PSYCH OUT: Lauren Marks
Psych Out is an ongoing series on the topic of fear & creativity.
In response to many of our readers expressing that fear often blocked their creative flow, Seymour asked a variety of entrepreneurs and artists to share their experience in their own words. Discover how they get over anxiety and self-doubt and find the strength to move forward with their projects.
LAUREN MARKS has worked as a writer, actor, director, and dramaturg. She is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and also pursued a PhD in Theatre Studies at The Graduate Center of The City University of New York. In 2007, at the age of 27, Lauren was diagnosed with aphasia after an aneurysm ruptured in her brain. She largely lost the ability to speak, read, and write. Her upcoming memoir, A Stitch of Time, catalogues her experiences during the twelve months following her stroke. This memoir heavily relies on the use of raw materials in the telling of its story. The book operates with a narrative, but also interacts with documents produced during the most language-impaired periods—allowing readers to glimpse the intricate machinations of a mind in construction. For more information click here
Portrait of a Mind in Construction
by Lauren Marks
I realize this column asks artists to address the fears that might block creative flow, but in many ways I think my situation is almost exactly reversed. Over the last several years it’s my creative process that has actually eased a much bigger block in my life.
In 2007, I was an American actor, director, and PhD student in New York City, touring a show to the International Fringe Festival in Edinburgh. While I was performing onstage, an aneurysm ruptured in my brain, and when I woke up from my emergency neurosurgery, I had acquired a neurological condition called “aphasia.” At 27, I’d largely lost my abilities to speak, read, and write.
Strange though it may sound, I wasn’t aware of most of that. It’s an issue of broken metrics. The brain is the organ of perception, and when it’s affected there is always the chance that your perceptions might be affected too. In my case, I was awake, alert, and even though most of my intelligence and cognitive abilities were intact, I couldn’t appreciate the magnitude of this injury while in its throes. I understood the language spoken around me, so I reasoned my language output was normal, with no awareness about how often I was speaking in gobbledygook. It wasn’t just my external voice that was affected but my internal one too. With only 40 or 50 words in my workable vocabulary, I didn’t have enough language to ask myself, “What is wrong with me?” And I couldn’t list the many things that were. Even though those voices were mainly silent, it was hard for me to pinpoint what exactly had gone missing. This wasn’t amnesia or delusion, I just felt…different. Peaceful. I spent a lot of time in a sort of meditative Quiet, something I’d never experienced before. There was a blissful sense of order abounding, in, around, and through me. To experience The Quiet was to be it. That may all sound a bit New-Agey, but there are many reasons, deeply rooted in neuroanatomy, that might explain why I’d be having those impressions, and many people who’ve had injuries to the left hemisphere of the brain (where my rupture occurred) have given similar accounts. But that neuroscience is probably for another essay.
My speech therapist in the Scottish hospital was the first person that suggested that I start using journals. When I couldn’t speak, writing was another approach to communication. I started jotting into these journals in the earliest weeks. There was no order to the words, very little grammar, and almost no syntax. But this is when the issue of broken metrics comes up again. Even when I was actually putting these words down, I had no idea my language was so fractured.
Some might assume I would’ve been despondent during this period, but The Quiet was still pervasive, leaving me incredibly present-focused. Without language, I relied on my other perceptions more, relishing the way hours would go by without a single word crossing my mind, buoyant as a bath toy. The doctors cleared me to return to the U.S., and after a decade of independence, I moved back into my parents’ home again. In L.A. I started seeing another speech therapist three times a week.
Relearning language brought out an enthusiasm in me that I hadn’t experienced since I was a child. Like encountering words with multiple meanings. I was tickled by homophones and homonyms (I thought it was hilarious that “jam” was either a problem or a condiment). I couldn’t use idioms anymore, a foreigner in my native tongue. After a few months, I was able to read a short story again, but not with much skill. The day I remembered the existence of subtext was a doozy, a major thunderbolt moment. When I realized it wasn’t just the words on the page that mattered, but so did all the words that weren’t there, I sprang up onto my parents’ furniture, and started leaping between the two white couches.
Early on, my speech therapist gave me some sage advice about a trap that speech and language patients could easily fall into: if they couldn’t say the perfect thing, they didn’t say anything at all. “Pride can get in the way of recovery,” she said. “Don’t let that happen to you.”
Still, I couldn’t be an actor if I couldn’t memorize lines, couldn’t be a PhD student if I couldn’t read a textbook. I had become a woman without a profession. In spite of my impoverished language, I started calling myself a writer. Even though I was only jotting impressions down in my journals, writing was something I still did every day. After some time and more perspective, I’d looked back into those journals, finding how peculiar they were, and so lacking in self-awareness. I realized that these entries had created fascinating documents, observable changes from month-to-month, creating an odd little portrait of a mind in construction. I’d been writing my way back to fluency.
My artistic process definitely changed after the rupture. I’m not focusing on the change from actor to writer per se, but the way I wrote—that changed dramatically. I used to be able to maintain a Beat-like stream of consciousness, an uninterrupted flow, in which I wouldn’t even let the pen off the page. After the rupture, my writing was constantly interrupted, lurching forward in stutters and unfinished thoughts. This chaos required a lengthy editing stage. I developed new “compensatory strategies” too, composing more on the computer, employing software to read my words back to me, when I couldn’t trust them myself.
