The Psychedelics of Writing

It so happens that as my experience of writing evolves, I keep wondering what it is I’m doing and why. As both a doer of the process and an observer, and as someone very interested in brain function and consciousness, I have some random observations.

Here goes.

  1. Is the Writing Brain Like a Brain on Psychedelics? What results in flat lines of words on a page is actually the end product, or representation, of a multidimensional, active model, with countless moving parts and locations in time and space. I’d be very interested to know what a writer’s brain looks like in a functional MRI. So I read, in normal waking states the different systems in our brains don’t actually communicate with each other very much. A brain on psychedelics though, with the area called the “default mode network” temporarily shut down, the systems start massively connecting. Could the writing brain, calling upon multiple brain functions at the same time, be a little bit psychedelic?
  2. The Lego Bin of Materials. In writing something seriously, you aren’t just putting words together, selecting them from a big Lego bin of vocabulary accumulated over the whole of your life, you are simultaneously reaching for every relevant memory, any image, concept or metaphor that will help build new structures and bridges with which to interpret and express the information (or narrative) you are trying to convey.
  3. Using Raw Materials. The thing is, all these accumulated materials must be treated as raw. If you use pieces that have already been put together from previous experience, i.e. something formulaic, you will kill your idea dead. Old formulas won’t apply, and yet you depend on the accumulation of all these bits, because without them you would have nothing to work with.
  4. What Has Never Before Existed. Nothing of the new has ever existed before (at least not in your experience), even if it’s built of familiar material. All the molecular permutations are new, and you are bringing them into being moment by moment, transferring energy into matter that can then be transferred to other minds.
  5. Focus Tames the Ego. With the intense focus that writing requires, you find the suspension, at least temporarily, of all the ego’s usual cage-like narratives. All the negative clutter that habitually brings you down and reduces your experience of living to a tiny set of harsh judgements. Riding the wave of energy that can accompany, or propel, a project can be so absorbing and exciting it wipes out everything else. Your mind becomes your friend and helpmate, the indispensable tool of your creation. You are a mind dancing with itself. (A little bit transcendent, a little bit psychedelic. Or, in other words, a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll?) Even if you aren’t that excited about a project, and getting yourself to the writing desk takes all the self-discipline you can muster, the focus needed to do the writing still takes up all the mental space, leaving no room for excess chatter.
  6. And Now We Have to Grow. Add to this the new emotional growth the project facilitates—or rather, demands—in order to be born. New growth becomes a requirement, you have to dig deeper, finally enter those areas you previously managed to successfully avoid, in order to actually create what wants to emerge. But, is it even growth, if all you are doing is mental and emotional excavation of stuff that’s already there? I guess so, because the unearthing (of things you yourself [or an earlier version of yourself] buried) requires the container of “you” to expand, to digest and bring forward the old/new material. (Expansion, another feature of the psychedelic experience.)
  7. Shifting Reality. New growth on the inside and new work on the outside can create an experience of shifting realities. Let’s say our view of reality is composed of a stack of transparent slides that together form a cohesive three-dimensional image. Then let’s start sliding those slides around. Images fracture, rejoin, reconfigure, become indecipherable, rearrange, and, wherever they ultimately land, it’s not in the same picture you started out with. This is another reason why writing can feel psychedelic.
  8. And What Do You Get? Next, how do you like the results of your efforts? Not even the “final” results, but all the results that unfold in the process? At any point it can seem hopeless. The sentence, the paragraph, the page, sucks. It fails. Or you can’t see how to solve the many problems your editor has so humblingly illuminated for you. The macro-structures have to effectively support the narrative, and the micro-structures have to support the macro (and all levels in between). Each is essential, and doomed without the other. Each one plays a complimentary role in conveying the beauty and value of the whole piece. And this is only one aspect of all the possible problems you have to solve. It can be overwhelming.
  9. Forging the Beauty. We are working with beauty and ugliness, but it seems to me most writers are essentially going for beauty. The characters may struggle and suffer, (or the information may be chaotic and contradictory and out of control) but rendering that in a beautiful way helps make life bearable (and in the case of expository writing, understandable) for all of us, and is surely a big reason why we read at all. So the writer composes her work of small beauties—single images, turns of phrase—and the larger beauty of building the case, bringing the character and reader through an evolution. All to make a story that maybe no one will like, or an article no one will take seriously.

