For a writer I certainly don’t do a lot of writing anymore, then again I’ve never felt less epileptic in my life. Writing sets off epilepsy which creates more writing. The more the epilepsy, the more creative the writing. The more creative the writing, the more the epilepsy. The more the epileptic writing, the more the brain damage. Oops. Thus, sidelined, I just kick back and watch all the shit go down. These are marvelous times for watching the shit go down. Glorious times, even. Watching history happen from our little urban forested haven. Lots of time to read and watch old movies. The less the epilepsy, it turns out, the more the reading. I’m wending my way though stacks of turgid volumes. Don’t even ask. The constant writing in my head got in the way when I was trying to read. It’s good to have the fountain of words turned off. I can listen to people now and not rewrite what they are saying. I can listen to music now and not hear it as writing. I can look at the landscape and not see it as stories. I can listen to birds sing and not hear language. I just hear birds singing.
I’ve been asked about this quite a few times and blew it off, but here goes.
I don’t know where my writing ideas come from. They seem to happen on their own. I don’t think about writing when I’m not writing. And there’s no inspiration or spark or preparation. I just start typing and essays come out, fully formed. Everything you read by me is first draft and unedited. I check for typos, homonyms, dropped words. I may go back and alter the punctuation slightly. On rare occasions one of my long trumpet solo sentences may be too long and I’ll bust it up, but that involves merely deleting a word or a comma, no rewriting. That’s it for editing.
I try to keep everything simple, I never put anything in quotation marks, try and avoid parentheses, and don’t boldface, italicize or underline. I have a very spare palette of punctuation—commas, periods, ellipses and em dashes, and I use exclamation points and question marks as little as possible. I try to do everything with words and pauses.
I write almost everything in an implied second person. That is, I write in the first person but through the eyes of the reader. And I avoid adjectives and adverbs whenever possible, and emphasize verbs. Nearly everything I write is in terms of action or movement.
And like this, the things always seem to know when to end on their own. So I let them finish. I leave a lot of them hanging, unresolved, something I picked up from bossa nova. But I never go beyond where the thing ends, I never try to outthink the writing.
That’s it, without getting into all the linguistics and neurology.
I can’t read aloud anymore. A sentence, maybe another with brief stammers, then bam, word salad. That’s new, the word salad. Rather puts a damper on my plans of readings. Visions of readings, really, of muscular prose in dulcet radio tones, the phonemes like individual notes, words like chords, narratives as melody, rhythms rhythm, syncopating punctuation. Language is music and music is language. They run audibly through my head, these words, but stumble in the mouth. The jaw goes out of whack, electrons buzz like faulty wiring, the synapses synapsing all wrong, I can feel their confusion like low current electricity for an hour afterward, can feel it now, in fact, the jaw twitching. An epileptic’s life is an endless series of surprises at random times. new symptoms appearing instantly, new disabilities. All we can do is shrug them off. So I read these words knowing they’ll never be uttered aloud, not by me. I shrug. Whatever. Oh well. Damn.
OK, I’m not writing a novel. I tried writing a novel once when a Good Samaritan stepped in and told me it was the worst thing he’d ever read. Which it was. So I write non-fiction. Or try, when the epilepsy doesn’t object.
For a couple weeks now I’ve been pushing myself with the writing, seeing what I can do without setting off my epilepsy. There’s been no fuzziness, no numbness in the limbs, very little stuttering and speech problems, no confusion, none of all the symptoms that make me everyone’s quirky special friend. I’m almost as dull as regular people.
But yesterday I stepped outside and the world was gorgeously two dimensional. The colors were vivid, even at dusk, the perspective flat. It looked like a Van Gogh painting, tho’ I suppose only an epileptic can see the epilepsy in a Van Gogh painting. Tonight it was even more vivid. I really can’t explain how beautiful it is, tho’ LSD has a similar effect. But it’s not a good sign. That Van Gogh effect is an epileptic aura, a prelude of the fun to come if I don’t cool it with all the renewed writing. I hadn’t had an aura since I stopped writing last year. Start up again and now I’ve got Vincent Van Gogh eyes.
Experiment over, I will follow my pal Kirk Silsbee’s admonition and take it slow, take it slow. I think in be bop, but I’ll have to write like a cool Stan Getz, if that makes any sense.
So this’ll be the last essay for a while. Now just jokes and insults and the occasional brief whining.
Anyway, a poet once said:
this was where Ray-
mundo Chandler drunk
and wrote and thunk
he oughta write some more.
