Tag Archives: stroke

Turning Point as a Writer

Tree limbs like legs

This is a reprint from my post up at Nova Ren Suma’s blog from last December. I answered the question, “What was your turning point as a writer?” Thought I’d reshare here, especially as I return to my novel from a year away from writing due to pregnancy, childbirth, mothering, and postpartum depression.

I have had many turning points as a writer, some more dramatic than others, each bringing a unique encouraging message.

I remember my first litmag acceptance from ZYZZYVA for the first piece of fiction I’d ever written; it was a sign for me to pursue this long-subjugated dream.

I remember my first novel workshop with VL, the one in which I began writing my novel. I wasn’t sure I had a novel in me, but by the end of the semester, I had 100 fresh pages. I’ve thrown out all 100 pages since, but the core of the idea remains and flourishes years later.

I remember JD who doesn’t pull punches telling me, “You should be proud. You’re almost there” after reading the opening chapters of my novel-in-progress this past summer. The ensuing discussion made it so I could see the light at the end of the novel-in-progress tunnel. I was so inspired. I got my second wind.

But no turning point has been so life-changing and incredible as the time during which I had zero writing achievements, when I was unable to write fiction, let alone read a novel for two years. It was then that I knew I would do everything in my being to be able to write again, and that I would never give up on my novel.

I had a stroke on December 31, 2006, at the age of 33. Amidst the festivities of New Year’s Eve, no one thought much of the fact that I appeared quiet and spacey. I’d had the weirdest migraine of my life earlier that day in the parking lot of a South Lake Tahoe shopping center; the world tilted 90 degrees and every object doubled. If I were to write an imagist poem about that moment, I’d write about the twinned red snow blowers lined up in the snow outside a hardware store.

My husband says I complained of an enormous migraine-level headache, but I don’t remember pain. I remember disorientation and wonder and sudden exhaustion. What was happening? I should say something, but what is it I could say? What were words? What was language? I felt like my Self was buried under a thousand layers of cotton blankets.

It wasn’t until we got back down from the mountains a day later that we realized that something was seriously wrong. I couldn’t remember my way home from the neighborhood grocery store and I couldn’t process the labels on the shelves of the store and I couldn’t remember my husband’s phone number when I decided that perhaps I needed to go to the hospital. I wondered what the phone number for 911 might be.

At the hospital lying in bed my neurologist told me that I had had a stroke.

My stroke didn’t affect my body—I didn’t limp and my face didn’t slide like melted wax. I looked completely normal. My stroke had occurred in the left thalamus, the mysterious “hub” of the brain, and it among other things, the stroke affected my short-term memory, my coping mechanisms, and it affected my ability to retrieve memories, spin language, and weave stories.

In short, I was Dory the Fish in Finding Nemo.

My doctors told me to keep a journal as my memory bank—to write every happening inside the journal and to timestamp each entry. It was my physical short-term memory repository (and it worked a lot better than tattooing things on my body a la “Memento Mori”).

That Moleskine journal saved my life.

I was determined to “come back like Lance (Armstrong)” and I wrote my feelings and happenings in my Moleskine every single day. I often slept 20 hours a day. My waking hours felt like what healthy people feel like in the first few minutes after waking up in the morning; hazy and not quite present. In the first months, it took me two of my four waking hours to compose three paragraphs. But I wrote them.

I was convinced that if I kept writing, my brain would heal and make me a stronger writer. That I’d come out of this better than before. That somehow the synapses in my brain would synthesize a new and better writer. (Cue Six Million Dollar Man theme music).

Several months into my recovery, I was well enough to comprehend my situation. And yes, I cried. Yes, I got depressed. I would pick up books, and find myself reading the same paragraph over and over and over because by the end of the paragraph, I’d forgotten what had happened, so I’d keep reading and forgetting.

At around the year mark, my doctors told me “I was cured.” I was not cured, I told them. I couldn’t write fiction. How was this cured? Most of my doctors and therapists shrugged with a shadow of pity behind their eyes. My neurologist said I would keep improving, but this was, he said, as far as most doctors would go.

I was functional. I could hold a conversation. I couldn’t balance a checkbook, but I could get money out of the ATM and I could pay for my purchases. I could read People magazine, and I could even read a short story by then. I could go on drives and remember where I’d parked my car and find my way back home, but I couldn’t yet read a novel.

