Unwanted Moment of Stark Terror

Posted: August 23rd, 2013 under Craft, Good News, Life beyond writing, the writing life.
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I may have mentioned in some comment or other that I had an Incident With Bicycle and Pickup last weekend.   I am lucky to be a) alive and b) whole and–barring a somewhat unhappy neck and some fairly impressive bruises–recovered.   The incident was my fault;  though I knew that was an almost-blind turn into a very narrow lane, and that large pickups lived on the connecting street, I failed to adhere to the ABCs of safety: ALWAYS  Be Careful, not “Nearly Always Be Careful…” 

However–and dragging this back to the topic of writing–even as I had that flash of fear, hands frozen on the hand brakes, and the rapid calculations of where I could aim for best outcome-least damage,  Writer Brain had its own approach.   As usual, this involved a sidebar of commentary on the rest of me: on sensory input going far beyond what I thought I was thinking: not just the feel through my hands of the front wheel locking and starting to skid, and through my seat of the back wheel coming off the ground, and the bike parts hitting body parts, but  details of the pickup truck and its grill (too close, thanks) ,  the feel of the street under the soles of my sandals, the way my toes bumped the toes (these are closed-toed sandals) and the feet in the sandals slid on the socks.   And analysis and advice for the Writer (totally useless to the bike rider as the bike went down and slid on the ground and I managed to keep my feet and not fall into a house wall.  Barely.)

Writer Brain always–always–has Writing in mind.   So nearly all the time–and always in a crisis unless I’ve been knocked out–it’s scavenging the situation for Material.   It’s like those rude reporters (and one of the reasons I hate the rude reporters is for letting their Writer Brain out into the world unfiltered) and insists on recording everything it can, because Everything Is Material.     And then it immediately starts fitting things into story segments, hanging them away in the Props Closet so they can be taken out when needed.  “What did it feel like?  How scared were you?  Did your hair rise?”  (No.  No time.  Happened fast.)   “Did it hurt?”  (GO AWAY. LET ME GET MY BREATH!)  “How out of breath are you? What was your heart rate?  Your respiratory rate?  What is it now?  And by the way, look up the normal rate of recovery, when you get back to the house.”  (SHUT UP!)  “No, but this is important–you felt that blow on your leg, right?  Well, it it still numb or has it started hurting?  And is it a dull hurt or a sharp one?”  (WILL YOU SHUT UP?)  “No, of course not.   My job is recording and analyzing and saving it all.  Now I have some more questions…”

When I got home and started icing down the bruises, Writer Brain was ready and eager to continue sorting and analyzing and storing  it.  I was less thrilled with Writer Brain’s fanatical desire to get it all down now, before I could forget any of it, but…on and on it went.   And of course it’s still there, because I have the module permanently installed, and it has no OFF button other than complete unconsciousness.

It was there for each stage of recovery, noting the size, color, swelling, and discomfort of each bruise.   It was there when my physical therapist tried valiantly to get muscle spasms to let go.  It was there when I got back on the bike and rode down to the same corner.   “What’s your heart rate now?  How nervous are you about this corner?” and notes with interest my new slightly increased tension at the sight of a white pickup (previously, my concern  focused on dark-colored pickups.)   Now I know–already knew–that Everything Is Material, and therefore whatever happens to me is potentially good story fodder, but sometimes you just want to endure the situation in peace.   Without commentary.

Today I made 10 miles again, though not all in one ride (and not just because of the injuries–because on Fridays, when the rest of the family is at a movie, I ride downtown and get a slice of quiche from the bakery for lunch.  But middays are too hot to ride the full 10 miles.  Writer Brain was a little quieter today (it has minimal interest in routine trips to the post office, bank, and bakery–all that’s been filed already)  only perking up when TWO inept drivers of long trucks got themselves “hung” in the turn from the highway to Main Street–and trucks that length commonly have no problem–while I was wheeling the bike to the bank.  (Because it would be suicidal to ride the one and  half blocks of Main downtown, that’s why.  So I could watch as they blocked the entire intersection and it wasn’t my mistake this time.)

And Writer Brain missed that the protective cap over the top of the front suspension cylinder on the left side had been scraped off by the bike sliding on the ground.   Ha! I say to Writer Brain.  You aren’t perfect.  And Writer Brain replies that it was stuck in a physical brain that wanted to spend most of its processing on survival and it couldn’t grab control of the whole brain until I was lying down with ice packs here and there keeping me still.   “And then you wanted to read a book,” it complains.  “Instead of helping me out.”

Yes, writers have very weird consciousness.   Just in case you didn’t know.

Next week I have the needle biopsy of the thyroid nodules on Tuesday and then head for WorldCon.   Since I have no smartphone and may or may not have a working netbook (need to turn it on and find out)  I may be completely offline for a week.  In the interim I’ll be on panels and talking to people and sharing a hotel room with my previous editor Betsy Mitchell, and having breakfast with my current Editor.  (Kind of scary, as it was year before last at a convention breakfast meeting that Betsy told me she was taking early retirement. )    My convention schedule (aside from meetings with Agent and Editor and whatever parties I get to) is up at my main website.

