On Losing My Ability to Read and Write
February 28, 2018 § 34 Comments
By 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.