A pair of very dear friends, unbeknownst to each other, both pressed on me the idea that these little Facebook and Twitter utterances of mine ought to be preserved. So, after lots of hesitation, I scoured my social media postings for things that qualify as pieces and transferred them to my blog and posterity. Dozens of them. All day long into the night. That was the first writerly thing I’ve done since the grocery freak-outs of this past early Autumn. And tonite, yinging my writer’s yang, I feel thoroughly epileptic. A big spazz. I hate it. It’s been months. Lesson learned: I can still write, but it in little dollops and forgotten again. Fuck this writer shit, I prefer being functional, without the feeling–and you can feel it–of neurons afire with way too much electrochemical energy, whirring and buzzing and snapping. To think I used to tap into this, making myself just epileptic enough to get into the spazzy groove. I used to dig that. The epileptic muse. Now it’s a drag. And if I keep writing this, it’ll just get worse. Creativity can be some weird shit.
Not being able to write anymore is so strange. Stories still unreel in my head continuously, as always, sentences piling atop one another, everything I hear and see and touch turning into words, but when I put my fingers to the keys I can’t write more than a sentence or two or three before the fog rolls in, and the numbness, and the rumble of electric storms in the background. It’s like having a head full of music and no hands. A bebop of words trapped in my skull. I sit at my desk, surrounded by reference books and notes and ideas, and I stare at them like the ruins of some dead civilization, my own personal civilization, gone forever. The epileptic fog rolls in, the mind slows, and I retreat to the couch in a haze and stare.
[This was an email from 2010 that attempted to explain what I had drunkenly been describing to a friend at one of our parties. I failed. But she was terribly nice about it. I found the email later, turned it into a blog post. Then I realized I hadn’t discussed metaphors at all–which I always advise to use sparingly because the reading brain tends to trip over them–and worse yet, couldn’t discuss them. So I decided to do more reading up on metaphors. Now, reading this again, I don’t see why I thought this piece failed, as it works fine without the metaphor discussion. Whatever. This is what happens when college drop outs try to think like smart people.]
Ya know, L., I just remembered we were talking at that party about my verbs-instead-of-adjectives thing. Here’s the LA Weekly piece I was describing:
Lockjaw and Prez made him pick up the saxophone. This was New Orleans. There was a teenaged “Iko, IKo”, the very first. By ’63 he’s in L.A., playing Marty’s every night, and players—Sonny Rollins, everybody—dropping by, sitting in. Steady work with Basie and the Juggernaut and Blue Mitchell. Twenty years with Jimmy Smith. A million sessions for Motown and Stax, and first call for a slew of singers—that’s where you refine those ballad skills, with singers. Live he slips into “In A Sentimental Mood” and everything around you dissolves. There’s just his sound, rich, big, full of history, a little bitter, maybe, blowing Crescent City air. He gets inside the very essence of that tune, those melancholy ascending notes, till it fades, pads closing, in a long, drawn out sigh. You swear it’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard, that song, that sound, and you tell him so. He shrugs. “It’s a lifetime of experience” he says, then calls out some Monk and is gone.*
How that piece happened was I asked to do a pick on an upcoming Herman Riley gig at Charlie O’s. He was one of the great tenor saxophonists and yet a virtual unknown. I called him up for a few comments before writing. He spilled for a half hour, his whole life. It was overwhelming. I didn’t dare cut him off. He was one of my heroes. So I just dashed off some notes and then pulled them together. I had 200 words, tops, to work with. I probably had 400 words first draft. Kept winnowing. Reducing. Down to the verbs. It’s nearly all verbs, action. I had a real good friend at work I used to instant message all the time, and I became fascinated with how language was used in our messages. By how brief a message could be if reduced to the verbs, and how much of an impact it would have. It could be quite visceral. I was doing a lot of heavy thinking about neurolinguistics then, how language works mechanically in the brain. It seemed to me that action was much more effective than description, and could get across the same info. Furthermore, when you used verbs instead of actions, the brain—by means of mirror neurons—automatically pictures what is being described without any necessary descriptive context—it somehow fills all that in. That means that virtually no description is needed beyond bare hints. I never say where it is I am seeing him play here, even though that is based upon an actual event (a Charlie O’s gig I had just seen.) But even so, invariably the response from readers was “I felt like I was there”. Where exactly? It doesn’t matter. All that matters is the action.
The brain is more powerfully affected by action than anything else in language. It sees something or even reads about something and the exact same neurons that are used to actually perform the action are stimulated. I just picked up a glass of water. In your mind the exact same neurons that you would use to pick up a glass of water fired off as if they were picking up a glass of water and not me writing that I had. No matter…whether you do it, watch it, or read about it, the effect is the same. And that is why narratives that are based on action instead of description, that describe movement, things take place in time, are so powerful. **
That being said, you have to think about perspective, and not from the point of view of the writer but of the reader. I believe it works this way: if you describe something in first person the reader’s mind has to visualize the action, then interpret it into you taking the action, and then interpreting that action as if they were doing it themselves, and then imagining you doing so, etc, etc. That’s a lot of steps. Third person works the same way pretty much. Second person, in English, anyway, is impossible to pull off—you do this, you do that, etc. Very cumbersome. Our language is not grammatically designed to pull that off easily (but that’s another lecture….) So I use an implied second person. Everything I do is first person, but I remove myself (by not using the first person pronoun much) and let the reader get the feeling that it is actually he that is doing/seeing/hearing what I describe. Again, this shortens the steps necessary for the brain to interpret what it is reading into understanding. I’ve noticed that the fewer steps required the faster the language is retrieved by the brain and the more powerful the impact. And good writing is all about impact. You want to move people, you have to increase the visceral impact of the prose. And to do that you need to think about how it is that the brain turns the words you right into thoughts it can visualize. It’s verbs, baby.
