This is the second part of my post on how I finished writing my novel, The Accident, after acquiring a neurological disorder. (If you missed Part One, you can find it here.)
If you have any tricks of your own on writing with cognitive disability, please let me know in the comments—I’m always looking for tips!
Stop. Just stop.
One of the more frustrating aspects of cognitive disability is the impact it has on decision-making skills. When I’m off balance, I can’t see the forest for the trees. My OCD kicks in and I start doing things like measuring the distance between the sofa and the wall to make sure both ends are even at 3 AM until my husband gently suggests I knock it off and come back to bed.
I’ve learnt to delay scratching the itch, so to speak, by writing down what it is I want to do and planning do it in the morning if it still matters. And taking the same approach with my writing has made a massive difference to my productivity level.
Instead of spending an hour rearranging the same three words, I circle the spot where my brain’s getting stuck and tell myself to back away and let the phrase breathe. 9 times out of 10, when I return to it clear, I feel like it’s fine and leave it.
Somewhere in the last couple years, I lost the ability to function when I’m tired. If I don’t stop when I need to stop, it can take me days to recover. And yes, this applies to reading and writing as much as anything else; if I push myself to do “just one more page” after I’ve had enough it literally makes me sick.
Experience tells me there’s little point in butting my head against the wall if I’m not breaking through with my writing, so now I make notes along the lines of Something Important Needs to Happen Here or Big Change of Heart for This Character and revisit it when I’m feeling refreshed.
Phone it in
Being neurologically ill is hard work, and sometimes my brain switches to Standby mode right in the middle of a job. These are the days when I stare at my own name and question whether I’m spelling it correctly. If it’s a once-off afternoon, I put the writing aside, but if I’m having an entire stupid week, then I stay on task and just keep going through the motions.
I sit at my desk and write absolutely terrible drafts, filling page after page with placeholder text along the lines of: “Kristin walks her dog to the coffee shop and has a very meaningful and life-affirming conversation with the barista.” I feel no emotional connection to the words, but they flesh out the scene and give me something to deal with once I’m switched on again.
Clean it up
Neurological disorder is, by definition, messy. When I’m unwell, I bump into things both physically and metaphorically. My thoughts not only lack cohesion, I experience what I call “black holes” where it feels like my brain actually skips a beat.
At such times, I find myself saying the same thing over and over, albeit in slightly different ways. I’m also prone to using strings of adjectives as anchors. This repetition and rhythm play an important role in my writing process, but a reader wants to see the finished product, not the writer’s tools.
Revision is crucial, but especially challenging when you’re in the grip of cog fog. It helps to go in with a strategy. Think of how you read when you’re tired, what kind of things your brain needs to make sense of a story—and only keep that. This is how I edited The Accident down from its longest length of 119K words to a final count of 86K.
I hope this has been helpful to you. Writing while neurologically impaired isn’t easy, but there are definitely ways to make it easier.
Now over to you. Do you have a cognitive disability? How has this impacted on your writing? Have you found anything that helps you organize and express your thoughts?