Oh–and another piece of writerly news–I heard from the editors of the anthology in which the first Paksworld story will appear that they really liked it.  So keep an eye out for a Baen Books anthology called Shattered Shields.  I don’t have a pub date for it yet, but sometime next year.   If it comes out before Crown of Renewal, it will not be a spoiler for the book;  it’s set in the same time, but in a place not otherwise seen in the book.




  • Comment by Nadine Barter Bowlus — August 23, 2013 @ 10:44 pm


    Glad I don’t have to live with a Writer’s Brain, but the way you tell the story of what it is like, was delightful.

  • Comment by Ellen McLean — August 23, 2013 @ 11:20 pm


    When you return home, try to distract Writer’s brain with variations on breadmaking, soupmaking, or musicmaking. Writer’s brain has enough on pain and injury. Hope you are feeling much improved.

  • Comment by Rob Bolger — August 23, 2013 @ 11:38 pm


    I don’t have writers brain but I can understand the concept. I have photographers brain. I see the world as a number of photo ops. I notice how the light cast shadows, how vibrant colours are and what will make an interesting photograph.

    It’s difficult for me not to see the world this way. Unfortunately I don’t always have my good cameras with me.

  • Comment by Moira — August 24, 2013 @ 12:03 am


    Elizabeth – yay for Writer Brain and long may it continue. But, umm, more to the point, thank the lord you’re ok and still around to tell us about it!

    Rob – ditto. Once the eye starts seeing in that way, you can’t turn it off. (And why would you ever want to?)

  • Comment by Annabel Smyth — August 24, 2013 @ 2:39 am


    Glad you are ok after the near miss. I sort of know what you mean about the Writer’s Brain.

    Have a great time at WorldCon; I believe it will be in the UK in 2014, no?

  • Comment by Richard — August 24, 2013 @ 3:50 am


    I give thanks you did yourself no more damage than that.

  • Comment by Ken Baker — August 24, 2013 @ 5:09 am


    A fascinating romp through the concious mind. Glad that you are not down and out with this episode. Since my Ph.D. Is in something that associates with neuroscience I can relate. My conciuosness is wrapped in computers and code. Grant you that I’m not hard core, being a performance engineer, but the mind thinks in tottaly different angles than the writing or photographer mind. It is always analyzing things and dealing with deductive science. Hence my getaways are doing things that are unrelated like genealogy or working in the yard. The analytics always finds its way of creeping in there though.

    Looking forward to the next installment in Paksworld and the piece in the anthology. Take care!

  • Comment by Daniel Glover — August 24, 2013 @ 6:17 am


    Found out earlier in the week that my cousin’s son had a similar episode not to long ago. But he got off without injury though the stories disagree on whether or not the bike was totaled–and it wasn’t his fault.

    He was waiting at a corner when a semi (lorry for those east of the Pond) pulled up on the opposite side of the road. Stopped and then pulled out right in front of someone on the cross street who had the right of way. The car somehow slid under the semi and hit the bike. But my cousin’s son was already fifty yards away in about the four seconds he had to react.

    Everyone has said that’s why he’s the quarterback on the football (American rules) team. He could see the whole field and make the correct snap decision.

    Everyone walked away–even the car driver. But it could have been ugly.

    Glad you are all right Elizabeth and having some time away from place of said encounter with big black vehicles.

  • Comment by david watson — August 24, 2013 @ 6:46 am


    Writer’s brain: Years ago my fencing buddy Greg cut off his thumb with a tablesaw. The first thing we asked him in the hospital was…”Could you have continued to fight with a lost thumb?” His response: Yeah, after a few seconds of amazement… I was really mad! So could you have used the damaged hand to parry, or carry a shield? Answer: No-way Jose! Useful info for the next sword and sorcery epic!

  • Comment by david watson — August 24, 2013 @ 6:47 am


    PS: Greg’s thumb was reattached and it works fine.. though a saw-kerf shorter. DRW

  • Comment by elizabeth — August 24, 2013 @ 6:59 am


    Glad to hear that! Losing a thumb is a big deal.

  • Comment by elizabeth — August 24, 2013 @ 7:10 am


    Daniel: Wow! Good assessment and really good acceleration. I used to be a fast runner, but not that fast.

    Ken: My mother would agree that Engineer Brain and Writer Brain are very different. I picked up just enough Engineer Brain neurons that when I was younger, and had to wait in a room, I would start calculating: given the size of the floor tiles (or something else I knew came in standard sizes, but floor tiles were common) I would start with the area of the floor, then the volume of the room, then the volumes of the things in the room, to get the residual volume of air. Or, from room volume, calculate what percentage of the building it was, on the basis of observation before I got there. Or, from floor and wall area, calculate how many tiles of each color it would take to cover that surface in an imagined pattern. If the room had a closet, I would deconstruct the closet mentally and turn it into something else. One favorite was dumbwaiters, so I could imagine the rooms into which the door opened on other floors (and at that point Writer Brain would start a story about what happened next.) The Engineer Brain neurons were helpful when I was working with computers in the military, but they were never dominant, and as Writer Brain pushed harder, they gave ground. However, my revision process is based on my experiences going to building sites with my mother–it’s a process that works “upward” from design to foundation to construction to finish work like painting and putting on the drawer handles.

