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The Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics

ISSN: 2472-7318

On Writing again

Sarah Stoller

Table of Contents

Keywords: bicycle accident, brain injury, motherhood, qualifying exams

Categories: Creatively Caring for Self, Others, and Place; Reflecting on Academic (Over)work and/or Precarity; Disability, Illness, and Survival (When the World Doesn’t Want You To); Somewhere in Between: Grad Student Perspectives

Content warning: bicycle accident, brain injury

I am learning how to write again this year. How to pull the words together, how to get them down, and also what I write for. I write on my phone while breastfeeding - craning my neck over my daughter who is nestled heavily on my arm now asleep, her perfect soft head aglow in the half light. I write on my phone in the bathroom when I should be doing something for someone in the other room. I write in the quiet, battered, otherwise discarded hour after my daughter has gone to bed. I write sometimes continuously, mentally, trying to stitch together a narrative of the last year - the end of a mostly happy decade in academia, the birth of my first child, the pandemic.

This isn't the first time I have had to learn to write anew. 6 years ago, as I was starting to prepare for my PhD qualifying exams, I took a dramatic spill off my bicycle and landed on my face. I'd been lost in thought, evidently unaware of my surroundings. The visible wounds healed quickly and people assured me that I seemed fine. But at first I couldn't read. When I spoke, I felt like I couldn't find the words I was looking for. When I sat down to write, my ears rang. Then, too, I had to write my way through the sudden disorganization of my body and mind.

First there was the matter of the exams and all the reading I was supposed to do. I studied history by trying to make the words line up on the page. Sometimes I saw a whole phrase line up before it scattered again and floated away. I cared about the Chartists and the role of canals in the industrial revolution and hypothetical course design for fictional courses I knew I would never teach. But it was hard to care, care anymore when my sense of linearity was floating away one letter at a time. Suddenly the expectations didn't line up anymore than the words on the page.

The week before my qualifying exams a very impressive woman on my committee told me by way of preparation: "You will remember forever the questions you get asked and can't answer." My head spun, but I mustered a quick thanks so I could leave the room. You can't cause someone to read voraciously; we read like that when there's something we're looking for. I vowed to remember nothing of the exam. It wasn't hard, since words spoken floated away almost as readily as those on the page. Afterwards, just to make sure of it, my husband drove me to the quietest place we could think of: Yosemite in January. The snow threw itself down in a thud the moment we arrived, and everything was perfectly blank.

In those months - the timeline is fuzzy now - I visited a neuroptometrist. She had me do head spinning, gruelling eye exercises that felt like high speed, high stakes parlor games. She had me try out literal rose colored glasses. She let me narrate for her how insane things looked, how disoriented I felt, and eventually she helped me get the letters back in a row. When I found a good speech therapist, she acknowledged that my brain was like a library scattered in a great storm. She advised me to try to get all the books back onto the shelf in an order that made sense, and told me that only I knew how. I started one morning by trying to think just one thought at a time, and not stray too far too quickly. 

I visited body workers, too, to help with all manner of physical pain and disorganization. I went back to the ones who didn't describe my experience as a symptom, or promise they could fix me. I found rigorous but generous yoga and was welcomed into a community where many had studied for decades. Gradually, this care to align my body helped me figure out the story I was in, how to narrate it, how to summon it forward.

Now I am learning to write as a mother. To write with a presence so big and powerful that it feels like all there is. To write while so interwoven with another that I have to write to sift through where the boundaries of myself lie. It’s a familiar sense of fragmentation - scattered not this time by injury, but by the explosion of birth, and over and over by the shock of the love. I write now to figure out what to hold onto and what I can let go - to tend to my library.



Sarah Stoller is a freelance writer and editor. She received her PhD in History from the University of California, Berkeley. Her writing has appeared in SlateThe Los Angeles Review of Books, The Washington Post, Aeon Magazine, Jezebel, and Catapult, among others. Her book Inventing the Working Parent: Work, Gender, and Feminism in Neoliberal Britain is forthcoming with MIT Press. 

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