the more reason to get to work – and hopefully practice a little maitri while I’m at it.

Rae Pagliarulo holds her MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College. Her work has been featured in Full Grown People, Ghost Town, bedfellows, New South, Hippocampus, The Manifest-Station, Quail Bell, and r.kv.r.y. quarterly, and is anthologized in The Best of Philadelphia Stories: 10th Anniversary Edition. She is the 2014 recipient of the Sandy Crimmins National Poetry Prize and a 2015 Pushcart Prize Nominee. Rae works as the Writing Life column editor for Hippocampus Magazine, and as Development Director for a Philadelphia arts nonprofit.



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§ 34 Responses to On Losing My Ability to Read and Write

  • You are a very strong woman!! This is a great post 👍🏼

  • How horrifying! You know, if I slipped and fell, I don’t think that would even occur to me. I’m glad you recovered, and if nothing else, I’m sure it helped to give a deeper appreciation for what you do. Thank you for sharing!

  • SupremeCmdr says:

    Always be kind to yourself.

  • I cannot imagine having to abandon so much of my daily life. No wonder you were scared! But it also seems to have served a purpose beyond self-flagellation. It opened your world and expanded your focus as a person and writer.

    Two successful writers have told me I am “the most driven” and “the most motivated” writer they know. I need to write.

    • thank you for the feedback! it’s funny, so often people’s observations of us are different from how we see ourselves. it can be amazing to get comments like that from successful writers – as long as we use it to keep fueling our work! 🙂

  • Joanne says:

    Wow. What an experience to go through! I’m glad you’re “back,” and thanks for writing this. A good reminder to seize the day…something I am not very good at these days. Continue good health to you, and best wishes for satisfying writing/reading/connecting.

    • thank you dear joanne! much appreciated. and i’m with you on seizing the day… even now that i’m “better” i’m still finding it hard to make use of every moment. but i just remind myself that it’s a process. a loooooong one. 🙂

  • Em says:

    Wow, I’m sorry for what you went through, and I’m glad that you are better. I always think of myself as a strand of memory, without it, I wouldn’t be me! But I never thought about losing the ability to do what I love the most; writing and reading. This is very thought-provoking. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  • herheadache says:

    How horrible. As someone who has been lucky to get to have you edit my writing, I am glad you are able to do what you love. I know, having seen my brother take a tumble down a flight of stairs and obtain a brain injury, how scary it is to see someone I love and wonder if they will be the same, if their gift of music will be taken away by such a random event. None of us are all that good about putting off instant gratifications like you had to give up, but it was worth it in the end. No stimulation, leaving all that time to think and contemplate what makes life worth living. Good health to you going forward.

    • thank you for those kind words, Kerry! trust me, i’m the lucky one. i’m so sorry to hear your brother went through something similar and hope he’s well! it’s such a scary thing, and yes – forces you to realize what’s really important.

  • lgood67334 says:

    What an experience! I’m glad you got through it, but mostly I want you to know that you may have more time than you think. Looking at your picture and knowing that you called your mother, I suspect you have time. =)

    • you’re not wrong – i have more time than some (and less than others). i just remember talking on the phone to her – my wonderful mother – and hearing her say, “i blinked, and now i’m applying for medicare and contemplating retirement. what happened?” it sobered me. i know that i’m going to blink, too, and i don’t want to worry about all the things i didn’t bother to do because i told myself i had plenty of time.

  • Lizzie Lawson says:

    Rae, your story reminds me of an essay by Kara Thompson that was in the Rehab edition of Tin House in 2017. I recommend checking it out. I hope you make a full recovery very soon!

  • i so can relate! I too have fallen way short of my list of expectations, and
    while reading your list, I was nodding and thinking yeah, me too!
    Especially the one about the MFA thesis, having recently graduated!

    But it’s re-boot time now! All systems go!

  • Daisy May. says:

    Sp pleased your on the mend. As you get older falls can be almost fatal. I’m following and a new blogger too.

  • stelloej says:

    Believe in yourself more:) I love how honest you were – really made me see a different type of blogging. Thank you for that – and just by reading that, I can guarantee you that you are an excellent writer:)

  • litreply says:

    as an avid writer for hobby purposes ( one day dream to become an entertainment journalist) i can empathize with you. writing is more than just a hobby, it keeps my mind functioning it is way to let the crazy out.

  • Amazing story, thank you for sharing.

  • In a manner of speaking, your story could be mine but in a long and winding reverse to the moment of my birth. This sensation amazes me with every positive, correct and supporting connection as I perceive them. At this point and in my retirement years NOW I am undeniably experiencing a period of grand enlightenment and have at long last begun to initiate the blog process on my website. I’m admittedly struggling a little bit with some of that processing. After all, it’s all brand new technology exploding into our universe as we know it. In reality I have been journaling, for the most part, all of my life. My daughter is my web designer but she is also sick and I hate to have to ask her “nuisance” questions, when for the most part, I am capable of figuring them out on my own. Still it is a frustrating and time consuming process when one feels like blasting forth. Bless you my dear ❤

  • wait so how are you writing this??

    • Peck and find investigation process. I am just discovering WordPress. As clarity happens then I can start applying the Useful tools that I find. This one is brand new to me but I’m loving it ❤ I asked my talented designer to limit my access to my own website while I take the time I need to learn some details. For now I am reduced to "contributing author". This pleases me immensely, as I now have limited ability to mess things up 😉

  • Linda Romanowski says:

    Rae, I’m so grateful you were in my class with Kristina last Fall. Instinctively, I knew you had talent, by the time the class ended, I knew you are gifted. Now that I’ve read this, there’s no doubt that you are a “Survivor Writer “. I hope I have the privilege of writing with you again with Kristina in April. Rae Warrior, I raise my pen and salute you!

    • Linda that is so sweet! I feel the same way – you can feel your passion and talent for writing immediately, you just emanate it. Thanks for the kind words – let’s keep our balance so we can live to write another day!

  • Reblogged this on Notes from An Alien and commented:
    Whoa! Hopefully, none of you will have to go through what today’s re-blog author went through to learn what she learned………

  • Reblogged this on Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog and commented:
    I hope none of you ever experience this…

  • We authors all doubt ourselves from time to time, whether we’ve had a blow to the head or not!

  • i can relate to this, though I’ve never had such an extreme experience of it. Whenever my mind is not engaged in writing stories, it creates horror stories in my head, about me and my life. That’s why writing is vital for me, even if no one ever reads it.

  • Reblogged this on Phoenix Rainez and commented:
    Very interesting post. Not sure what I’d do if I couldn’t write

  • Great post. Gave me serious food for thought.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Good to know you’re much better now.

  • As a young girl I had a brain skin irritation. I love writing and reading since early childhood days and it was very, very hard for me to obey doctors order, not to write and to read for two weeks. 😉

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