Getting Out of the Zone

August 23, 2018 § 9 Comments

By Sarah Chaves

Once, from the next room, my fiancé heard the clicking of my fingertips against the computer keys stop. He thought I had finished writing, but when he came to check on me, I was stoically staring out the window barely blinking.

“Where are you right now?” he asked.

I said, “I’m in the morgue standing over my father’s body.”

Now, whenever he sees me sitting too still, staring too blankly, he always asks with trepidation where I am, so he knows just how far I’ve gone.

There are many moments when I get so lost in the past, it’s easy to forget that my feet are touching the ground. Sometimes it takes me a very long while to find my footing and acknowledge that I am not the same lost person I was over a decade ago—to remember that I’m a twenty-nine year old established woman with a career and a fiancé and not an eighteen-year old child who just lost her father.

To write memoir, we have to be multiple simultaneous selves. We need a reflective “I” that is our present with all our wisdom and fortitude. We also need the past “I,” the one experiencing everything for the first time. But the “I” that is not on the page is important, too. The “I” that has relationships and doctor’s appointments and dinner plans and anticipation for Patriots game-watch parties on Sundays.

I flew to the Azores in 2015 to learn and write about my father’s death. At times, my drive to deliver was unstoppable, even a bit manic. I’d get up in the morning, grab a bowl of cornflakes, and sit at my desk near the floor-to-ceiling windows. But rather than gaze out at the cerulean currents scribbled across the navy blue Atlantic, my attention was on the black keyboard and stark white screen of my laptop. I’d spend eight to ten hours typing, only stopping for a brief lunch and the occasional bathroom break.

My feet were on the floor, but my ears were ringing with my mother’s screams, my eyes watering at the sight of my grandfather’s distraught face, my fingertips burning at the touch of my father’s lifeless forearm. This zone of mind is good for writing because it allows writers to sink deeply and emphatically into their pasts, but it is also a treacherous slope—one that must be treated with caution—as it destroys all notions of a present life. Like a moth drawn to light, writers must acknowledge the allure of such a space, but we must recognize its danger, too.

If you ever get lost in your past “I” and need to find your footing again, do something that makes you feel human. I did a lot of cooking while I was writing in the Azores—lemon-frosted cakes, Oreo puddings, double-chocolate cookies, and chorizo-stuffed Portuguese lasagnas at 2AM. I only realized why I was cooking so much after I came home to Boston—because when I ate that lasagna at two in the morning, my senses were on fire. It was hot, spicy and damn good. I felt my bare feet on the kitchen floor, the coolness of the tile. I was cold. I was feeling. I was firmly grounded in the present.

Whether it’s cooking or dancing to extremely loud music or going for a run or having sex—do something that will transport you immediately to the present. Though it seems obvious, it is easy to forget—it is the present and not the past in which we live. Though you may be writing a tragic memoir filled with suffocating experiences that have caused you enormous pain, there is freedom in taking breaks to remember that you are more than just this past “I.”

I’m back in Boston now—back in my real life—but I still have a similar writing process. I dive into my words and drown in them. I find my quiet space, turn the TV and music off, and let the work come slowly, deliberately, out of me. It feels like a birthing. Any time I have produced writing worth reading, I was in one of these zones. A zone where the only thing keeping my body from floating towards the sky like an unruly birthday balloon are my fingers hitting the keys at a constant pace. But whenever I do reach that euphoric, nirvana-like state where the work flows from my fingertips and I am simply the vessel delivering it from my mind to the page, it is important to remind myself that I am not a vessel. I am human. Not a means to an end, but a person, living in the present. As much as it is worth fighting like hell for the past to come alive on the page, it is just as important to come out alive, too.


Sarah Chaves is a Portuguese-American author and high school educator whose work has appeared in publications including Sonora Review, Burningword Literary Journal, Emerson Review, and the anthology Writers of the Portuguese Diaspora. Sarah lives in Boston, Massachusetts. Find her on Instagram @sarita_chaves

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§ 9 Responses to Getting Out of the Zone

  • Rebecca says:

    Thank you for this.

  • Kristen Paulson-Nguyen says:

    Thanks for this! Awesome reminder. Sometimes I get stuck in the past and I don’t even realize I’m there. It’s a lot of things to cycle through but worth doing. 😉

  • “I dive into my words and drown in them.”

    When at Powell’s Book Store in Portland promoting The Liars’ Club early on, Mary Karr was asked if she’d found writing The Liars’ Club cathartic, and she nearly choked. No, it was painful, she said. It was terrible to go back, and then she launched into a funny explanation of her agent assuring her that a memoir about her childhood would pay and she needed money. Once she fulfilled her immediate needs, she’d bought a lot of “slutty shoes.” She made us laugh. But she also suggested, as you do, that putting ourselves into our own painful pasts induces fresh suffering.

  • JennieWrites says:

    Thanks for writing such an insightful piece about getting in the zone to write about the past.

  • LUcy giorgio-Pirkey says:

    It’s the drowning that is even halfway good; this is what I have always believed. Thanks for the reminder that we have to remind ourselves to swim to the top to live the life we are desperately trying to reach!

  • Sandy Kline says:

    “Where are you right now?” “I’m in the morgue standing over my father’s body,” describes the process of writing memoir better than an entire book on the subject. Beautifully written blog post and wise advice. Thank you!

  • Carlos Carvalho says:

    Carlos Carvalho.
    “Where are you right now?” A great question as to identify where a persons mindset might be as they are reflecting in their thoughts. Too often we tend to provide assurance to our loved ones without knowing their state of mind. I really like this question when we see that a person might be somewhere else even though they are standing close by. This helps to understand their state of mind and how we may really provide comfort through our words. Really enjoyed reading this blog. Great insight, especially love the “I” concept of our multiple selves.

  • simplymala says:

    “Where are you right now? ” Past ‘I” , We always go back but need to bring ourselves to present. Good reminder.

  • Anne Gammon says:

    The timing of your blog post is exquisite. I’m preparing to work on my thesis–linked essays exploring raising a child with a life-threatening illness. I face this project with trepidation knowing I must, for myself, work through this while likewise knowing I must dredge up, stare at and grapple with some of the darkest moments of my life. The toll this takes ripples beyond me to my family. Though I embrace the satisfaction I anticipate from the end product, I reluctanly jump into the deep end not knowing how to swim.

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