Victoria Noe

Award-winning Author, Speaker, Activist

A Different Kind of Writer's Block

Feb 09, 2016 by Victoria Noe, in concussion , Friend Grief , writing
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Most writers lead lives that are shockingly normal. They work at jobs to pay their bills, they carpool, they take care of aging parents, they do their taxes. It’s not surprising that after everyone else is asleep, they sit down at their computer and stare at the screen. They’re exhausted – mentally and physically – too exhausted to think of anything to write that deserves to see the light of day. Classic writer’s block.

I don’t have that kind of problem. My writer’s block is something completely different.

Seven years ago St. Patrick’s Day, I was in a minor fender-bender (an RV rear-ended a jeep that rear-ended me). It happens so often driving in the city that at first it was just a huge annoyance accompanied by a blinding headache. So it wasn’t until the following morning, when I began to experience frightening symptoms that I went to the ER. Their reluctant diagnosis: a concussion.

I say ‘reluctant’ because in 2009 concussions were just starting to be taken seriously, even in sports. I certainly didn’t fit that demographic, as evidenced by my first neurologist’s dismissive attitude. “Take it easy” is not a very helpful directive, especially to a mom who ran her own business from home and carpooled almost every day. The first six weeks were a blur of painful headaches, lots of Tylenol, naps and a general inability to follow conversations, much less plots in books.

I wound up making a lot of mistakes, especially early on, because I was on my own as far as care. It took two years to find cranial-sacral therapy, which has made all the difference in the world for my well-being. It took another two years to find a neurologist (Dr. Elliot Roth at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago) who understood what I was going through and helps me manage my life.

A concussion – or mild traumatic brain injury – is an invisible injury. I look the same. I can carry on a conversation. I can do research. I can write. I rarely have headaches. I'm fine.

But I had to give up a 15 year, award-winning sales career because I kept making mistakes, mostly math. I have to keep tabs on stress, because it triggers problems like inability to focus and understand instructions. Most of the time I’m okay, so no one would notice that anything is ever wrong.

Five months after the accident two things happened. First, I found peace in accepting that my life would always be different. I knew then I’d always have to deal with the after-effects of my concussion. That’s not an easy thing when you’re a bit of a control freak. But I found it liberating in a way to fully accept my new normal.

It was the second thing that was more dramatic. Have you ever had a really strange dream and when you wake up you hope you can remember it (but you never do)? Well, that happened to me. But instead of assuming I’d remember it, I wrote it down. And as I finished, something popped into my head: the book I’d promised my friend, Delle, I would write about people grieving the death of a friend.

I’d struggled for almost two years to start it, but having never written a book before, I floundered. I felt guilty for making a promise I couldn’t keep. And almost three years after her death I could occasionally hear her scolding, “If you’d write the damn book you wouldn’t have to worry about that.”

But there I sat, stunned, the entire book in my head: subjects, themes, chapter titles. And though I eventually decided to break it up into a series, everything remained true. Two months later I was on my first research trip.

It wasn’t a quick, easy journey. It was over a year before I attended my first writing conference and started my blog. It was two years after that before the first Friend Grief book was published. And all the while, I had to pace myself to avoid overloading my brain and suffering neural fatigue. If I let it get to that point, I have to stop everything, including writing.

I haven't written about this much before, but recently I submitted two grant proposals to help cover research expenses for my book Fag Hags, Divas and Moms: The Legacy of Straight Women in the AIDS Community. The funding is limited to specific time periods. I wanted to think I could crunch through dozens of boxes of archival material in a week or two. I wanted to believe I could interview several women a day. There was a time when I could: before my accident. But not now.

So I decided it was time to own my limitations. In the proposals I told them why I needed the maximum amount of time. I’m efficient and reasonably organized, but my brain can only handle so much stimulus each day. Otherwise, I experience my own unique version of writer’s block.

It will be months before the awards are announced, and in the meantime, I have much to do: the sixth and final book in the Friend Grief series, research and interviews for the next book, essays to submit, presentations to give, conferences to attend. I’ll get it done, I have no doubt. It may take longer than I hoped, but that’s okay. Because one thing the concussion didn’t change: I’m never at a loss for words.