It was during speech therapy when I experienced the most bittersweet moments, seeing words filling up my silent spaces. Where there’d been vacancy, there was now surplus. I found language was the monkey of the mind, simultaneously delightful and devious, and sometimes prone to flinging its shit everywhere.
Easily the most terrifying time of my life was when I found out I needed another brain surgery. The procedure in Scotland had saved my life, but six months later, a brain scan showed that the aneurysm was refilling with blood. Another rupture was imminent. As I prepared for this surgery, my life was in danger, but so was my language. This news came as a serious blow, since I had just “graduated” from speech therapy. Now, a neurosurgeon was telling me that it was a real possibility that I might lose my language again, might have to start from the very beginning of my linguistic journey. That prospect wasn’t just horrifying, it was Sisyphean.
When I woke up from that operation, the “bone flap” that had recently been sawed away from my skull had been put back in place, leaving a stitched track, the size and shape of a horseshoe, the scar smothered in glue. Through bloodied vision, I looked towards the calendar on the hospital wall. I could still read it. It seemed to me that I was still speaking in sentences, and confirmed that with others around me. When I scribbled my name easily I knew I hadn’t lost my ability to write either. Everything was a sacrament.
Whatever neurotic relationship I might’ve had to my work before the rupture was put in such harsh contrast after it. I became far more forgiving with my mistakes. I may have a destructive moment from time-to-time, but it’s not a part of me I nurture. I still have two aneurysms in my brain. They may never cause me trouble again, but that’s always a possibility. So I actively seek out things that invigorate my sense of purpose. I make the daily decision to be productive not perfect, more curious than critical, because if I could die in any room I enter, I’d rather be enjoying what I’m doing when it happens.
I still have self-doubt, but the issue is relative. Compared to what? Is my ability to express myself better than it was yesterday? Yeah, I think so. Is it better than it was in that Scottish hospital in 2007? A resounding yes. Teddy Roosevelt is quoted as saying, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” And that’s so damn true. My writing may never be as graceful as Jeanette Winterson, may never acquire the potent economy of Joan Didion, but it so much better than it was. Any of us could acquire Alzheimer’s, suffer a car crash, endure a bullet wound—there’s a variety of circumstances that could render our minds unsound. My threat is just a little less abstract. Even if I have a long and healthy life (and here’s hoping!), there’s no saying how long I get to enjoy my current neurological riches.
As my memoir comes closer to publication, some people have asked when I started writing the book. I think that question begs a much deeper one though: what is a beginning? I could say the book began the moment I survived the aneurysm’s rupture, because there would be no memoir without this inciting incident, right? Or, was the beginning the first time I noted in my journals that I wanted to write a memoir? That’s complicated too, because this was in the 1st year of the injury, and still in the grip of my language disorder, I didn’t yet have the skills to do anything of that sort. And maybe it’s worth mentioning too that lots of people say they’ll write a book, and never get through the first chapter. It is the end of something that actually makes its beginning. There are a couple of lines from a poem by Erica Jong that I return often to. She says it’s, “not in our nature to know what is journey and what arrival…even if we lived we would think we were just germinating.” Our minds are so compulsive in their desire for meaning-making—it’s our hindsight that transforms the impossible to the inevitable.
In ways I may never fully understand, I suspect my artistic approach to my own life helped me in therapeutic realms, a kind of “narrative medicine.” Now, eight years after my stroke, I volunteer with other people with aphasia, many of them in more acute stages. This can include everything from facilitating simple conversations, to helping them create entire dance/music/text scores. Giving voice to the voiceless—that’s what gives me the most satisfaction these days. But throughout this, I’m mindful to make space for everyone’s silence. And for mine too. I’m not trying to “fix” or “correct” anyone, because I certainly wouldn’t want any person to be cured of their Quiet. Whenever I feel most anxious, most blocked, working on other people’s behalf is the quickest way to break up that mental gnarl. Like snaking the drain of the soul.
My internal and external voices have both returned, and for that my gratitude is boundless. I’m able to find comfort in reading again, enjoy talking with others, devising projects that don’t exist yet, things that aren’t right here, and not right now. Language is great for all of that. But fluency comes at a cost. These days I think of language as a “pharmakon.” A remedy and a poison. The self-awareness language can bring also has the potential of becoming an echo chamber, where we can replay our fears or worst versions of ourselves. When you’re writing a book words drift through you constantly, and it’s not apparent when they are useful inspiration or the shiny, useless flecks of distraction. Navigating the strengths and weaknesses of language is something I struggle with. Will I still be a writer after this book is out in the world? I really don’t know. The Quiet is no longer my baseline anymore, but I do what I can to cultivate that stillness, connect with that peaceful sense that once came totally unbidden.
I can’t say what form my creativity will take when this project is complete, but the curiosity is still there, stronger than ever. It hasn’t steered me wrong yet.
Published: October 29th, 2015