Thursday, May 23, 2013

Writing as Breathing


Newton's law says it so concisely: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. And so it is for me with reading and writing. I've been writing almost as long as I've been reading - if one can call those first misformed characters I started scribbling in the front covers of books writing. It wasn't vandalism - save one letter I wrote to Father Christmas on the faux leather back seat of my mother's Golf when I was five. Then I started writing in my children's books - usually on the frontispiece where there was a lot of free space. I thought I had something to say, and what better place to put it than in a book where others had officially done so already?

Discovering my sister's typewriter was a Damascene moment in little left-handed life. I still hold my pen in an awkward, claw-like grip (a teacher tried to force me to write with my right hand, but, thank God, she failed spectacularly.) Typing was a transition from ship to plane - much faster and more convenient, but lacking a certain panache, so that I still reach for a fountain pen (I don't smudge anymore) and scribble intimate things now and then into a notebook. With a Mont Blanc, you're traveling on Cunard on the Queen Mary; Microsoft Word is Virgin Atlantic, albeit Premium Economy.


Life is tough for us Southpaws, and we revel in the drama, being supposedly more artistic, mystical and prone to depression and suicide. It is astonishing however how ambidextrous I become on a keyboard (piano or computer), or, thankfully for my patients, when holding surgical instruments. Yes, anaesthetists do use them sometimes, we put all sorts of interesting things into patient's veins and arteries and other orifices which frequently require suturing.

I typed out dozens of short stories on that clunky old stegosaurus of a typewriter, wearing her ribbon out within weeks. Those callow creations usually involved me as the eponymous hero replacing Superman or Indiana Jones in some self-indulgent adventure (or once, Spider-Woman. Yes, I've dealt with that in psychotherapy, and it was only because she shot webs directly from her fingers, which was much cooler than Spider-Man's frankly clumsy wrist-activated apparatus). Then the glory of my first computer and a dinky word processor called PC-Write. The computer became my imaginary friend, a place to store things... all sorts of things... it was almost Hobbes to my Calvin.


All of a sudden, I could save things for editing... or rereading years later, squirming as I encountered the angsty outpourings of my suburban adolescence. I even wrote a horribly mawkish version of Beauty and the Beast involving a thinly-disguised version of me as a muscular prince turned into a gorgeous tiger/lion/wolf creature doted upon by a supermodel. (I would caution diabetics to check their sugar levels right now and maybe shoot up a unit or two of insulin subcutaneously.)

Ideally, the muse would intoxicate the writer to produce as least as much as he or she consumes. Most of us who put key to screen or pen to paper - whether we are talented or not, and for me, the jury is still out - read anything we can, and you would think Newton's law would hold true. But somewhere the energy gets caught, suppressed, or sublimated and, for me, it comes in quixotic but deathless bursts. For far too long I subscribed to the Tortured / Frustrated Artist Model of Creativity, which is a bit like a vintage sports car - sexy and alluring but ultimately expensive and not conducive to everyday use. After reading Anne Lamott's magnificent Bird by Bird - Some instructions on writing and currently flipping through Stephen King's equally brilliant On Writing, I've realised that the best thing you can do with creative urges is swop the sports coupé for a Volvo station wagon instead.

It's about consistency, about "showing up at the page" as Julia Cameron puts it. There is no such thing as writer's block, there is only the idea of it. I'm writing this during a long urology case (don't worry, the monitor is right next to the iPad and I can actually multitask) and had no idea what would come of this musing - I was staring at the patients carbon dioxide waveform (isn't it beautiful that the clinical term for a normal breathing pattern is tidal volume - in and out - verily, we came out of the ocean) and it struck me: In, out, albeit in 5/8: One two, one two three. The deathless rhythm. Oxygen in, carbon dioxide out. Zenith up, nadir down. Boom and recession. Mania and depression. And, hopefully, words in, then words out.

Capnograph trace of normal human breathing
(approximately a ratio of 2:3)
We breathe in approximately quintuple rhythm - 2 out of 5 for inhalation, 3 out of 5 for exhalation (although this is usually rounded to the ratio of 1:2; doctors don't like decimals.) Quintuple meter is unusual in Western music: a few notable examples are Dave Brubeck's Swinging in Five, Radiohead's 15 step, a section from Sibelius's Finlandia and, most beautifully I think, Sergé Rachmaninov's haunting (on several levels) masterclass in orchestral colour, The Isle of the Dead. This latter work is a musical interpretation of a famous painting by the Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin: a creepily beautiful depiction of the ferryman Charon rowing the dearly departed to the said isle. When Rachmaninov saw it, must have both chilled and moved him to the core.

Böcklin's "The Isle of The Dead"

That the composer deliberately chose to set a depiction of the afterlife to the rhythm of life itself is intriguing. Rachmaninov had a lyrical fascination with death, yet lived a long and colourful life. Many of his works quote the Dies Irae, a medieval plainchant setting of the "Day of Wrath" "section of the Catholic Requiem. The Isle, not surprisingly, is no exception. I so easily want to branch out into an essay discussing Rachmaninov that I have to steel myself with the fact that I was told at medical school that being overtly tangential can be a sign of psychosis.

So, all I wanted - really - to say was that the Isle is really a lullaby of death, not a horror story set to music (Fauré's Requiem is the ultimate depiction of death as a friend and not a foe - but wait - I'm getting tangential again), and even the hearbeat can be said to fall into this lopsided rhythm - one to two in systole, two to three in diastole.

Life is not even, it emerges. Nor is death, if one considers that there is nothing stopping Charon from ferrying souls back every now and then to the land of the living...

And, thus, I guess, I need to make peace with the fact that my writing is not even, certainly not in its output. But our irregularities are to be celebrated, and I think they create part of that divine discontent that urges us forward to perfection, even as it always dangles out of reach. And so it should be out of reach. I will never be able to save all my patients, biology slaps me in the face every now and then to remind me of that. Here platitudes are appropriate: I do my best, and my best I hope will always be more than good enough.

But if I can keep my patients breathing as steadily lopsided as the ventilator's default setting, the 1:2; the 2:3, maybe, just maybe, I can do so with my writing.

Expect more postings.