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[cancer] Writing, blogging and me - Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2013-09-29 07:15
Subject: [cancer] Writing, blogging and me
Security: Public
Tags:cancer, death, health, personal, process, radiantlisa, work, writing
Yesterday Lisa Costello asked me a question I've already been asked in several other contexts. It's also a question I actually expect to come up in an adversarial way if my disability claims are ever audited. She said, "If you can blog, why can't you write?"

There's a simple, not very helpful answer to that question. Blogging is just talking through my fingers, conversation at one remove. Writing is something else entirely.

We spent some time talking out more complex answers to that question. I'm going to take a crack at them here, with the proviso that I'll probably have to come back later and try again. Because even I don't understand this very well.

It's been true every time I've been on chemotherapy that I cannot write. It's not that my fingers can't touch the keyboard — they're doing that right now, clearly enough. Rather, something in my head fails.

I've said for years that I don't write like I talk. What I've meant by that is the part of my brain which produces fiction seems to run off an entirely different version of the English language. As if I speak two languages fluently, both of them English. I've long wondered if fMRI studies of writers deep in first draft mode would bear this out empirically. If you think about it, the process of learning to write well is rather akin to the process of learning to speak another language well.

The objective evidence of this assertion is available in most of my published fiction. Pick up almost anything I've ever written and read half a dozen pages. You'll find sentence structures, vocabulary choices, conceptual presentations and so forth that simply would not be present in spontaneous speech. Not even speech as annoyingly erudite and obscurantist as mine can sometimes be. (Or used to be, before chemo ate my brain.) I strongly suspect that some computational textual analysis on my blog corpus and my fiction corpus would suggest two different authors.

The issue isn't putting words and sentences together, per se. Regorafenib does in fact give me mild, transient aphasia, but that's just a bloody nuisance. I can still talk just fine, and except for the odd moments of aphasia or anomia, do not sound as if I am ill or confused. It's what those sentence are doing that matters.

Conversation, of which I consider blogging to be a special case, tends to be largely single-threaded with a fairly clear through line. You don't have to think deeply or terribly far ahead to function effectively. Note that my blog posts work this way. It also comes in brief chunks. A few sentences spoken at a time, or a few hundred words typed out over twenty minutes.

Fiction requires a much deeper integration of multiple aspects of story telling. Plot, character, setting, style, prosody, world building, continuity... the list goes on and on. Essentially, it's the same "hand of cards" theory I've often discussed here and elsewhere: [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ].

The number of cards you need in your hand for blogging is much smaller than the number of cards you need in your hand for writing fiction.

To abuse a metaphor, in terms of my writing faculties I've gone from playing high stakes poker at the pro tables to playing Old Maid with the kids on the back porch. This has removed me from the Producer role I've played and strongly enjoyed for years, and even compromised my Consumer role in that I can no longer effectively read books, either, because I can't keep track of that same set of complexities on the inbound side. For more discussion of this concept, see here: [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ].

The same problem applies to me working my chosen profession, from which I am now vacated on disability. I can write emails, memos and even meeting reports just fine, but I cannot handle the complexities of a hundred page business and technical requirements document, as well as the financial and legal issues inherent in drafting the associated contract.

Thanks to the cognitive impairments induced by chemotherapy and the physical and psychological stresses of terminal cancer, I can no longer do my job, either as an author or in my Day Jobbe career.

Which is to say, I cannot write. No matter how well I can still talk, I don't have the focus, continuity, or depth to write.

And this frustrates me to the core of my soul. It's part of the price I pay for remaining alive at this point, quite literally so. But a part of me is already gone, almost certainly beyond retrieval.

I am dying by degrees.

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We're flat broke, but hey - we do it in style....: Wedding
User: kshandra
Date: 2013-09-29 16:35 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Wedding
gridlore has been experiencing much the same thing in the weeks since his stroke. Thank you for helping me understand it better.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2013-09-30 13:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You are welcome. I am sorry this understanding is needed at all.
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They Didn't Ask Me
User: dr_phil_physics
Date: 2013-09-29 16:48 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hear-hear! It's a question I hear, too. "Why are wasting time writing blogs when you could be writing?" is a question from someone who has probably not written. The first two months I was hospitalized this summer, all the IV medications left me in a fog. Mrs. Dr. Phil knew I was really on the mend the day I finally asked even for books to read.

Your frank discussions about how you have responded to each round of treatments has helped me understand my own recovery and rehab, for which you have my thanks.

Dr. Phil
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2013-09-30 13:19 (UTC)
Subject:
Good luck and good health to you, Dr. Phil.
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Tom
User: voidampersand
Date: 2013-09-29 17:21 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Not everyone has what it takes to be a successful writer or a skilled engineer. Many people have no clue what it takes, even including some people who want to be a writer or ended up in engineering without the necessary skills and mindset.
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history_monk
User: history_monk
Date: 2013-09-29 18:47 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Something that's a bit like writing: computer programming. I can do that well, sometimes. But even in good health, I can't do it continuously for long periods; something says "no more", and then I can read code (though not so well) but not make a good job of writing it. The idea that complex and powerful drugs mess up good writing makes perfect sense.

Edited at 2013-09-29 06:49 pm (UTC)
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vicki_rae: NCIS - Rule #11 - When the job is done
User: vicki_rae
Date: 2013-09-29 18:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:NCIS - Rule #11 - When the job is done
Writing a daily blog is a singled-threaded one spoon activity.

