WRITING LIFE: Redefining Failure After a Brain Injury by Brooke Knisley

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Before 2015, procrastination was the name of my game. I’d wait mere hours before a piece was due to pound out a rough draft that quickly became a final draft after one last read-through coupled with a harried copyedit. Now I wonder what I could have accomplished if I had applied all of the brainpower I had at my disposal. I’ll never quite have the same brain function I had then.

Kelly, my speech therapist at Scripps Encinitas Brain Injury Outpatient Rehabilitation, prescribed writing by hand. “Writing stories will help you reconnect the damaged pathways in your brain,” she said. The first blank page of a lined notepad mocked me from the table between us. A month before that blank page stared me down in Kelly’s office, I wasn’t allowed to eat by myself—one of my vocal folds was paralyzed, making me a choking hazard. A few weeks before that, I couldn’t walk. Another few weeks before that, I was in a coma. And just before that, I fell 25 feet out of a Redwood tree. “It will also help you strengthen your fine motor skills,” Kelly added. “Since your grip strength is so weak.”

Before the damage to my occipital lobe doubled and tilted the sheet, the blank page had been a foe to overcome. Now, I expected failure. It wouldn’t make or break my recovery if I couldn’t conquer it. “It might help you to make a plan for what you’re going to write. Think of your favorite movie and try to give me the plot in six words,” said Kelly.

Hazily, a henchman slicing Jack Nicholson’s nose floated through my mind. Faye Dunaway’s strawberry blond curls bouncing as she moaned, “She’s my sister and my daughter.” A gunshot and a veering car. A sun-soaked LA moving to darkness over two hours.

Detective investigates water dumped in desert, I wrote in painfully slow, wobbling letters. “Chinatown!” Kelly exclaimed in excitement. “Now, try writing what happened to you in six words.”

I couldn’t. Not right away. Pain shot up my arm the same way it did when I was learning cursive in the third grade, repeating the same word over and over again, line after line. But my traumatic brain injury wasn’t a cramp quickly relieved by shaking my hand and flexing my fingers. And I wasn’t tracing page after page of sinuous letters; I had written six words.

Kelly didn’t seem bothered by this. “Take a moment to think and rest. There’s no rush. Thinking things through lets you practice using your executive function.”

Even though it hurt, I managed to form all of the O’s, E’s and U’s necessary to get my six words down. They were even semi-legible. Kelly’s face broke into a smile as she read: Got drunk. Fell out of tree. “See? This is how you get to the heart of what you’re trying to say,” Kelly said. She tapped the paper with her forefinger. “If you can boil it down to six words, then you can expand from there. And it’s much easier to write six words than six sentences, right?”

I nodded. “Sometimes, I forget what I’m going to say. Or what I was thinking about.”

“Then look back at what you’ve already written and decide what should come next. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t the same thing you were thinking of before. You don’t even have to write full sentences. Describe one of the last things you remember before your accident.”

Kelly tapped the pencil still in my hand and then waited as I slowly wrote: Stained carpet. Dark swirls. Sticky. Whiskey. I stopped; my arm hurt, and the pencil slipped from my fingers. Kelly smiled. “Our time is up today, but just keep going.”

The prospect of writing a full page seemed impossible. So, I started with six words. Then, I’d write six more. I followed those up with another six. Sometimes, I’d strike out a few since drawing a line was easier for me than erasing—and the result was an intriguing blend of words and images that took me in a new direction. After working on long projects for extended periods, it’s easy to forget all writing starts with a few words. And they are all we need to start.

In the four years since I fell, writing by hand is still a painful and slow process. I had a surgery to correct my double vision, and my vocal cord is back to working condition. When I write, I always start small and expand. I forgive myself if I forget what I’m trying to say and have to go back. I’m not perfect—far from it—but I make it work.

Sometimes I do forget what I’m saying, but that taught me another lesson: letting things go. Joseph Harris’ Rewriting says “[t]he paradox of drafting is that you have to work hard to get a piece right, while still being ready to add, rethink, and sometimes discard large parts of it.” Many writers struggle with this; I know I used to.

Now, I start with a simple list of words and build from there, letting things go when I forget to remember them. I allow the associations to carry me. I describe each with six words until I find a new thread to follow. Forgetting. Voice. Six. Chinatown. Remembering. Writing.


Brooke Knisley is an instructor in Emerson College’s first-year writing program. She’s written for DAME Magazine, VICE, Playboy, McSweeney’s, and others. She is working on a memoir about trauma.





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