The brain is designed for verbs. It sees in verbs. It has instantaneous perception in verbs. Adjectives take extra thinking. You don’t want extra thinking. You want your words to turn themselves into those units of perception that lay beneath language, that existed before language, and you want that process to occur as quickly as possible. Think of porn. The sexual excitement people get viewing it is not literary. It’s older than that. As is love. And just about anything else important. I mean the hell with language. You have to get beneath it. You have to aim for the centers beyond the brain’s language centers, because that is where the feeling is. That is where you move people. And the most direct way to get there is action, verbs.
It interesting to note that vision was initially a matter of detecting motion, indeed a matter of detecting the change in light. If a primitive animal was hiding and suddenly all was light, it meant something might have exposed it in order to eat it. Or if the light suddenly changed to dark, it meant something blocking the light might be there to eat it. This implies movement. Go forward half a billion years or so and amphibians detect movement and not much else. You can see this in a frog to this day. A fly sits on a leave three inches from the frog, the frog can’t see it. The fly takes flight and zap, it’s the frog’s lunch. Reptiles can see more than amphibians. Mammals more still ***. But the fundamental basis of recognition remains movement.
Adjectives reflect a much more sophisticated vision and awareness of what is being seen. Adjectives require observation and analysis. There is no equivalent of mirror neurons for the kind of information adjectives describe. You watch a tennis player serve the ball, the mirror neurons fire in exactly the same way in your brain as they do in the tennis player’s brain even though you are not actually moving. They reflect the motion. But the neurons that fire to let you know that you are seeing a tennis player with red hair, a blue shirt and a green tennis ball, they do not fire in the same way the tennis player’s does. The only automatic understanding of what you see is the parts of the brain that detect motion, that is action. Those have been firing off in brains for hundreds of millions of years. They are part of the fundamental infrastructure of the brain, much as the hypothalamus deep in the temporal lobe controls the fundamental 4 F’s (feeding, fighting, fleeing and mating) of human and mammalian behavior, and reptilian and amphibian and fish behavior****. That is, going back over half a billion years (though way back when it was not necessarily a hypothalamus per se in other animals, I believe, but the things that evolved into our own hypothalamus). Mirror neurons are also an ancient part of the brain. Information relayed through mirror neurons is understood instantly by the brain. Whatever you write that fires them off will be much more quickly and powerfully–indeed viscerally–responded to by the reader. In fact, you have only to give the absolute barest amount of descriptive detail, since the brain seems to automatically fill that in. If you say you walk into a room and sit in a chair, the reader’s brain automatically seems to provide all the details it needs to understand the scene. The reader gets that “it feels like I’m there” feeling. And nothing gets a response from readers more than prose that makes them feel as if they are part of the action. Makes them feel they are the one actually walking into the room and sitting in a chair. Or sitting in a bar and seeing and hearing a saxophone player.
Plus you should spell good.
Notes: Continue reading
Funny thing, epilepsy, its demands pretty much control your life. Especially when you suddenly can’t take one of your meds for a week. This blog was put on hold…I stayed in, low stress, no driving, taking too much of the other pill (It jacks up testosterone levels…how’s that for a side effect?) and watching comedies all week. Laughter, as Readers Digest used to say in bathrooms all across America, is the best medicine.
I also avoided writing. Writing and epilepsy are interlinked in me, the hole in my brain is right smack in the language center, the neurons are all crazy there, abuzz with excess electro-chemical energy, making words and sentences and chatter come out in torrents. You learn to contain the chatter and get a handle on the torrent of prose. I do have a couple pieces on the blog somewhere that are pure epileptic energy, endless paragraphs, ideas whipping about with near Brownian motion. I read them now, thoroughly medicated, and they look nuts. A pal of mine loves the stuff, though. Reads like a beatnik on speed writing Roman history, he said. I assume it was a compliment. Inevitably, though, epileptic writing leaves me sick–literally nauseous, dazed, out of it. A Sonny Rollins review once put me to bed it left me so ill. I feel like that and wonder how the hell Dostoevsky managed so many perfect novels, each as long as the Manhattan phone book. The poor bastard must have been sick all the time. I know I’ve avoided writing another piece like that Sonny review. If I feel myself getting that deep I pull back, make a wisecrack, take it down a notch or two in intensity. I don’t like to write myself sick.