Writing books requires a vast number of complete sets of silverware for at least a dozen people. Silverware expended in complex patterns and some days require entire sets and/or many pieces from multiple silverware sets.

This can include, but is not limited to, coffee spoons, soup spoons, grapefruit spoons, dessert spoons, salad forks, dinner forks, fondue forks, lobster picks, and steak knives. Sometimes chopsticks would be useful too.

I'm 19 years post-chemo for a type of cancer and age at diagnosis that combine to strongly suggest a genetic basis. The chemo on its way to saving my life left permanent fingerprints and scars on my cognitive and creative abilties. Chemobrain.

My job is almost entirely analyzing numbers and I can still do it, but I know how much that's an additional piece of luck on top of still alive and still relatively healthy.



Edited at 2013-09-29 06:57 pm (UTC)
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martianmooncrab
User: martianmooncrab
Date: 2013-09-29 19:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
in theory, you have a Writing Parasite/Alien/Lifeform in your Brain that chemo effects..
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horace_hamster
User: horace_hamster
Date: 2013-09-29 19:54 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Makes perfect sense. When I'm sub-par, I can read a novel but cannot read and critique a PhD thesis.

I'm selfishly glad that you can continue to blog, as I very much enjoy reading your LJ.
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cathschaffstump
User: cathschaffstump
Date: 2013-09-29 20:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I get this.

I can rattle out a blog in a matter of minutes. Not so with writing fiction. That takes more work because there's more going on.

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Shalanna: flowercat
User: shalanna
Date: 2013-09-29 22:18 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:flowercat
Good grief. This question comes from people who don't write novels. Even in the most character-driven of novels, there must be a storyline (character-driven novels don't always have a PLOT, per se) and there must not be plot holes or lapses in logic. Blogging is like floating or dogpaddling in the shallow end of the kiddie pool. Writing a NOVEL with a PLOT or even a picaresque character-driven romp with a storyline is going to require cooperation between the left and right sides of the brain at a depth you can't do when you are sick, even with the serious flu. I know I get foggy-brained and cloudy when I have an upper respiratory infection and cold-like virus together (which was all last week) and then get a body-wide yeastie from the antibiotics (TMI) . . . I can't plot or plan ahead or plant things the way I normally do. Nonfiction is a different part of the brain, and blogging doesn't have to be "how to" stuff but only "what happened and how I feel about it" stuff, which is possible when you're subpar. It's just as simple as that. . . .
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LiveJournal: pingback_bot
User: livejournal
Date: 2013-09-30 03:33 (UTC)
Subject: [cancer] Writing, blogging and me
Keyword:pingback_bot
User besthdmi referenced to your post from [cancer] Writing, blogging and me saying: [...] Originally posted by at [cancer] Writing, blogging and me [...]
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joycemocha
User: joycemocha
Date: 2013-09-30 03:52 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
The difference between blogging and fiction writing makes absolute sense to me.

Even when I'm streaming in my fiction work (on days when I'm hitting close to what your word count is), it's not like my blogging. The fiction triggers deeper and deeper levels of intricacy, and I'm nowhere near the word stylist you are (yet. That's a goal, especially as I learn from this year's study in 8th grade Language Arts. That's the lovely side-effect of special ed teaching). In order to do the intricate levels of fiction justice, you have to have the cognitive ability to multi-track meaning and nuance, rather like you must be able to do when examining a complex contract.

I do think there's some recent stuff in creativity, neuroscience and fMRI work that I've printed out but haven't read yet. There is an awareness of the difference present...but keep in mind that when it comes to literacy, reading and math are deeply studied, but writing is not. That's changing, but a lot of that work is cutting-edge.
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auriaephiala
User: auriaephiala
Date: 2013-09-30 04:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Of course! Blogging is (mostly) fairly simple writing done in a standard format. Writing original prose (fiction or non-fiction) that involves working with different threads of thought and not repeating what you said in other contexts or how you said it, is far more difficult work.
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Elial Shadowpine
User: elialshadowpine
Date: 2013-10-01 06:46 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I... think I need to bookmark this. I don't have cancer, thank all the gods, but I do have several chronic conditions, including pain disorders (multiple) and mental health disorders. A common side effect of both the medications to treat the disorders and the disorders themselves is something referred to as "brain fog".

And, well, you have explained in a far more eloquent way than I have ever managed to put into words how that affects writing. I left one writing group because of a person insisting that if I could stay and chat with people (as the group had a chat room) I was obviously well enough to write. Not! The! Same! Thing!

So, thank you for writing this, as it is not only helpful to explain to your readers and people you care about for your own situation but it is incredibly valuable for others, too. <3
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2013-10-01 13:31 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I am glad I could help.
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Agent Mimi
User: agent_mimi
Date: 2013-10-10 09:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That very much mirrors my own experience with a chronic illness that affects my language skills. I suppose technically it's aphasia or anomia, but it seems a little more specific than that, because it affects only subject nouns in sentences I'm speaking, but all nouns while writing. I've considered myself very lucky in that I have learned to manage it to an extent, but it's a struggle, while just jotting down a note like this generally isn't, even on one of my bad days.

Getting people to understand it is really difficult, though, and this post is the best explanation I've ever seen. Thank you.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2013-10-10 16:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Getting people to understand it is really difficult, though, and this post is the best explanation I've ever seen. Thank you.

You are welcome.
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