My stroke helped me to realize that the one thing I wanted to do more than anything else, was to write. My marker for “being cured,” was not what the doctors designated. It was not being able to function in life. It was not what my friends designated, which was to appear normal and be able to participate in discussions. My marker for being alive was to be able to write fiction again. To write my novel.

It took two years before I could look at my novel, and imagine worlds again. Two years before I stopped flipping homonyms in my writing. Two years before my prose became more than pedestrian.

I’m not sure if my brain, as I’d hoped, formed new synapses such that they made me a better writer—but I’m most certainly a more determined writer. And that has made all the difference. There is a black spot in my brain now, and it will always be there, near the center of my brain. And I consider that my writing birthmark.

It took years before I could remember this experience as a cohesive narrative. And while most writers don’t have strokes at the age of 33, I don’t think my experience is all too unique, because many of us have been kept from our writing in one way or another in our crazy writing lives. It could be a year away from writing as you raise a new baby, or a year away from writing as you immerse yourself in financially-necessary work, or a year away from writing because your writing just breaks your heart and you just can’t look at it anymore. Maybe you were really sick and couldn’t write. But sometimes, it is that very time away that forms the negative space around your identity and determination and your writing. When you come back, you know who you are, more than ever. And who you are is a writer to the core.

—Christine Lee Zilka

1 Comment

Filed under Helpful, Writing

My Turning Point

board day 3

I wrote about my turning point as a writer on Nova Ren Suma’s blog, Distraction No. 99.

(At this moment, you can also enter to win a copy of Men Undressed which contains an excerpt from my novel-in-progress on Nova’s blog).

My turning point is my stroke at the age of 33. It’s a topic to which I often allude, but do not often write about as a central subject. I find it awkward to talk about my stroke. I don’t want it to define me. Some people are just not interested in hearing about a past ailment. But awkward or not, it is undeniably The Turning Point of My Entire Life.

So when Nova asked me to write about my turning point as a writer, I inevitably found myself writing about recovery from my stroke, as lesson-filled an experience it was.

One of my friends, while visiting me in the early days of recovery, wisely advised me to look for lessons throughout my recovery; my hunt for lessons learned made what could have seemed like a meaningless random and stupid happening a much more meaningful and valuable experience.

I shared a few of the things I learned about myself as a writer in the wake of my stroke and as I fought to write my novel again. The message of my story is, as quoted from the last paragraph of my post at Distraction No. 99:

“It took years before I could remember this experience as a cohesive narrative. And while most writers don’t have strokes at the age of 33, I don’t think my experience is all too unique, because many of us have been kept from our writing in one way or another in our crazy writing lives. It could be a year away from writing as you raise a new baby, or a year away from writing as you immerse yourself in financially-necessary work, or a year away from writing because your writing just breaks your heart and you just can’t look at it anymore. Maybe you were really sick and couldn’t write. But sometimes, it is that very time away that forms the negative space around your identity and determination and your writing. When you come back, you know who you are, more than ever. And who you are is a writer to the core.”

I hope you check out Nova’s Turning Points series, which includes a number of amazing and inspiring posts about writing.

*The picture above is a picture of the whiteboard in my hospital room where I lived for 10 days following my stroke. The nurses were so nice, and left me uplifting messages!

Leave a comment

Filed under Life, Novel, The Personal, Writing

End of a chapter, change in setting

flourescent neon December sunset over San Francisco

When I first started writing my novel eons ago, I wandered my novel’s terrain, unaware of its edges, allowing my character to explore his life and purpose. There are writers who don’t put down a single word until they outline, but that’s not me.  I have to let my character wander, before I develop both the bigger picture and details to develop plot.

However, I’m also not someone who can complete a draft without an outline, either. At some point, after I began to see the landscape, I wrote an outline for my novel, with an ending in mind, and milestones in between.

I completed my first draft based on this outline and structure.

But even as I mostly followed the outline, I allowed myself (and my character) to detract from the pre-planned journey. There were (and are) times when my character led (leads) the way, and that’s when I feel the exhilaration that I seek as a writer. After all, part of a reader’s excitement and sense of surprise and delight with the text results from when the writer allows herself to be surprised and take delight in unexpected detours.

