Monday, August 18, 2014


Four years ago I had a major cerebellar stroke. That stroke taught me how to write.

Fear and ancient anxieties grew a dark forest between me and my writing desk. If I mustered the courage to battle those strange wild creatures who lurked in that forest and get myself, my bum, into the desk chair, the quiet blankness of that space soon filled with strangling tendrils that shook me with … Well, perhaps some of you recognize it. Sometimes such fairy-tale images help give expression to that simple little thing some folks call “writer’s block.” I never liked that phrase. It seemed to trivialize whatever it was that grabbed hold of me. I’ve spent a lot of focused time not-writing. I’d become an expert at Not-Writing.

And then I had the stroke. After the ICU, after the all the tests, after I finally came home, I trucked off to Physical Therapy three times a week. There, I learned the secret to life … or at least to the freedom of writing.

The key lies in the rhythm. Not the rhythm of the words, the sentences (though that’s important, of course). The rhythm of time — of minutes. Therapy sessions lasted an hour. One exercise for five minutes, then the therapist would stop me.

“No, I can do more!” I insisted. But they made me stop.

A minute would pass. I’d stand, ready to do more work. But the therapist insisted that I rest for a full three minutes at least. Then, more work was allowed.

Five minutes on — Three minutes off — Five on — Three off — Five - Three. For an hour. This felt very wasteful to me. I only had an hour. Shouldn’t I make the most of it? With their little five-three system, I was getting only about thirty-five or forty minutes of work!

The therapists explained: The brain learns best is small bits. When a young child sticks her hand into a candle flame for the first time, she jerks her hand back and her brain registers “burn! hurt!” and learns not to do that flame thing with the hand again. If you work your brain too hard, re-learning all these things after a major brain assault, your brain actually learns not to do the things that hurt. The key is to work just long enough, just until the edge of the hurt. Then rest. Really rest — long enough to “forget” the work. The Rhythm Principle: Wash, Rinse, Repeat. It works!

So I began to apply the rhythm-principle to my writing practice. That primeval forest, those gnarling beasts—they were all in my brain, not in front of my desk. I’d been trying to “push through” the pain through sheer grit. Now I began to treat my brain—and my self—with more respect. I set a timer. I would write for eight minutes, then reset the timer and rest for seven minutes. Three or four rounds—a one-hour writing session. I eventually got up to a twelve-three format. Write for twelve minutes, rest for three. An hour every morning. And the most amazing thing happened.

I began to write. The pages piled up. Within a month I had a whole stack of rough-written pages. It was not painful! I found myself wanting to add an hour in the afternoon. It’s hard to be really awful in just twelve minutes. Ok, some of the pages were awful. But only twelve minutes worth of awful. Rest, forget, “rinse”—the next twelve minutes were, well, the next twelve minutes. Not the proverbial Great American Novel. Just the next twelve minutes.

Find your rhythm! Pushing through can be great if it’s getting you somewhere, if you’re running high on caffeine and imagination. Those manic stints can be invigorating and hopeful. Rest will follow. Rest must follow. The rhythm works in both micro and macro versions. I’d looked for a way to be “stable”—to write consistently, in a concentrated fashion, neither flying too high nor sinking into the doldrums. What my stroke taught me is that sometimes it’s best to alternate deliberately between ON and OFF. Finding my rhythm gives permission to both work and rest, to highs and lows, to energy and weariness. And, for me at least, finally makes writing possible.

Virginia Wiles


Alexandra said...

Wow. This is a fascinating insight. And very useful.

Ruth Setton said...

I know, Alexandra. This post is by my friend & writing colleague, Virginia-- wildly funny & talented. Thank you, Virginia!

Joyce Hinnefeld said...

SO helpful, Virginia, and so beautifully expressed. Thanks for this good advice for all of us; I'm definitely slipping into forgetting about the resting part (in all parts of my life), so I really appreciate this reminder.