M. M. Adjarian
People who glamorize the writing life should be hanged, drawn and quartered for their demon-spawned lies. Writing is unsexy dog work, a ceaseless plodding of word after blasted word. And it’s unforgiving. Progress for most comes in stingy half-inches rather than expansive miles. Joyce Carole Oates and Stephen King are among a tiny handful of individuals as famous for their prolific output as they are for the hypergraphia — a kind of verbal OCD —that drives them to the literary excesses behind their fame.
I’m still quite not sure why I do it; maybe I’m an undiagnosed masochist. Or maybe it has to do with an addiction to the writing process itself. When I try to describe that addiction to friends, they smile, as if to humor an idiot child or a woman too far gone to listen to reason. No person in her right mind would hunker down alone in her apartment to sit in front of a computer for 10 to 12 hours at a stretch; or just to get neck cricks and cause more damage to half-blind eyes that have made a mockery of five different bifocal prescriptions in less than 10 years.
But what do they know? Sitting in my black IKEA recliner, laptop perched atop my thighs and locked into focus mode, I can stare at the screen and let my gaze turn inward rather than react to the endless stream of fuss and noise around me. My heart rate slows, beating in time to the slow-pulsing cursor on my screen. I go into a kind of trance where the only way I can tell the time of day is by noting the changing pattern of light and shadow outside my window. For a short time, I know a rare commodity: peace.
Psychologists would characterize this relaxed alertness as the alpha wave state associated with waking dreams and meditation. Synapses fire in the synchronic harmony of identifiable patterns; the alpha state is just one of them. What I actually experience is a corporeal forgetfulness where eating, breathing and even excreting don’t seem to matter. Those body parts engaged in the writing act — eyes, arms, fingers —become appendages of a consciousness seeking expression through the medium of language. I am blissfully, gloriously, canceled out into temporary non-existence.
The best part of the process is what Robert Olen Butler calls “dream-storming.” That happens at the beginning of almost everything I write, when I just let images, voices and/or memories, however faint or fragmentary, rise up from the primordial stew of my unconscious. Listening to instrumental music like jazz — which I’ve always loved for its improvisational nature — helps. What I eventually manage to set down often make no sense, even to me. But dream-storming is the best way I know to access material that my snippy inner critic might otherwise sniff at because it’s just not good enough…or is just too weird for anyone else to see.
The hard part is actually trying to make sense of that surrealistic tangle. The first thing I typically do is to take that material and distill it into a brief opening sentence/paragraph that offers insight into a narrator, character or situation associated with whatever it is — an essay or story — that I’ve decided to write. After that, I let my imagination take over and use dream-stormed material to structure the narrative. Because my notes are so fractured, it sometimes it feels like I’m using broken crutches and a lunatic map to hobble along into oblivion. But it’s a method that has yet to fail me.
Maybe it’s just the need to see something — anything — on paper and realize that all those voices, images and memories in my head don’t necessarily mean I’m crazy. Or as crazy as I thought. When I’m not busy climbing the walls at the start of a project, it’s actually kind of exciting not knowing where I’m going. Ray Bradbury never knew where any of the narratives he started would end up. And he did just fine.
Of course, when the process of deciphering, reorganizing and revising goes too slowly, I want to rip out my eyeballs by the roots and throw my computer out the window like a titanium Frisbee. Instead I go into my kitchen and bake bread. Pounding dough can be quite therapeutic and far less expensive than paying therapist or making Apple even richer than it already is.
When I have to leave my trance to take care of the tedious business of living, the mood shifts and not for the better. Like a she-bear roused prematurely from hibernation, I can become sullen and cantankerous. No matter how few kinks I’ve managed to unbend in my writing or how much hair I’ve yanked out in frustration, I have no wish to emerge from my alpha wave cocoon.
Writing is a tortured nirvana. But it’s one I wouldn’t give up for anything in the world.
M. M. Adjarian has published her creative work in such magazines as the Baltimore Review, Verdad, South 85 Journal, Eunoia Review, The Missing Slate, Serving House Journal, Crack the Spine, Vine Leaves, and Poetry Quarterly, Grub Street and Pif. When not blogging at her website, austinwritinglife.net, she engages with Twitterdom under the name @palabrist.
Featured image photo credit: Photo by Dingzeyu Li on Unsplash