The things that changed the most, at least for me, were the endings of chapters. I don’t mind when this happens–I welcome it; I know the story has a life of its own when this happens. Even when the chapter concludes at an anticipated point in time, the mood might be different than previously imagined. Sometimes the character decides to do something different, thus affecting the ending point of a chapter. And because my novel isn’t yet finished and needs a few more revisions, there are chapters that don’t seem to end at all.

The endings of chapters are sometimes obvious, and sometimes intuitive. Sometimes the mood shift tells me that the chapter has ended. Sometimes, the character has achieved all he has set out to do, thus indicating a shift in story. Sometimes, the character defies the outline and ends up in an entirely different setting, and demands a new chapter.

I’ve said before that as much as I pour my life into my novel…my novel informs my life, too.

Sometimes, I am not sure when a chapter in my life has come to an end. It is only when I look back years later and recognize, “Ah, that was a point in my life when things shifted.” Meeting my husband falls under that category; I had no idea at that point in time that a new chapter had begun; only that I had met a tall, dark haired, olive skinned young man to whom I was drawn with unprecedented tractor-beam intensity. Would he be a blip on the radar or a lifelong commitment? There’s no way I could have known; I feel like stalkers are the only ones who insist that a person they barely know and just met is The One.

But sometimes a new chapter is immediately obvious in the way it presents changes in circumstances and setting and psychic change and shifts in responsibilities. Moving into my freshman dorm. Graduation from college. Starting my first job. Quitting my first job. Buying a house. Getting married. Being published for the first time. Starting an MFA. A death in the family. A health and writing setback in the form of a stroke.

In that vein, a new chapter’s about to begin for me. (No–I’mNotPregnant).

I had had no idea just a few months ago, that one minor change in my life would lead to a cascade of significant decisions. I’ve referred to these changes before, but now I can announce some of the changes.

The upcoming Fall/Winter 2010 issue of Kartika Review will be my last as Fiction Editor. (We’re about to put the issue to bed). I’ve really loved working with Kartika, but since finishing a 1st draft of my novel earlier this year, I’ve had nearly zero time to revise my novel between my two paying jobs, being Fiction Editor, and my personal commitments. Something had to change. I didn’t want to have to make a change, but after months and months of frustration, the “had to” overcame the “want to.” So I resigned to resign…wrote a resignation with resignation.

Since resigning, I’ve felt a bit of lightness, not the least of which was due to the fact that I had shed a responsibility in life and made more time for my novel. But I was also surprised at other reasons for this change in mood. I realized that it was an amazing experience, but that I’d been uncomfortable in the role of being the “arbiter” of fiction. Secretly, I wondered if I was creating horrible karma for myself. Ridding myself of this previously unrecognized dread was a surprising and good thing for my writing.

And so I was left with my teaching and my HR job and my novel. I spent all my spare time grading papers, but I love my students and am dedicated to them, so I didn’t want to/couldn’t shirk on my teaching responsibilities. I believe, as Sherman Alexie puts it in his essay, “Superman and Me,” that I am saving lives by teaching. And I have a deep commitment to my HR job, too, as dry as it seems to the outside world.

So I plodded on, trying to juggle responsibilities. My novel was suffering. I knew this. I had fantasies about writing residencies. Weeks and months went by as I wrote, thin-lipped and lock-jawed.

And then–out of the blue: a Deus Ex Machina. An unbelievable, sudden solution to a problem. A surprise offer involving a change in setting. Quick logistic calculations. A rushed decision. I’m changing my life’s setting for a few months.

I’m taking a leave from teaching Spring semester; I worked with my mentor and fellow staff so that an amazing teacher is taking my place for Spring term. I have arranged a community-oriented project (a culturally-focused cookbook with essays/paragraphs accompanying each recipe) in class that is both fun and a token by which to remember each other. I am doing this with a renewed, guilt-laced vigor. I feel awful, but exhilarated all at once.

My students in my Learning Community English class (some of whom I’ve worked with for 3 semesters straight) have been so sweet and loving and generous with their send-off. If I were them, I’d be unhappy that my teacher was ditching me after semester-end…but no, they’re wishing me well, and even the most stoic and ‘gangsta boys who sit in class with their black hoodies up over their heads have given me hugs and whispered good wishes.

And a change in physical setting further marks this life chapter shift. I’ll be in one of my favorite places in the entire world.

