The Writer Who Fakes It
March 27, 2019 § 12 Comments
By Laura Jackson Roberts
As an autoimmune disease sufferer, I face a lot of physical limitations. Things hurt, I’m tired, and I don’t accomplish as much writing as I want to. My two unpublished manuscripts are more than enough to sow the seeds of despair-by-comparison as writer-friends surge forward while I “get some rest” and “take it easy” as I’m always advised to do. Perhaps the worst thing about autoimmune disease, though, is the brain fog. Doctors aren’t entirely sure what causes it, but it’s described as fatigue, trouble concentrating, irritability, and depression.
I feel compelled to explain brain fog with more figurative language than WebMD offers. Brain fog means my head has filled with sludge. Physically, the bones of my skull feel as though they’re pressurized and bulging; mentally, I’m sifting through oatmeal. Thoughts are in there, but when I reach in to grab one, it slithers away and the ooze closes around it.
Off the page, I’m the mom who forgets to send snacks. I haven’t signed my son’s nightly reading folder since he was in first grade (he’s 12), and the mailman brings a daily stream of you-forgot-to-pay-us reminders printed with tomato-red ink to tell me what a failure I am.
On the page, a sentence takes ten minutes to write, and what comes out makes no sense. Yes, we all produce wretched first drafts, but a brain-fog-draft reads a lot like a seven-year-old recalling last night’s dream: We were in our house but it wasn’t our house and there was some guy but not really and then we went to this other place where there were zebras and Grandma was there except she was fourteen feet tall and had celery in her purse.
I can delete incoherent drafts and nobody will know I’m having brain fog. But I can’t hide it so well in person, and that’s a tricky problem. After all, what do writers do when we get together? We talk about what we’ve read.
I’m terrified of other writers. Of the conferences I’ll attend and speak at this year. Of public interactions in which I might be required to recall an author’s name and book title. Because I don’t remember what books I’ve read. Moreover, I don’t remember who wrote the books I’m not sure I read. And I sure as hell don’t remember the precise titles of the books I’m not sure I read by the authors whose names I can’t recall.
“Brain fog is not a real thing,” one doctor told me. Oh, but it is, and I wish I could remember his name and write him a poorly-worded letter with little-to-no narrative tension and an under-developed conclusion. And then forget to put a stamp on it and find it under the fridge in 20 years.
Aristotle said, “Men acquire a particular quality by constantly acting a certain way.” In other words, fake it until you make it.
As per his advice, I’ve developed tactics to get through literary events and discussions, even when the oatmeal thickens between my ears:
Use your befuddlement to your advantage.
Befuddlement can easily be mistaken for laser-focus when you employ the right eyebrow angle. Raise one, lower the other, as though you’re trying to wear a monocle. Gaze at people’s knees. Any higher and it looks like you’re staring at their crotch; any lower and you’ll appear narcoleptic.
Writers who know what they’re talking about always look at ease. Practice the nonchalance as fervently as possible beforehand. Hold a cup of coffee in your non-dominant hand. Use the dominant hand to thoughtfully touch your chin as the conversation unfolds. Hmm. Yes. Indeed.
Add generic thoughts as appropriate:
“That was a brave choice.”
“I visited that city. It’s just as he described it.”
“I wonder if she envisioned the socio-political ramifications of that particular passage…” Make sure you trail off.
Be the first to leave.
When in doubt, bail the hell out.
“I have some thoughts on that book, actually, but I’m meeting someone at the bar.”
(This one may backfire, as writers often follow one another to watering holes where discussions expand in subject and volume. Use your best judgment. Other choices include “Advance Auto Parts,” “the alley behind the hotel,” and “church.”)
Fake it ‘till you make it.
I’m trying, Aristotle. And no matter what happens in public, the real work happens in the quiet moments. Sometimes, what I want to say just has to wait until my body can help me say it. I’m learning to be okay with that. On clear-headed days, I know that the words on the spines of the books don’t matter as much as the words within them. With patience, those ideas do seep in through the fog and take hold. And eventually, their idea-children find their way back out though my fingers as I write. In those moments, I know why I’m writing, and I know it has value.
And if we meet at a conference, just let me stare at your knees.
Laura Jackson Roberts is an environmental writer and humorist in West Virginia. Her work has recently appeared in Brain, Child Magazine, Animal, Matador Network, Defenestration, The Higgs Weldon, and Halfway Down the Stairs. She lets her kids play with sharp objects, hates earwigs, and has unusually small feet. Find her on Instagram at @thatwvwriter or at www.LauraJacksonRoberts.com.