Over the next few days I felt the many moods of loss: disbelief, bargaining, depression; fruitless frantic fantasizing; funk.
I couldn’t sleep, but I thought this was merely a continuation of a pattern I had lived with for the three years of Marlene’s illness and then my first months of grief. But this seemed somehow worse. I went to see my doctor of many years; he was retiring and I wanted to say good bye to him. I broke down in tears in his office. ‘You’re not doing very well, Doug, are you? You’ll get through this but you need your sleep. It’s no joke.’ With that he prescribed a regime of trazadone. ‘Trazadone was first developed as an anti-anxiety treatment,’ Dr. R. remarked, ‘but wasn’t very efficacious. In small doses it seems to help with sleep without serious side effects or dependency.’
I couldn’t stand being with myself; the dogs were not company enough. I made sure I had a lunch engagement every day, and as often as I could; and a partner for dinner too. I dreaded going home to face an empty house and another long sleepless night. My friends didn’t know about Emily, they must have thought my mourning of Marlene was never-ending.
I had lunch with a long-term colleague and friend, and told her the story. She had catalyzed me when I first wrote my management effectiveness book; and then encouraged me to write my memoirs about the dogs. I shouldn’t have been surprised when she said, ‘This is amazing, Doug. I think there may be a book in this!’ I stared at her blankly. I didn’t have an ounce of mental or emotional energy to see how I could write that book.
Despite the trazadone sleep was erratic: I would go to bed at my usual time, knowing that maintaining a nightly ritual was important to inducing sleep; sleep would come readily enough, most nights, but I would be awake at 2:30 and then stare at the ceiling. I’m told this is a classic symptom of anxiety: your sleeping brain goes into the REM phase and in your restless dream, you break through to consciousness. If sleep doesn’t return quickly you may be in for a lengthy period of night sweats, when all your troubles are bigger than they are in the light of day, though for me those daytime troubles were the same. Waiting with anxiety doesn’t bring sleep. Neither does counting sheep. A glass of warm milk might help but I didn’t try that; resolving to lay off the wine was probably better advice but I didn’t follow that either. Instead I’d get out of bed, take some more acetaminophen and wait; I’d try to do a crossword puzzle, hoping to numb my brain and surrender again to sleep. But the next day would bring only exhausted wakefulness. I would lie down for a nap, but as soon as my head hit the pillow the same old desperate ruminations about Emily returned. I was instantly awake.
One Sunday afternoon of hopeless staring I suddenly saw my story unfolding in my head. I rolled out of bed and sat down at my computer. The words started to flow from my fingers. And in the erratic days and nights of the next three weeks, I wrote. And wrote. And wrote.
For 3 – 4 hours every day over the next 3 – 4 weeks I was in ‘Flow’. Coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, ‘flow’, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is ‘the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one is doing, and a resulting loss in one’s sense of space and time’. (Wikipedia).
I have experienced ‘flow’ many times in my professional life, usually during daylight hours, but never quite like this. Perhaps this compulsive middle of the night writing that I was now experiencing, wasn’t exactly flow.
My sleep cycle would break through to the surface at ~ 3:00 a.m. each night as before; I would contemplate for a bit whether this would be a brief interruption or the usual dreaded long angst. But I knew almost immediately this the waking period was different. Rather than ruminate over my life quandary I found myself working passages of my book in my head. Rather than adopt my usual strategy of doing the daily crossword, I went instead to the kitchen for a cup of Nespresso Americano and then to my computer. And I would write. For the next three, four, sometimes even five hours the words would fill my computer screen. The chapters and passages were easy to write – after all, I had recentlylivedthe story – all I had to do was get the ideas, already formed in my head, to fall into place on the screen. I’d stop once or twice to make a second and third cup of coffee but go straight back to the keyboard.
My writing process is to edit as I write. Some writers eschew this – to stop and edit interrupts ‘flow’ – they just let the words tumble out on the page and then go back and rework the passages later. (Other writers, it must be said, may struggle for weeks over a single sentence, even a single word, but these are really poets.) I might flow for a whole paragraph or two or three, but the words on the screen are filled with the red-underlines of mistyped words. I have to go back to correct that; in so doing I modify phrases and sentences. Even though much of the work has been already done in my head, it does not emerge fully-formed on the screen as Bertrand Russellmight have it. Thankfully, I stayed in flow and kept on writing.
While I was in this absorbed state, wide awake and in full concentration, I was oblivious to everything else. Paradoxically, even though the book was about Emily, I didn’t think about my lost future with her, only the story. My creative energy completely sustained me. That doesn’t mean to say it was inexhaustible. After five hours I would run out of gas – I knew I hadn’t got the latest passage finished or ‘right’, and I had more chapters in my head waiting to get out, but my brain no longer worked well. I was no longer in flow, and was struggling to find the right word or way to say what was jumbled in my head. I hated to quit but the solutions were forced and the writing no longer fluid and natural. I’d have to stop.
For the rest of the morning I would drag myself through daily living rituals: breakfast, cleanup, read the paper, check email, get dressed for lunch. I still dreaded being alone and so still strove to fill each day with a social event of some sort. I may be an introvert but I still needed the company of other people, just not groups. And certainly not solitude. My computer may have been my friend, but not my only friend. As my days crept along I found my mind already working the words of the next chapter of my book. I could hardly wait to get to bed so that the 3:00 a.m. call to keyboard would come.
In those three weeks of mania I wrote a complete draft of that book, 36000 words. A novela. I knew I wasn’t done yet – it would still need polish and descriptive expansion – but the story had an arc and theme. I wanted it to be a proper novel, by convention, at least 50000 words; I knew that I would reach that threshold in the next draft.
I sent my draft to the muse who had planted this seed, and to another trusted colleague, and asked for their opinions. And waited.
But my story was finished. Or so I thought.
‘Having, by a time of very intense concentration, planted the problem in my subconsciousness, it would germinate underground until, suddenly, the solution emerged with blinding clarity, so that it only remained to write down what had appeared as if in a revelation.’ (Bertrand Russell, Portraits from Memory (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1956), 210–214.)