Category Archives: Writing

Cognitive Flash Flood

Sometimes there is so much to say, so much to write.  I get caught in moments like that, like a flash flood in the desert, when the days of desiccation give way in an uncontrollable flow of ideas, connections, and indelible truths.  Everything seems relevant, germane, and interconnected.  In those moments, my mind swells and I think there isn’t time enough to say it all, to write it all, to live it all.  (I carry a notepad around with me, one of various accoutrements that seem crucial to have within reach at any given moment because who knows when the flood will inundate me, and memory is an imperfect tool.)

If I don’t scribble a frantic note down in the moment of thinking it, I fear (and trust) it will be lost forever.  And how often I have been right!  How disconcerting it is to remember the feeling of inspiration but not the spark of it later, the effect but not the cause.  It is a study in brain function, really: emotions are lodged more durably (or more simply, or more easily accessed, who can say?) than facts.  Details are simply cues for emotional reaction, which spur the brain to motivate the body to act.  So, it is right and proper from a biological perspective that the feeling of an event be remembered (or recalled, really) more easily than the details, because it is feeling upon which we act.

And in that way we understand sensations like déjà vu, which are not visitations from some other realm.  They are the brain and its natural functioning, remembering a feeling more than the details which sparked it.  Like so much in the brain, déjà vu is an incomplete memory, a sensation seemingly without causal precedent – which is not to limit the wonder of the brain or to relegate its profound mystery to mere science.  In fact, understanding a portion of the intricacies of the brain, and that such wondrous phenomena as dreams, memory, learning, and the holy grail of neuroscience, consciousness are human capacities and not supernatural makes human beings and the human brain all the more astonishing.  These fantastical abilities are us!  We are what astonishes us.  There is nothing more amazing in the universe than the human brain – and that is what I find a few turns of the screw more astonishing than déjà vu or even the fact that nightmares are a common human experience.  What I find truly mind-bending is the fact that astonishment is experienced in the brain: our own brains astonish themselves!  Illeism at its best.

In the short-lived moments of cognitive flood, writing becomes a process of elimination, an uncovering, an act not of adding words, but of taking them away.  It is a simplification, an untangling to lay bare an idea that exists plainly and simply, regardless of words or thoughts or even human brains. Like the sculptor of marble who sees the image, fully formed, in its own terms, inside the stone and simply labors to remove the unnecessary material.  Writing, too, is about removing the unnecessary material.

My Own Words Fail Me

Here is Mary Oliver – one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets.  I hope she is right.  I am going for a hike.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.