Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Neither You Nor I

There is an interview with Joan Didion in the current Paris Review. I’ve been reading it during our weekly trip to the bookstore where the girls listen to the sales clerk read stories in a sweet Pooh corner between the stacks. They make a craft at toddler-sized tables and eat miniature cookie wafers. I treat myself to a tall, decaf café mocha and grab books from racks and stacks as we pass by. I haven’t read much of the interview, though. I usually have to stop to cut and glue and ooh and ahh at all the right times, and I can’t afford to buy the journal. (Well, it’s the magazine or the coffee, I suppose.)

But I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Joan Didion has been catching my attention lately, anyway. Her latest book, written after the death of her husband, is titled The Year of Magical Thinking, and has recently won the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction. (It is also the next book I intend to read, and yes, I have bought it.) The interview begins with her ruminating about a study she read exploring the link between grammatical structure in our writing and Alzheimer’s disease. I also read about the study a few years back, and, as it did with Didion, it has haunted me ever since. I find myself analyzing my sentences and syntax, not for readability, but for signs of senility.

Having children late in life didn’t help. I had/have the classic “mommy brain” syndrome where I forget words, call my children by the wrong names, and put the milk in the pantry. My sister claims that children suck your brains dry while they’re gestating. Childbirth books blame it on fluctuating hormones. Social observers blame it on too much multi-tasking. I can remember my high school friends laughing behind their mother’s back or teasing them to their face for being “dumb” for just such behavior – proof that the syndrome doesn’t go away.

This is a scary thought. As a writer, I can’t afford to lose even one word, yet daily I struggle to remember words that once careened easily off the tongue. Words, and the ability to communicate, are my life. Floyd Skloot, brain damaged by a virus ten years prior, essays about this phenomenon in Gray Area: Thinking with a Damaged Brain, (In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction, edited by Lee Gutkind, 2005.)

“…I have become enamored of the idea that my brain has been insulted by a virus. I use it as motivation. There is a long tradition of avenging insults through duels or counterinsults, through litigation, through the public humiliation of the original insult. So I write….
“…. I have developed certain habits that enable me to work – a team of seconds…. I must be willing to write slowly, to skip or leave blank spaces where I cannot find words that I seek, compose in fragments and without an overall ordering principle or imposed form. I explore and make discoveries in my writing now, never quite sure where I am going, but willing to let things ride and discover later how they all fit together. Every time I finish an essay or poem or piece of fiction, it feels as though I have faced down the insult.”

The entire essay is a testament to his patience and skill. And he makes whining about “mommy brain” seem absurd. He gives me hope. Skloot is of the mind that his suffering and weaknesses have created a new mind, a new person. His triumph is that his disability changed him and his art. In becoming a “jotter of random thoughts . . . a writer of bursts, …” he slowed down, trained new areas of his brain and switched from writing fiction to writing essays. He appreciates his “off balance.” His tangential research into neurology and cognitive science helped him understand and accept what was happening; his art made it beautiful.

[ Dartmoor – de: Wollsack-Verwitterung; cappucino - Deborah Ripley ]


allison said...

Hey, leggo of my eggo! I started a new essay last night. It begins:

I’ve just finished reading Augusten Burrough’s Magical Thinking and Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking is in the cue of soon to be read volumes, which suggests to me I’m right in synch with a certain Zeitgeist as I contemplate what to do with my plant.

AND, I just read a piece by Skloot in Boulevard called Jambon Dreams, concerning his family's culinary dysfunctions.

So, please tell me what else has been catching your attention so I can get a head start.

Lisa said...

I recently picked up an annotated anthology, titled Literary Nonfiction: Learning by Example. In it is a journalistic piece by Didion from a murder case in San Bernardino in the mid '60s, "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream." Very groovy. I was, like, three when she wrote it, and she wrote up a storm all through the years I was learning to read and write, and getting degrees (okay, only one degree), and making babies (but four babies!) ... and now here I am in midlife just getting to know Joan Didion. I like her work a lot, and I think you will, too.

Karen Miedrich-Luo said...

Great minds do think alike, my friend. wow. I
actually got ahead of Allison on something. Miracles
are happening all around! So tell me, what will you
do with your plant?

allison said...

you will have to read the edge of your seat essay;)