    Annabel: Yes, WorldCon in 2014 is in London. I hope to come but it will depend on Stuff, as usual.

  • Comment by GinnyW — August 25, 2013 @ 1:19 pm


    First of all, I am glad you are OK, barring scrapes, bruises, and nagging writer’s brain. You made a good story of it.

    I personally go into shock during things like that, so I have a freeze frame photo permanently etched in my brain of a big, whatever coming at me, and no memory of anything else. My body goes into automatic physical response,(Save this idiot!) but my brain is on hold. Then I have nightmares for a while.

    I love checking Baen for books.

  • Comment by elizabeth — August 25, 2013 @ 5:21 pm


    Oh, there was a bit of brain freeze. For instance, the image of the moving truck grill coming toward me is still quite vivid, and I know which way the bike fell in the end only because of which front suspension tube top cap was ripped off. I did have time to make the rapid assessment of which side to dive for (and only after revisiting the site realized the decision was made by the large pile of brush filling all the space between truck an fence on one side.) But aside from that, it’s “truck grill, Oh-blanketyblank, brake-turn-slide-skid-fall–wow, I’m still alive.”


  • Comment by Susan — August 25, 2013 @ 8:28 pm


    And we are all so very grateful for that!

  • Comment by Wickersham's Conscience — August 26, 2013 @ 12:14 pm


    Mark Slouka has an essay in the New York Times today on writing that made me think of you. Key quote:

    If writers agree on anything — which is unlikely — it’s that nothing can damage a novel in embryo as quickly and effectively as trying to describe it before it’s ready. Unfortunately, because we’re writers, a k a bipedal nests of contradictions, avoiding the temptation to share is never as easy as simply keeping our mouths shut.

    It’s probably not fair to put you on the spot in a blog where you talk about writing, but do you agree?

  • Comment by elizabeth — August 27, 2013 @ 8:29 am


    Yes, I agree…in part. To some extent it depends on how an individual writer’s mind works. For some, writing is a form of performance art: these writers can discuss a story with anyone as it grows, can do the outline first (and make editors very happy thereby.) I’m not sure (not being that kind) that their books are damaged by so doing; some of that kind write books I absolutely love to read.

    For me, when the novel’s ideas are still very fragile, just emerging from whatever Story-kettle they’ve been simmering in, it’s important not to talk about them. (Which is why the professional demand from the publishing side to write an outline is so dangerous to the work and why the work–in my case–always deviates in important ways from any earlier attempt to describe it. Analysis too early kills that branch. I discover the story by writing it.) Later, however, the book is “ready” to be talked about and shared, as far as it’s gone, and that can help it, not harm it. It requires a listener who does not try to take over and impose ideas on it, but can elicit them or suggest ways to approach a story-problem I might not have thought of. Any hint of “You should have X do Y” (other than the patently ridiculous, which can blow obstacles out of the water) sends me into defensive mode, rather than creative mode.

    I’m always a little (!) suspicious of someone laying down rules for writing or making grand pronouncements, because that can feed the pernicious tendency to make the wrong mystery out of it, to elevate the writer’s imagination instead of the writer’s ability to sit in a chair or stand at a desk all those hours and work. The real ruin of a novel is not finishing it, where finishing includes not only getting to the last word of the last paragraph of the last scene, but finishing in the artistic sense of putting the sparkle and shine on it. I was re-reading Bradbury’s The Zen of Writing essay collection this morning before getting out of bed (and OK, that sounds pretty pretentious, but I was, because I was stiff and sore and didn’t want to get out of bed and come in here and start to work) and that was his emphasis in the last essay. However a writer does it, it’s work–plain old sitting there putting words on the page every day–that in the end is good for the writing, whether it be novel or short story or poem or play.

    If talking about a work in progress (with one person or with everyone) means not actually writing the work–then yes, it damages the work by distraction. If talking about a work in progress (with one person or with everyone) means the writer is fired up and spends more time putting those words on the page with more gusto–then no, it doesn’t damage the work and in fact nourishes the work. It’s up to a writer to find out, by experiment, how much (if any) he or she can talk about a work in progress. Mostly I don’t talk about a work in any detail until I’ve got “enough” of it down. Enough varies. For those two or three people I can trust to be helpful (including telling me to get off the phone and Write That Down!) I may share chunks of rough draft because I know they will say something that keeps me excited about it. Others won’t know anything but the vaguest “Yes, I’m about 2/3 through” until I have a solid draft with a complete story arc–if then.

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