 

In conclusion, (at this arbitrary moment in time where I’m ending this piece) I have no conclusions. Why do we do this writing thing? James Baldwin said, “I’m a writer and there’s nothing I can do about it.” Nature finds its expression, or can’t avoid it. The “why do we do this?” and “what are we doing?” questions of writing are different ones, of course. With both, I myself am only speculating. The eye can’t see itself, but maybe, in writing, that’s what we are trying to do.


Here’s my recent review of

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence

by Michael Pollan

If you want to follow my latest publications and book reviews on Goodreads, visit me there!

It’s cliche to call a book a “landmark achievement,” but to me, Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind is exactly that. In astonishing depth, Pollan covers the history, neuroscience, and modern therapeutic application of a class of drugs—or “medicines”—known as psychedelics, in the treatment of such paralyzing human conditions as end-of-life anxiety, addiction, and depression. Combined with his own “travelogue” of personal experiences in psychedelic-assisted therapy, Pollan explores this fascinating subject with both a journalist’s hard-edged skepticism and a pioneer’s sense of wonder, synthesizing and articulating his material with a facility that is truly beyond compare. Reading this book is a journey through human consciousness of the most remarkable kind.

Why Do You Write?

I love it when I hear the question posed to writers, “Why do you write?” I listen with avid interest to the answers, which are sometimes elusive, like, “It’s just what I do,” or a conclusion arrived at by a process of elimination like, “It was the only thing I was good at,” or, “There’s nothing else I want to do more.” The writer Jhumpa Lahiri once quoted someone to say that the writer is “the reader who can’t control himself,” which must speak to the love of the medium, a love so fierce, that when you dive into a book, as into a swimming pool, that level of participation is not enough, and you have to, upon reaching the bottom, carve out another pool, and so on, so you can keep swimming forever.

Writers also talk about hating writing, and I love that too. Paul Beatty, the genius who gave us The Sellout, has said in interview that he hates writing, because writing is hard, and yet he devotes his whole soul and intellect and the years of his life to it. He’s not alone in this feeling, which of course gives rise to the question of why do it. Personally, I seem to write because I need to. I have a love for it, it’s one of the activities that seems most to be in harmony with my soul, and it’s also a strategy I lean on heavily, to deal with myself and the world, the inner and outer spaces, and the interconnections throughout them.

A big part of that mediation goes out in the desire to connect with others, by reading and by writing, via that special sort of communication that Stephen King calls “telepathy” between reader and writer. It’s a funny kind of communication because at any one point, in real time, there’s only one person present, either the reader or the writer, and yet it works. It works brilliantly well.

            Now that House of Rougeaux is launched, now that we’ve broken the champagne bottle over the hull, and the thing has lurched out of the harbor, it goes off on a sail that has little to do with me anymore. I spent two years (or so) building it, and now off it goes, in wind and water that I didn’t create, and while I’m very invested on its voyage, it’s now an entity separate from me. Actually, during the making it also felt like an entity separate from me, even though I was very intimately involved. The books I am working on now, two new novels, one of which is a Rougeaux sequel, have a stake in Rougeaux’s success, because these are two new entities that also want to be born. They want to be born, and also to have a life (publication, readership, participation in the culture of reading, in the activity of life on earth), and it’s the life part that depends on forces outside my own sphere. And after that, likely there will be others, because I’ll keep writing, because I need to, though that personal need, in itself, is not particularly interesting. More interesting is the question of why humanity does this at all.

