I’m proud to present my second participant to Writer Wednesday: Julie R. Andersen. Julie is one of those terribly successful people who accomplishes everything they set out to do, but manages to not be smug about it. In addition to being a writer and a journalist, she’s a dancer, a reader, a student at London School of Economics, and my go-to person for white wine and politics. She knows more about espresso than I ever will, and might be the only person in the world who loves coffee more than me.
In this post, Julie shares her experience of what to me sounds like a nightmare. What do you do if you can’t write?
Writing is an addiction I’m glad to have
I can’t remember when I first noticed the lump on my right wrist, but when lifting a fork became painful, I knew I couldn’t ignore it anymore. On May 13th, I left work and went to my doctor because my wrists, fingers, arms and shoulders were hurting so much that it prevented my lunch from reaching my mouth.
We all assumed it was tendinitis in the wrists, a typical repetitive strain injury. I was a journalist and front page editor spending most of my free time swing dancing and tweeting – of course my wrists were strained!
I was told to stop writing for two weeks. Then for two more weeks. Then for two more. And eventually it had been three months.
For the first six weeks or so of Not Writing, I grew increasingly frustrated. Unable to write lists, I was constantly repeating things to myself – what to buy, where to go, who to call to explain why I wasn’t responding to their texts and e-mails. I worried about not being able to communicate with faraway friends (my champagne people). My mother turned 50, and I couldn’t even write her a card, let alone a speech.
When I wrote – as in slowly typed with my left hand – that writing was “my all-purpose solution – my work, my fun, my therapy”, I meant it. When I couldn’t relive my experiences by describing them in written words, I felt like I had lost a dimension of my existence, as if I were living life without one of my senses. I could see, hear and taste (and my less-than-average sense of smell was no worse than it had been before), but I couldn’t process the way my thoughts connected to what I was sensing in the way I wanted to.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t have a detailed written account of my entire life that abruptly ends on May 13th. But when events, words or people keep tugging at my mind, as if they’re nagging me into thinking about them, I write about them. I write about them until I know what I really think of them.
Without access to my usual therapy, I talked (even) more. I dictated important documents to my family, friends and this guy I met in a coffee shop. I made appointments with people just so I could say brutally honest things to them, rather than writing one of those angry letters that you end up not sending. (You’re not supposed to tell someone – even in a letter – that they have destroyed your ability to trust human beings and you hope they one day realize how much they have hurt you so that they curl up into a little crying ball of shame and wish for death. I had to calmly say that kind of thing out loud and sober.)
I have never in my life thought “If only I hadn’t written that.” But the opposite – “If only I had written that down while it was still in my mind” or “I just need to write this down and then I will understand it.” popped up constantly.
It felt like my best thoughts were disappearing into thin air, lost because they were never turned into notes, while my worst thoughts were constantly on my mind because they were never dragged to the recycle bin. I tried very hard to delete the thoughts that were about never being able to write again.
And then I had an operation, and found out it wasn’t tendinitis. The doctors who had told me to “just rest for bit and call in 12 months” had been wrong. The well-meaning friends who had convinced me I would be handicapped for the rest of my life had been wrong. I was eventually able to go back to work and to my laptop.
It had been three strange months. In theory, freed from the lure of websurfing, tweeting and blogging – not to mention doing any actual journalism work – I had so much time on my strained hands! How did I fill this time? I danced – sometimes with my right hand behind my back and/or wrapped in a bandage. I read novels. I discovered a new path to walk on, on the island where my parents live – something I didn’t think was possible. I fell in love.
Would I have done these things even if I could write about them? Probably. Did focusing on what was actually going on in the world around me rather than on how I could blog about it set me free? Not really. Did I learn anything from this experience? Yes: That writing is an addiction I’m glad to have.
When forced into rehab, the withdrawal symptoms – talking too much while growing increasingly frustrated and forgetful – eventually subsided. Gradually the need to communicate my life became less urgent. My smart phone gave me the ability to check my e-mail and respond with short messages asking people to call me so we could talk instead. My online silence didn’t stop me from getting more Twitter followers.
But the itch never quite went away: I still wanted to write to myself.