Kara Swanson's Brain Injury Blog

July 24, 2009

Writers, All Of Us

Over the years people have asked me what it’s like to be a writer.  They tell me they “could never do that” when I believe that we are all writers.  All storytellers.

We rewrite our personal histories to quiet regrets, to prove any number of favorable traits, to impress bosses and employees, new lovers, family and friends.  We decorate the oft-harsh realities of our pasts to color our present.  To entertain.  To comfort.  And, especially, when our present isn’t what we had hoped it would be, our gussied-up pasts remind us that yes, we have been something special in this lifetime. 

I often noodle this question, when is enough enough?  What job or career is the one that cannot be recovered from if you lose it?  Which is the one we cannot move on from?  The one that nothing can follow?

If you are a professional baseball player, is that it?  Your family, your hometown, your friends…They’re all so proud of you.  Surely that must be the one career you can’t recover from losing.  But even if you are the best on your team or the best in the league, is that enough?  Is it enough when there have been thousands who have become professional baseball players before you?  And, even if you are the best baseball player that has ever laced up spikes and taken the field, what does that mean?

What about becoming a doctor or a lawyer, going to Yale or Harvard?  Is that enough?  How about if you become a millionaire?  Surely that must be enough then.

But there are 8.7 million millionaires in this world.

People in my community struggle so much with the life they lost.  The careers left behind.  What they cannot do any longer.  Often, as it becomes more apparent that we will not return to those abilities, we paint them and retell them and romanticize them until nothing we are and nothing in our present or our foggy futures could possibly be as good as before we were hurt.

I’m sure that, if I live long enough, I will be the best caterer that ever choreographed a seven course dinner.  Just you wait.  Laughing here.

So I’m wondering exactly what particular job or position is enough.  That one title, that one achievement…that so stands alone that we cannot recover its loss?

Michael Jackson was one of the greatest and wealthiest entertainers in the history of entertainment. Was that enough?  Rumor has it he was obsessed with recovering his record-breaking status of the early 80’s and couldn’t accept that he had lost so much of his perceived relevance.  That he never overcame it.

Why is it that so many of us feel that all there is is what was back there?  That all that matters is we can’t get back that career and status we enjoyed before our lives changed? 

People do it in all areas of life.  How many times after a rocky relationship and breakup does that former partner become idolized and thrust upon a pedestal and emerges this glorified one that got away

We storytellers and re-writers of our histories conveniently forget that it wasn’t all perfect then.  Not our jobs and, often, not our relationships.  We didn’t bring home paychecks of gold (unless we were hedgefund managers) and, if we got divorced, obviously the actual relationship we shared (not the edited version) with our spouse was not all smoothe chocolate kisses, diamond sunsets, sultry tangos and soaring rainbows.

How long does ideal have to last?  How long is good enough, good enough?  Why, when so much can go wrong, are we so surprised when it does?

Could it have been enough for Michael Jackson simply to enjoy that he once did it better than anyone else on the planet? 

For 13 years I was a catering manager and a darned good one.  I enjoy rehashing the “glory days” with former colleagues and friends.   They are cherished memories.

But I am good with the fact that I did it once and I did it well.  I don’t have to do it again.  I don’t have to go back.  I don’t suffer one moment when I believe that that was all that defined me.  All that I was meant to do in my entire lifetime.  All that I could succeed in.  Or that my catering success was supposed to take me from A to Z instead of from C to F. 

Is any job?  Would it be different if I had been a critically acclaimed opera singer or a professional tennis player or a Congresswoman?

Our lifetimes are stories we write.  Our injuries demand, this economy demands, life itself demands that we  are able to close chapters and start new ones.  The only one thing we are throughout our lives, after all, is alive.

A dear friend of mine was a therapist and a social worker before she acquired breast cancer.  Now she’s a photographer, an art gallery owner, a breast cancer advocate and a painter.

I was a catering manager before my injury and now I’m a high school sports announcer, a dog sitter, an author, a blogger and a public speaker.

No book is one chapter. 

No life is, either.

I was walking tonight and listening to one of my favorite songs, “I’m Movin’ On” by Rascal Flatts.  I love the lyrics:

I’m movin’ on
At last I can see life has been patiently waiting for me
And I know there’s no guarantees, but I’m not alone
There comes a time in everyone’s life
When all you can see are the years passing by
And I have made up my mind that those days are gone                

Nobody has to be one thing all their lives.  There isn’t one job that is the be-all and end-all in this world.  Happiness is found in constants and commitments that aren’t dressed up as titles.  Success and reward can be found in a thousand different places.

