Mind Work-Brain Rest

The press was waiting and my book was not done.

A few years ago, I needed to finish An American Map, a collection of essays I had been putting together for what seemed like years. It was to be my first essay collection, and it was about travel and place, a break from my obsession with the rural memoir. I was thrilled. I was also way behind schedule on finishing the revisions and adding new pieces and making it whole and worthy and all of that was driving me crazy with worry.

It’s not like I was doing nothing. I was teaching full time, publishing new pieces, revising older drafts, blahblah, but I had yet to unite the collection or revise into a cohesive container. I gave myself a risky gift. For five weeks that summer, I would sit at a distressed door-desk braced on nightstands in front of a window on the second floor of a small house on the Harpswell Neck in Maine—far away from my Michigan teaching job, my tiny Think House and my beloved husband. I would place my butt in the chair and write. I had never before offered myself this: a specific away-place, a specific time period, and a specific writing time each day—something like nine to five. I had always dreamed that this plan, should it become possible, would put me smack into the writing bubble. No distractions. My discipline would drive me smoothly to the final draft. So I thought.

So I arranged with dear friend Betsy to rent her “Leap of Faith” cottage, and launched that five weeks with the idea that I would write all-day-every-day. I would put the butt in chair, my nose to the screen, and we would get this project done. Yes.

By the way, did I mention I have this Puritan work ethic—ironically springing from my Roman Catholic upbringing—and a clearly inflated sense of my own discipline? Add to that a bone deep understanding of how precious time is—I’m no spring chicken, and you get a type A impulse bound for disaster. I wouldn’t, couldn’t waste a minute. What was not on my radar—brain drain.

I started off easily enough, working long hours productively. Clearly the discipline, the will, was there—as it is for so many writers. A few days passed with good progress. Then, somewhere near the end of the first week, I sat down and felt foggy, off kilter. (I was not hungover!) I had slept well enough, but after a mere forty-five minutes I hit an almost physical wall. Geesh, I need a nap. I fought it off, wrote another twenty minutes, but it didn’t work. If I didn’t rest, I knew I would fall asleep on the keys. I curled up on the couch, promptly dosed off, and when I woke, I felt refreshed, returned to the screen, and realized that the previous hour of writing was absolutely flat, uninspired. My diction was plain, rhythms boring, not a metaphor in sight. Was I ill? I didn’t feel ill. I started rewriting but the work was slow, sentences still oddly off. Finally, I stopped, made some toast, sat at the kitchen table in a state of anxiety. I was afraid to return to that makeshift desk.

The next day was better, my usual long hours. I figured, Ok, got through that, an unidentified blip. But in the days that followed, my concentration fluctuated, the only thing constant being inconsistency. Some days I could work for two hours, some days six. Rarely, the intended eight. My will was to work in deep commitment, steady as the workhorse—the only way I thought I would finish the project in time. But concentration turns out to be an unreliable narrator. I couldn’t count on it or account for it.

I talked with Betsy, the friend from whom I had rented “Leap of Faith.” Betsy is not a writer, but an avid reader, a wise-woman of my chosen family. She said simply—maybe your brain is tired. I almost didn’t listen because for those of us who have learned the Puritan work ethic as thoroughly as I have, being tired is no excuse. But then, it came back, her particular word choice. She did not say my mind, she said brain. A tired brain was a particular, because the brain was not the same as that thought producing, inner-perceiving, awareness-experiencing mind. That’s what the organ produces. Mind. It’s not the organ itself. The brain was the organ inside the skull, that wrinkled tofu-like material that with serious training and a deadly amount of Catholic guilt, might produce a mind that wrote essays and even some poems. The brain was the structural scaffolding. It would have been obvious to almost anyone else, but it had never occurred to me that as a body part, it could become tired.

Are you laughing yet?

Of course it’s a body part. Of course it’s similar to a muscle—though what it produces, thought, is more difficult to assess. But the organ itself, the interacting dendrites, neuro-cellular nests, and electrical exchanges, all firing steadily—did they tucker out? I’m no expert on neuroscience, but I had to ask myself: was the writer’s thought process—contained in the work of the brain—like a ball player’s pitching arm that has thrown too many pitches?

Was it possible I’d strained my brain? Or maybe just pushed too hard in one particular skill? With that idea perking, I did a simple but very difficult thing. I took a day off. I didn’t feel good about it but I slept in, ate a slow breakfast, went to the farmer’s market, ran some easy errands, meandered a couple of garage sales, walked the beach, had a good supper and a quiet night. I tried hard, and partially succeeded, in not feeling guilty.

The next day, I wrote for three hours, but instead of staring at the screen when I came to the blurry part, I took a long break, then wrote for another hour on an entirely different project. Then I stopped. I assessed. That day’s writing was pretty good; I could work with it. I didn’t go back to the desk. I started experimenting with hours, breaks, varying the length of concentrated time, alternating subjects, days, long and short hours.

In short order the obvious surfaced. I couldn’t write long every day on one project, and if I tried, I sapped my brain. Not my will or my sense of discipline, but the actual working apparatus that cradles the mind. Sometimes I could push, but not every day. The hardest part was figuring out when to quit. To do that I had to get past my expectations of all-day-every-day. I had to do something I am not good at; I had to listen to my body, and my brain was part of it.

Over time, I began to read the signs. These are my physical and mental signposts, not all of which occur at once.

The physical.
• My eyes water, feet jiggle, or my shoulders feel tight when I sit down to write.
• I reach for my phone (or open email or FB, blahblah), the very distractions I abhor.
• I yawn often and without having spent real physical energy—I shouldn’t be tired.
• A sense of lethargy rises, not mitigated by getting up and stretching.
• Most telling of all: I’m overcome with a general sense of resistance and loss of interest in the writing that normally excites me. I just don’t want to do it.

In the writing, here is how that plays out.
• Diction simplifies or does not match intention.
• Sentence rhythms slip and flatten.
• Precise words become difficult to recall though they are in my knowledge base.
• Sentence combining turns slow, does not come with the second or third read—my usual practice, and sometimes not until the fourth or fifth read.
• I lose track of paragraph structure and can’t see how to reorder
• Not a metaphor in site, or those that rise are cliched.
• Everything seems to take too long to say.

I just can’t hear my voice.

I can’t speak for anyone else invested in this strange passion—so maybe this is peculiar to me. But slowly I’ve learned about this pitfall that may discourage writers, and make us think we can’t do it. Maybe it’s a form of writer’s block–but I’m inclined to blame it on brain drain. It springs from unrealistic expectations of the organ we most rely on. I’ve learned to watch for the symptoms of brain drain, to take my butt out of the chair, play with a child or water the plants or putter in the kitchen or when possible, do some small and precious act in which the mind rests easy, and the language brain can regather strength. I also know that’s not always possible. Life itself works the mind like a muscle, and at least in my case, that muscle could strengthen, but it could also tire, and in daily life, it often did. Plus, it needed way more water than I ever realized. So sometimes, the writing tires the brain, but sometimes life tires it too. And that might be a block we don’t want to acknowledge. We can’t always take care of ourselves, and then the only thing to do is forgive ourselves and be patient. And Lordy, that’s hard for those of us walking around with Puritan tendencies and Catholic guilt. Still, being aware helps. So I try for that.

Oh, by the way, I met the deadline for An American Map. It’s a book of travel and place-based essays (from New York City to Santa Monica) that discusses how I feel about the world, how I drive/move/hike through it, and how much I love libraries.