Fixing What is Broken and Breaking What is Fixed

Everything changes.

Fixing What is Broken and Breaking What is Fixed
Photo by David Matos / Unsplash

by Scott Mitchel May

Hold on to it or it will go away. 0450. Get up. Write. 300 words becomes 600 becomes 900, becomes 1,250. I can do that between 0450 and 0620 every day now. Linear progression. If you stop, it will stop. If you change, it will change. If you get better, it will get worse. Narrativize in your head always or it will die. Keep the novel in your head or the spark will die. 0450 and my wrist buzzes but I woke up five minutes ago because I don’t need the alarm. Never did. Write. No one is waiting for anything from you but it doesn’t matter because it’s something you can do that others can’t, but only if nothing changes. Only if you stay the same. Protect it. don’t let the flame die. Hold on. You can write a novel in your head 1000 times before you start typing and then five months later it’s there. Always. Someone published you. Good. Now do it again. Hold on. Your wife’s talking to you. Try to piece together what she said. What were you thinking before she started talking? Dialogue. Plot structure. Next movement. It was something. Fuck. She’s still talking. Pay attention. They are noticing. They are paying attention to how aloof you seem now. They want you to be present. You see someone. You talk to them. You explain why you are right and life’s unfair and how you are just being a person in this world and the people who love you are being unreasonable. 0450. Get up. Write. It’s done. The project. The thing. They are going to publish it. The big thing. No time. Hold on. Move on. Keep going. Write.

Take the pill they’ve been telling you to take since you were nine.

It couldn’t get worse.

Everything changes.

Let go.

There’s a long and complicated story as to why I didn’t start writing until I was 31 but the short of it is that when you grow up and go to school and have everyone tell you you can’t do just about anything correctly and then have them shuffle you off to various smaller rooms with kids who throw chairs and set fires you get the impression that you just can’t do a whole bunch of stuff. I didn’t try to write but writing in my head felt good. I don’t think I even thought of it as writing. Having whole conversations between strangers with my consciousness as just a casual observer in the confines of my skull felt better than whatever was going on around me, always.

I’m not certain it’s entirely dissociative either, there is a bit of that, but it’s not all of it. It feels good for my brain to skip around. It feels good for my brain to work in the non-linear. The one thing any adult told me I could do and was good at from an early age was reading. So, that’s what I did. And also, that too felt good to my brain because it was the same as the dissociative narrativizing except I was a casual observer of the brain between the covers instead of the brain between my ears. Point is, since the age of 31 I’ve written every single day from 4:50 AM to about 6:20 AM, religiously.

I can only write for seventy minutes at a clip because, despite the stimulation my brain gets from the act, it starts to become painful. Like brain on fire painful. Like if I don’t stop writing now and walk away, I’ll probably end up getting up from here and chugging two beers in quick succession just for a different feeling than the one I am feeling now. That part hasn’t changed since I set about fixing my brain. I only mention the above personal history stuff to sort of establish that the routines and workarounds I’ve come up with to counteract my brain’s inability to focus had been working when writing fiction because the broken parts of my brain fed the fiction-writing-stimulation-seeking in a kind of perfect symbiosis. But then I had to fuck it all up. I had to try and fix the broken parts to help save the things that needed saving which then sort of broke the fixed parts.

(BTW before I set out to try and fix my brain I would get that same painful feeling if I were to, say, engage in a conversation with someone I love dearly and find interesting and amusing and just generally lovely, and, say, during that conversation, they decided to speak for more than thirty seconds straight, and then I’d start visibly looking uncomfortable, and then I’d start racing in my brain, and then I’d start finishing their sentences because I know what they are going to say because there are only so many ways to finish the sentence they’ve started and though while I may not get the wording correct, the spirit of where they’re going is obvious, and I had something I wanted to add forty-seven seconds ago, and if they don’t stop talking soon and give my attention and concentration a break I might just end up starting a fight with them for no other reason than my brain needed a different kind of feeling just now; hence, the trying to fix my brain.)