How do you explain the man who works as a sewer parts distributor making 23-5 a year and is happy as a clam?  Completely delighted with his life.  Or the woman who absolutely loves her life while scrubbing morgue floors on the midnight shift in nowheresville?

What is supposed to be the goal?  Surely recent headlines must prove that nothing secures the perfect life.  No amount of career touchdowns.  Not money.  Not titles.  Not millions of adoring fans.  Not corner offices or lifetime batting averages of over .300 or an armful of Oscars.

My goal and, too, my challenge to those like me…is to believe that we can write a fabulous next chapter.  That every old chapter can end and every new chapter can begin and that we are the ones who fill it.  We write it.  We choose what goes into it.

Everyone is a writer.  And, make no mistake about it, the book will end one day.  But the book doesn’t have to end after the third chapter because of injury or difficult childhoods or terrible parents or lost jobs or lousy marriages.  The rest of it doesn’t have to be blank pages. We have more power than that.

As authors of our books, of our lives, we write in the successes.  As much as we want and in whatever area we choose it.  We aren’t chained to anything.  It’s OUR book!  We put in the love.  We insert the laughter.  Wherever we want it!  We create the characters who triumph over adversity.  We choose the supporting characters who can turn the story this way or that.  We start and end the chapters when we want to and on what note. 

Nobody else writes our story and thank God for that.  There’s not just one way to write our story.  There’s not just one way to be happy.  No one job to feel successful.  No one path to find that equals right.

The greatest stories of all time all contain drama, sadness, heartbreak and struggle.  It’s what makes them worth reading. 

 It’s our great fabulous wonderful exciting opportunity to turn the page.  The screen is blank.  The cursor blinking.  I can’t wait to see what you come up with…

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14 Comments »

  1. Wow. You are Amazing! I’m speechless…

    Comment by Linda — July 24, 2009 @ 11:49 pm | Reply

  2. And you have absolutely made my day. 🙂 Thanks.

    Comment by karaswanson — July 25, 2009 @ 12:21 am | Reply

  3. You have written the words my brain still struggles to find. I salute you.

    Comment by Christa — August 7, 2009 @ 5:38 pm | Reply

    • And, for every day you battle this thing Christa, and from here across the pond, I salute you too. 🙂

      Comment by karaswanson — August 8, 2009 @ 4:15 am | Reply

  4. Hi Kara,

    No it wasn’t all perfect then, but there were occasions when it had the potential to be. (Allowing other people to write our own stories for us is the biggest mistake we can make.) There were some good chapters, and some that ended up in the bin where they belonged.

    But what happens now when a new chapter is starting (the screen is blank and the cursor blinking), and the author has lost the ability to give structure to the story; lost the focus ? There are a myriad of possible story lines, but if the author cannot visualise the route to the last chapter then what is written will not be worth reading… will not make sense.

    Yes it’s an opportunity for new stories to be told, but the pen won’t write… the keyboard is silent.

    Tom

    (Good song by the way)

    Comment by honorarynewfie — August 8, 2009 @ 6:59 pm | Reply

  5. Tom: When I started writing my second book, I tried to control the story and, like you said, visualize the route to the end of each chapter and make my characters do what I wanted them to do. What I found was that the story took me places I had no idea and no preconception of ever going. Characters went places I hadn’t even thought of and much of the book ended up being totally different than I originally planned. But it didn’t make the story unworthy. I think we are so taught to plan and have an endgame for everything…It’s tatooed inside us that we need to pick a plot and follow it through to the anticipated conclusion. But life doesn’t work that way! When we are little, we try everything to find out what we’re good at and we go from there. After TBI, I think we’re in the same boat. I don’t think we need to necessarily know all the answers or the end points of every path we choose. I think we need to think smaller than that so we can manage things. What’s wrong with taking each day and doing something meaningful each day, whatever that may be? I never imagined I’d end up dog sitting or announcing high school football games or painting bird houses or public speaking…But I decided to do the things that fit my new abilities, like we do with kids. I found things I could do that only took a few chunk hours each day and, when I realized I could succeed that way, it made me happy. We’ve all had so much sadness and anger and disappointment…Time to find what makes us happy again and do it, whatever it is. Nobody who loves you cares what you do as long as it makes you feel good and is a healthy choice and makes you feel like you are doing meaningful work. Our new chapters can be anything. I think the secret is to open yourself to trying them all but not all at the same time and not too much of anything. When we are aware of our challenges, we can devise lifestyles to suit and compliment them. I totally believe your pen will write!!!!! Maybe you can start simply and make a list of things you think might be fun. Anything. Try everything. Painting and singing and a musical instrument and gardening and bird watching and a different language and volunteering somewhere and finding a good coffee house or a TBI meeting…Take yourself on a date once a week. Somewhere new. A zoo or art gallery or to a pier. Ask people in your life to go on a date with you to some place new once a week. Promise yourself to welcome and invite change as a good thing and something that is freeing and I truly believe that pen will write. 🙂 (Keep me in the loop of how it is going, OK?)