I’m nervous. I’m excited. I’m anxious. Despite how adventurous I may seem, I have a hard time dealing with change, even if the change is going to benefit me in uncountable ways. I am hoping for a smooth transition. As little stress as possible. Lots of happiness. Lots of productivity and creativity. A finished draft.

And I can’t help but think that perhaps the changes won’t end here–that perhaps more positive changes are to come, and if I keep being positive and keep working hard, my novel will benefit. Perhaps there will be more amazing and exhilarating and joyful deus ex machinas in my writing future.

I had no idea that one little change to drop a volunteer job would lead to such phenomenal changes in my life. I resigned as Fiction Editor to make more time to write and revise my novel and then…a stream of other developments and changes and decisions have made it such that I now have the time to truly focus on writing my novel.

…And start a new chapter.

Moral of story: make good changes in your life, even if seemingly small. They may lead to your dream scenarios.


Filed under Fiction Editor, Life, Novel, The Personal, Writing

This is a really long story about my relationship with my body

finger puppets

I have had a really bad relationship with my body. A *really* bad relationship with my body. At the horrible risk of offending the quadriplegic community, I will say that for most of my life, I have been a psychological quadriplegic; my psyche was disconnected from my body. I did not include my body in my decisions, life, goals, etc. My body had let me down so often, that my entire life was in my head; my life was invested in academics, in reading, in writing, in conversation.

Everything, I thought, was mind over matter. Exercise was painful. Mind over matter. Backpacking, one of my favorite hobbies, was still painful. Mind over matter. My body brought me no joy. Pushing my body through the journey was a means to an end, dictated by my mind. Get to the top of the mountain and digest the view! F*ck the vomiting and the pain. Get through it. My body brought me no joy.

My body was the cause of psychic pain: in grade school, a very ungifted child at any form of athletics (except hula-hooping, and I’ll get to that later), I was always picked last. When you get picked last time after time, you learn to divorce yourself from the source of that pain, and that pain was my body. There are students who fail in school, and after awhile, they remove any self esteem from academic success.

I learned, strategically, to position myself as the CAPTAIN of teams in grade school. Guess what: I was a wizard at strategizing so that I picked the strongest teams. The “Dangerous Dandelions” won every single soccer game during lunch hour. I positioned myself as a fullback and prayed the ball would never come my way. It never did. Everyone on my team knew better than to let the ball get to me. I was proud of them for being so wise.

I was good at hula-hooping. But that was because my dad thought that hula hooping would chisel away at my belly fat. I could hula-hoop for an hour straight. I was a wizard at hula-hooping. Still, it had been a painful road; I had to hula-hoop in front of my dad who made me hula-hoop for an hour on end.

When I told a friend in my mid-20s that I didn’t work out because it was so painful and difficult, he gave me a response that was straightforward and true. He said, “Christine, if it were easy to be fit, everyone would be fit.” Oh. I realized that it wasn’t supposed to be easy. But–still, why was it so difficult for me? Why did I pass out during workouts? Why did running leave me dizzy and gasping for air, and often, throwing up by the side of a road or by the side of a treadmill?

My body was a source of pain in so many ways; I wasn’t allowed to date in high school. I was taught to cover my body up. I was told my body looked horrible in a bikini, not because it looked horrible, but because, in hindsight, I realize it was a way to prevent me from wearing a bikini. But the message came through, all the same.

When I got to college, and experienced the first amorous pair of male hands on my body, I stiffened. I divorced myself from my body in a way that I’d divorced my body before hundreds of times. My body was no longer there. And because I went numb, I let the boy go too far; I’d never been kissed before, but there I was, being kissed. His tongue was cold and probing and I wasn’t there. So I didn’t stop him. It wasn’t until my roommate walked in, saying, “Oops!” that I was able to snap out of my stupor and tell the guy, “I just want to go to sleep.” He was confused. And he was angry later, when I told a mutual friend that his advances were unwanted.

Future amorous encounters were just as uncomfortable. Had I been abused? No. I just couldn’t STAND my body. The next time a boy touched me, it tickled. It.tickled. I couldn’t stop laughing. It.tickled!!! I couldn’t get comfortable. I couldn’t get relaxed. I had to drink to be touched. My friends heard me recount my dependence on alcohol to be touched and they became concerned. But it was what I had to do to divorce myself from my shame around my body.

Continue reading


Filed under Favorites, Life, Running, Stroke, The Personal