Last year, for the first time in my life, I lost access to the part of my mind that has always made me want or perhaps need to write. Where I used to hear from that part of my mind all the time, as if listening to a constant chatter from a radio station aimed only at me, suddenly, in the midst of my illness and treatment, that radio station went off the air, leaving nothing, not even static. It, the creative, scribbling part of me, felt dead.
I had known quiet or fallow periods in the past, and was well familiar with manifestations of “writer’s block”. I sold my first two novels in the same year, during the 90s, and while deeply pleased about this I was also deeply worried about following up with a third book. What if it wasn’t as good? The usual “difficult second album” anxiety, only transferred to the prospect of a third book. I tried all kinds of things, and started in on different projects, each time thinking this would be the one. But no. I got so anxious about this that I stopped even trying to write, and fell silent.
But my head was not silent. I was still getting at least, as it were, “carrier wave” from that radio station. There was just no programming, no content, but the station itself was there and transmitting normally. In the end, as this silence went on, and I became more and more bothered by it, I ended up making a New Year resolution of, “this year I’m going to write a book even if i kills me.” My psychiatrist suggested I try writing longhand, rather than use a keyboard, to see if the unfamiliar writing method and environment made a difference. It did. I sat each day and scribbled out pages of what I knew was utter rubbish, but I didn’t care about that. I was writing. A story was being told. The story sucked, but that was fine. One thing led to another. The ice cracked and thawed. The radio station resumed transmissions, and I ended up with a third novel, Hydrogen Steel.
But last year, while I was in hospital, and during a time when my biochemistry was utterly out of whack, one day a strange silence in my head showed me that the radio station was gone. Or, if not gone, then I could no longer receive its signal due, no doubt, to interference at my end.
It was one of the most disturbing aspects of the entire experience, and one of the strangest things I can remember ever happening to me.
I have written, and wanted to write, since my earliest days. Some of my earliest memories involve stories, books, being read to, and reading books myself. I devoured shows on TV, then wrote imitations and transcriptions based on what I could remember about them. This is how you learn writing: you learn writing by imitating and copying other writing, and other stories. This naturally makes you produce derivative bollocks, but you get past that and start getting your own ideas. Even with the stuff you’re writing based on other things you’ve read and seen, there are flashes of crazy original stuff, embellishments and improvisations, that are all your own work. And over time these things become what you write about, and become the basis of your creative voice.
My creative voice died, though. It went away, and it was as if it had never been. It was like the characters in 1984 who get deleted from history, and suddenly never existed, because people like Winston Smith assiduously edit the official record of the past, to remove all trace of them. The part of me that has always, always written, was likewise deleted.
I told my doctors about it. They would stare at me, astonished, and baffled. This was not a symptom or side-effect they knew about, or were expecting. And it was, indeed, most likely a consequence of the huge mental earthmoving operations going on in my brain. My brain was very likely simply too busy dealing with withdrawal from one medication and the phasing-in of another. I went through a great many medications, trying to find something that worked, and which didn’t bring with it unbearable side-effects.
I was not used to this silence. It was startling. I grieved for the loss of that radio station, and for the person I used to be because of it. It made me who I was. I was a writer before I was anything else. But if writing was gone, what was I now? If I wasn’t working on my writing, what would I do with my life? What would I do? I’m a guy in his 50s: the statistics about employment opportunities for men my age were not encouraging. But questions of work and employment aside, this felt to me like an existential question: what am I now?
You’re reading this essay (I hope someone is reading this essay), so you know Adrian got his groove back. You know there’s something like a happy ending here, though I am suspicious of tidy endings. I am writing lately, and even writing every day, which is marvellous. But I don’t know if this is the new normal or what the future holds. Me and everyone else in the world, I suppose.
But this time last year there was the real and confounding possibility, indeed a likelihood, that I could perhaps be made well and whole again, but that I would lose my creative mind. I might no longer receive those transmissions. How did I feel about that? Was that an acceptable price to pay for being able to function in the world, to live my life?
A great deal of reflection did remind me that I did have one very serious, very important job, quite apart from my writing life–I was husband and partner to my wife, Michelle. She is the breadwinner in the household. Michelle works for Clinipath, a commercial pathology firm, where she works the evening shift in the Haematology section. My job has always been to look after everything else, more or less. My psychiatrist reminded me of this one day, pointing out, “you’re the drummer, but you want to be the lead singer”. My doctor has a way with metaphors! But he was right back then, and the thought remained true last year, in the midst of my strife. Even if I was no longer a writer, so what? I was still Michelle’s drummer, maintaining the steady rhythm in the background that allowed her to do her thing. Michelle doing her thing got us this far. Our house, for instance, is all paid for. We have a nice car, and very little debt. Michelle has managed to accrue savings, and we live in privileged comfort.
But could I live with “just” being the drummer? Could I bear no longer hearing from the radio station? They say you can get used to anything. I recently read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, which includes his memoir of life in Nazi concentration and death camps during the war. Even he says you can get used to anything.
So what happened? Why am I writing again? And so much, so often? I had been waiting for my condition to settle down. I’d been waiting for some sign or indication that I was no longer sick, that my ordeals of last year were over. That I was well. I explained this to my psychologist. She told me that maybe I could use writing as a form of self-therapy. Maybe I could write my way to wellness.
Since starting this journal, I have indeed felt much better about things. I’m starting to get the occasional signal from the radio station. Writing is causing writing. Writing is meaningful to me, and I’ve read (in Frankl’s book among other places) that pursuing activities and occupations that are meaningful to you will lead not to happiness but to a sense of contentment. So I’ve been doing everything I can to pursue meaningful activities. All the things that are important to me, from writing to weight-loss, I’m pursuing as hard as I can. And it seems, so far, to be working. I feel quite okay. I don’t know, at this moment, if I will ever write another novel, but I do feel that all this writing will one day lead to some sort of memoir, or at least that’s the aim. And that might be enough.
Meanwhile, I’m Michelle’s drummer. I can do this.