Anyway, on Tuesday I was finally able to take Tegretol again. It’s the champagne of bottled medicines, you know, quite the luxury at over three bucks a pill. Within a couple hours I could feel it, in the long neurons that run the length of our arms and legs. It’s like they mellow out. That’s what Tegretol does, it settles down the neurons, or settles down their synapses anyway, which spark and cause the potassium in the neuron (aka the nerve cell) to flip sides and fire the synapse that sparks the next neuron to keep the impulse going. Too much of this activity you seize, not enough, say to your heart muscle, you die. Tegretol keeps everything at a sweet medium.
We drove around doing a bunch of chores on Tuesday (I’d really missed driving) and once our tasks were out of the way I sat down at the computer and began writing. And writing. And writing. All these pent up words came pouring out. I just couldn’t stop writing. I kept returning to my desk and out popped another story. I was like a blueballed teenager in a room full of cheerleaders, frantically releasing what had been pent up for too long. Just writing and writing, sometimes all night long into the morning. A few hours sleep and then back at it. Hell, that’s what this piece is. Just some silly essay about an epileptic’s hypergraphic world, in case you were wondering where the hell all these stories are coming from, not that any of you actually were. This is just writing for its own sake. That hole in my brain has a strange power over me sometimes. But it’s been there as long as I’ve been alive, so I’m used to it. Consider it a blessing, a reader told me. No, I said, I consider it a pain in the ass. And then I wrote about it.
There’s nothing like accidentally posting a random collection of notes to your blog and then having to go into all the social media sites and deleting it. This didn’t happen when this stuff was all analog, with an analog pen and analog paper and analog edits and analog scratching out and analog illegibility. Not to mention the lost art of margin doodling. Times were simpler then. Messier, but simpler. I almost miss ink stained hands.
I have a whole box full of analog words like that. Page after analog page. I like looking at the edits. The sentences lined out and rewritten in the margins.The paragraphs lifted up and dropped onto a whole other page. Sometimes there are entire pages scratched out that I really like now. This was a much younger brain, I wonder what it thought when it saw this stuff. And this was before email, before instant messages, before texting and tweets and Facebook posts. Before the comments sections on news sites. Before blogging. This was a different universe. In that universe none of you people would be reading this. In fact none of you would have read anything I wrote unless you picked up a West Coast Review of Books or an obscure rock zine or two.
But that universe was pure creativity, a lab, a mass of failure, the occasional gem. Rhymes even. Certainly a lot of epilepsy. I keep thinking I ought to drag that box out of the closet and zap some of that stuff into the digital universe. But there’s so much. It’s a helluva lot of work, transcribing. And it feels weird going back in time like that. You begin to feel the way you felt decades and decades ago. That fresh, unwrinkled skin. The raging testosterone. The stupidity, on one hand, and then all those brain cells long since gone. What would it feel to be dropped into my twenty-five year old body with a brain a quarter again as big as mine now? Would it be noticeable? How could it not be? Like moving into a sprawling ranch house from a two bedroom apartment. All this snuggly comfort would be gone in all those rooms, but think of the views you’d have. Views you’d given up as your life got smaller, narrower, quieter. Even if the brain is only 15% smaller in volume, there are all sorts of synaptic paths you’ve abandoned. Like that big ranch house full of nooks and crannies you no longer use. A back door you haven’t opened in decades. The kids’ room, left as it was. A garage stacked with inaccessible boxes full of things you forgot you ever had. Neurons have settled into comfortable patterns. Some are passed by, ignored. Some have drifted into other areas of responsibility. Much has been sorted into piles, some you need, and some like those boxes in the garage. You just don’t get excited about so much anymore, not like you did when you were in your twenties, because your brain is so set in its sensory and concept reception ways. It’s gotten comfortable, in sort of the cognitive equivalent of a favorite chair, watching old movies.
Our brains are at the maximum size in our twenties…after that the brain doesn’t bother replacing the cells–neurons and glia both–it doesn’t think are necessary. We don’t have a choice, it does it for us, it economizes. Such a shame. We’ll never know exactly what we’ve lost, but we know we lost something. I lost all those analog thoughts and memories. I’d love to have them back. Or maybe I don’t. Digital is easier, editing so simple. Mistakes so easily hidden. Things, worthless or not, so easy to save. I guess that’s a good thing.
So I’ll put off pulling out that box again and live in the now. It’s easier that way. As much as I reminisce about the analog universe, this digital one is much easier, while it lasts. Civilization is on the cusp of the next step. You can feel it. Something beyond this even, something beyond the written word. And people like me will be museum pieces then. Historical oddities. We wrote. You what? Wrote. What was that? This. That? Yeah this. Why?
Why? I have no idea why. We just did.