When I took my first Vyvanse I was working on a novel that was too early in the process for me to know if it was working or not working. But that’s not the point. The point is that when I took my first Vyvanse I cried. Big fat sloppy tears of regret and joy and hate and anger and ugly questions of what if. I was told I needed pills like this when I was nine. That was in 1992, or so. I was also told that my brain just worked different and that that could be a good thing because I think different and that if I tried hard enough, I could learn and do anything anyone else could. This is a lie, and my education obviously didn’t work out that way. But that’s not the point either. The point is when I first took Vyvanse my brain’s fire was put out for the first time in my life. I felt at ease. I felt at rest. I didn’t have a racing narrative in my head. I could talk and listen without feeling like my brain would leave my skull. I could maintain eye contact. I could relax enough to nap for the first time in my life. I could be an equal participant in conversations and problem-solving and I stopped forgetting to do the stuff I was supposed to do, and my life all of a sudden felt like what everyone else seemed to be living. My brain’s function had become as normalized as it could be.

As the weeks went on and things improved and my life ceased to be a series of odd agitations and impulses, I found something else had changed. The words would come but the narratives didn’t. The stories didn’t come because they didn’t exist because I hadn’t been off and somewhere else while going through my day. I wasn’t in scene while my son was playing, I was watching him and enjoying my time. I wasn’t having an argument in my head between strangers because I was watching a movie on the couch and holding my wife’s hand and completely there. My brain was no longer strapped to a homemade rocket ship seeking additional stimulation because, for the first time, the reward systems in my brain were functioning.

In the last year, I’ve written and published a decent handful of short stories and essays. That’s not bad and I am not complaining. But I’ve not been able to sustain anything close to what it takes to write a new novel. And the reason is that the writing I like to do, the writing that is fun to me, personally, has always required me to be in a constant state of thinking about it, a constant state of writing and rewriting it in my head even when I am supposed to be present and there for the people I love. The ability to keep multiple non-linear storylines straight in my head without outlining seems to be a product of my broken brain. The inability to be the kind of person who doesn’t eventually alienate himself from the people who care about him also seems to be a product of the same.

It didn’t take me long to realize that maybe what every writer fears when they attempt to fix what’s wrong with them inside is true for me. Fixing what’s broken means the scotch tape and spit holding me together mentally was no longer needed. That scotch tape and spit just happened to be what allowed me to write the way I used to — frenetic, crazy-making, and just so fucking fun. It’s what had me spinning out just waiting for the time I could sit down when the house was asleep and no one could stop the narrative from spilling out.

I might not write another novel and that has to be ok right now because it’s not important because it can’t be. I can’t think about it as a kind of trade-off because the sides are so drastically unequal.

I ran into a writer a while back and he asked me why I wasn’t publishing as much as I used to. He said he used to see my work everywhere but not so much anymore. At first, it stung because it was true and I wanted to get defensive because that is the well-worn cart path of my brain’s rut, but I just said something about having stuff out on sub to slower places and then I let it go, and that felt good. Maybe after forty years I am just figuring out a new way to be, and I can figure out a new way to write long-ass things. Maybe not. What’s become clear to me though is that it’s more important for me, right now, to live the life happening in front of my eyes instead of the life happening behind them. Maybe that can be a thing, who knows?

Scott Mitchel May is a writer living in Madison, WI. His short fiction has been published or is forthcoming in many literary journals including The Maryland Literary Review, HAD, W&S, Maudlin House, Bending Genres, Rejection Letters, BULL, and Trampset. His unpublished novel, Bridgeport Nowhere, was shortlisted for the 2022 Santa Fe Writers' Project Literary Award. His debut novel, Breakneck: or, it happened once in America, was published by Anxiety Press in late April 2023. He is also the author of the novelette, All Burn Down, forthcoming in October 2023 from Emerge Press, and his second novel Awful People is coming in early 2024 from Death of Print Books. He holds a GED from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and a BS in English Literature from Edgewood College. He tweets @smitchelmay.