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The Alleged Dan Jurow | 2015 | The Busking Artist Farmer


An artist cannot do anything slovenly.  

-Jane Austen

Bad Brain

In the wake of Terry Pratchett's death, I find of my greatest fear renewed. Pratchett was one of my favorite authors and, whenever I try to explain that my Night's Dream series is in the same universe but not directly sequential, I invariably end up asking, "Do you know Discworld?" as a means of comparison. Though our flavors of fantasy are different, Pratchett offered me a template for what I could do.

Pratchett suffered from Alzheimer's near the end. In his moments of clarity, he could see himself slipping into the void. He once said something to the effect that he would eat the ass out of a rat if he thought it would help. He was an avowed atheist to the end and so would find no god worthy of his cursing, but I see it one as the cruelest of celestial acts to so affect a mind like his, with so much more to say. To witness one's irrevocable erosion must be every writer's hell.

I joke that I have bad brain days, though I have nothing more degenerative that life and a day job. I feel I am more aware of the machinations of my brain than most because I spend much time checking my own cognitive temperature, as it were. Without enough sleep, with a low-grade illness, or in absence of proper food, I lose names and words. I stare, gawping, as I think my way around these potholes, trying to convey the name of the guard who was in my room when a student went wild. I could describe them physically down to chicken pox scars and uneven stubble, I could relate what I know about their children, but their names refuse to emerge. My teaching colleagues would prefer I give a name rather than "the YDA with the mud on his cuffs and a pierced ear without an earring, the one whose daughter is singing in a choir this weekend and whose son had the flu." I feel censored, watered down.

Part of me panics that the words will never return, that today is the beginning of my end. When I look at a screen or page and have nothing to contribute, when my prose flows less like a torrent of water than of glass (only in urban legends, fictionally), some corner of my brain wonders if I have lost the essence of who I am.

Oh, but when my mind rights itself, when all the words are in their proper place, when I find the perspective the story needs and everything shifts to focus, I never feel more myself. Writing a thousand words without pausing gives me a better afterglow than most sex I've had. I am awash in eternity when my brain finds just the right way to phrase things.

In high school, when my peers were indulging in alcohol and drugs to excess, I declined because my mind was the only thing I had. I was never the swiftest or handsomest. I tended toward shyness when not on a stage, but, by god, could I write. Yes, a joint might not have changed that, but I then knew more pot-obsessed zombies than I did moderate geniuses. It wasn't something I could gamble with, having already chosen an addiction to rule my life.

If one is very lucky, one finds one's altar and sacrifices one's whole life there. I do nothing that isn't in the service of my writing. I nap and work out not because I feel I should or that my body needs it, but because I know my brain will reward me when I am done. I am a slave to my talent. I should be grateful. Some people never figure out what they are for and go to their graves wondering what they might be when they grow up. I have been building myself as a writer all my life, though any author worth their inkpot can imagine foreshadowing retroactively. For years, I abdicated control of my life and became a fictive mask, all of my decisions boiling down to "What will make for the best story?" Even now, I often feel like the abstract of writing having a human experience. I am a twenty million roiling words behind a balloon of skin. My writing buoys me. Even if my apartment burned down, Amber left me, and aliens invaded, I would at least have something to keep my pen moving.

I am myself now, I make the decisions rather than allowing myself to float ambivalently behind bolder protagonists, but I plot and plan with each breath. I still have to remind myself to regard my friends and family as people and not as character or impediments to my writing (Amber has long since learned that our life goes more smoothly when I have written in the dark for an hour or so a night. Otherwise, I become irritable because my primitive writer brain decides she is the reason I am blocked, rather than that I simply am a bit sick or burned out). I try strangers out for size, writing their live in a flash and then letting most of it melt away. Walking down a street, I set demonic dogs on one person, have a love affair with the next, give terminal cancer to the third, punch the fourth in the face to see what he will do. If I make eye contact with you as you pass by, it is because your story is going well and I need one more glimpse to be certain how it will end.

I do not watch a movie or read a book except to pick it apart, analyze characters, and devour the experience to regurgitate an owl pellet on the page. I cannot ride my bike or clean my apartment without a podcast in my ear, at double speed from impatience for each to teach me something I can use, because the time will otherwise feel like a waste. I have only so much life and there remains an infinity to write.

There will never be time enough, not factoring in the cosmic unfairness of one's brain malfunctioning. Tomorrow, one of the many tragedies I imagine onto strangers could demolish me. I could blink out with a hundred stories unfinished (likely not an exaggeration). However, that would not seem as hideous as knowing my brain, my coddled and worshiped brain, had decided to betray me and nothing would reverse my fortune. With all his talent and wisdom, all of his connections, Pratchett couldn't run from this fate. What can the mean for the less blessed rest of us, afflicted with writer brains and who knows what else?

Soon in Xenology: More timely entries?

last watched: Being Human
reading: Transcendence
listening: Sia

The Alleged Dan Jurow | 2015 | The Busking Artist Farmer

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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