    Comment by karaswanson — August 8, 2009 @ 7:18 pm | Reply

    • Kara, I’m not sure my wife would like me going out on dates 😉

      That is part of the problem, I suppose… part of the reason why I feel in something of a hiatus at the moment. Amanda is Chinese and will not be joining me permanently the UK until the middle of next year. 😥 In the meantime I do have a job from which I arrive home each evening mentally exhausted (it would have been a breeze before the accident), I do a certain amount of volunteer work (am on the committee of my local Headway group [the Brain Injury Association]), but “going out” has to involve other people as I have no sense of time and am prone to disorientation, so I socialise by going to Pub Quizzes or playing Bingo at the local pensioners group, things which are very close to home and have fixed time limits.

      I am the world’s worst artist anyway, am tone deaf, love gardening but live in an upstairs flat, love dogs but could never cope with one now, and can’t concentrate long enough to keep up with a movie. I actually wouldn’t be able to cope (physically or financially) with anything else in my life at the moment anyway.

      I guess I’m just scared, and I’m not used to that !

      Thanks for the comments, Kara. I always look forward to seeing something new from you.

      Comment by honorarynewfie — August 8, 2009 @ 8:17 pm | Reply

  6. Please see my personal email message….K

    Comment by karaswanson — August 9, 2009 @ 8:15 am | Reply

    • tom sometimes it does seem so overwhelming to accomplish the day to day activities
      I too am absolutely exhausted after work and sometimes have to take a nap before driving home
      Little is accomplished outside of work on work days
      But my neurologist told me to be kind to myself and accept myself as I am now not as I once was
      Eventually we will see what is next

      Comment by nancy jones — August 16, 2009 @ 11:25 pm | Reply

      • Thanks, Nancy, for writing. I totally get the nap thing. LOL. It is one of our most valuable remedies. Good for you that you’re working again, even with the fatigue. 🙂

        Comment by karaswanson — August 17, 2009 @ 12:39 am

      • Hi Nancy,
        Thank you for your support.
        I do occasionally have a nap when I get home, but I run a very long “body clock” so if I do that I won’t need to get to bed until 2am, and then the benefit is lost.
        Accepting myself as I am now is particularly difficult as I am in such a fight to get the medics and legal bods to even concede that I am suffering from TBI. That only adds to the stress and fatigue, and may even be impeding some aspects of my recovery.
        Yes, one day the mist may clear and reveal a “brave new world”, but the path is still a rocky one.
        Good luck with your own progress. May each day be brighter for you. 🙂

        Comment by honorarynewfie — August 17, 2009 @ 4:26 pm

  7. Kara, can you help me to get more copies of your book. You and I met at the Ma. BIA conference. I bought 5 copies which I have given to friends and family… and now rising star and amazon indicate that the books are selling for 159 dollars. There’s some kind of mistake, right? Can you help? Your book is the closest to MY story as i have seen.

    Comment by Ellen Bettmann Piontek — August 17, 2009 @ 2:32 am | Reply

    • Hi Ellen:
      I sent you a personal email 🙂

      Comment by karaswanson — August 17, 2009 @ 11:39 am | Reply

  8. Hey Tom and Nancy…
    Have either of you hosted a little seminar at work to teach your coworkers about your injury? Or passed out a flyer, maybe? Something short and easy to read that might color their notions of what it is like to be you. It’s not fair to you if they think you are crazy or lazy or hungover or whatever. People cannot respect your challenges and help accommodate them if they don’t know or understand them. Might do some good to broaden their understanding of your experience. You never know…

    Comment by karaswanson — August 17, 2009 @ 7:21 pm | Reply


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