One of the few writers to whom I have a deep, personal attachment—someone who feels like an important friend, even though I’ve never met him and never will, unless it’s in the afterlife—is David Foster Wallace. Wallace once said in interview:

Fiction has a very weird and complicated job, because part of its job is to teach the reader, communicate with the reader, establish some sort of relationship with the reader, where the reader is willing, on a neurological level, to expend effort, to look hard enough at the jellyfish to see that it’s pretty. That kind of effort is very hard to talk about, and it’s real scary because you can’t be sure whether you’ve done it or not. It’s what makes you sort of clutch your heart when somebody says, ‘I really like this. It didn’t strike me as gratuitous.’ Cause that’s, of course, your great hope when you’re doing it. The point of art has something to do with loneliness and something to do with setting up conversations between human beings.

This is as good a description of the point of art, and the intention of the attempt to get to that point, as any I’ve ever heard. Or it’s better, I don’t exactly keep track, I just know when I hear something like this that I have to write it down. And I have to reread it and share it, and keep it for myself, because it helps me understand what the hell I am also trying to do.

Thanks for reading.


Jenny Jaeckel’s latest book House of Rougeaux was published in April (2018) and is available in hardcover, ebook and audio wherever books are sold!

Princess and the Pea ~ A Writer’s Take on Being an HSP

If there’s one thing I can’t live without, it’s earplugs.

            Everyone knows the story of The Princess and the Pea, right? A prince searches the land for a princess to marry, and to make sure the candidates are the real deal he makes them sleep on top of a stack of 30 mattresses underneath which he has placed a single pea. If she sleeps fine, she’s not a real princess, but if she tosses and turns all night because the pea disturbs her, hurrah! She’s real! And he will marry her right away.

            If you think about it, why would the prince want to marry someone that easily disturbed? If she can’t sleep on a pea, how’s she ever going to be able to sleep with him? But those are the rules. Marry at your socioeconomic level or the power structures will collapse, and we can’t have that.

            There’s another meaning in this story though. Of all the fairy tales, this is the one with a secret message for a certain small subset of people, the neurologically “highly sensitive person” (HSP). According to some who study this subsetinevitably individuals who belong to it, desperate to understand themselvesabout 10 percent of the population is highly sensitive, while the other approximate 90 percent are not. There’s not much in between the two groups, they say, neurological sensitivity is not evenly distributed on a spectrum, so what’s left is a gulf of misunderstanding. Regular people totally don’t get the HSP, and vice versa. What happens though is that the regular people, because of their sheer majority, always win. The culture is designed for the majority, and if that makes you suffer, you’re told you are weak, defective, and a loser.

            Sigh…

            If you are a highly sensitive person, you know what I’m talking about. The world is full of peas of every sensory, energetic and emotional kind. For a regular person, imagine someone stuck a pea in your eye. You’d suddenly be in a very compromised situation. So just imagine your whole body was covered with eyes, and the whole world was full of flying peas. Gross, I know, but it illustrates a point.

            Just like the princess, a pea can ruin your night. Ruin enough nights and there goes your life. That’s why, among some other things, I prize earplugs so highly. HSPs are bothered by things the rest of the population doesn’t even notice, so if part of the message to the HSP ends up being that you’re a loser, the other part is that you’re crazy. Put enough peas in your eyes and you will certainly feel crazy. But wait, before going off the deep end, realize that this fairy tale is for you. The secret message is that you are not crazy and/or a loser: what you are is special.

            As with all neurological subsets, an HSP comes with particular gifts. We tend to be extra perceptive, good at empathy, attuned to the inner world, and very creativemaybe because we have to find stuff to do while we’re busy hiding away from the rest of world. There’s a lot of overlap between HSPs and introverts, but don’t get the two confused, introverts are a much larger group. Possibly all HSPs are introverts, but not all introverts are HSPs.

       So look, we’re special. We might be hard to live with, but isn’t everyone? The important thing is that we take care of our needs in appropriate ways. Years ago I heard an interview on This American Life with the beloved Fred Rogers, a.k.a. Mr. Rogers. In a discussion about noise and neighbors, Mr. Rogers recounted how once, in a hotel with loud traffic outside, he slept in the closet. That’s an HSP brother right there, and that was a smart, innovative solution to the problem. It’s also a compassionate thing to be out about in a public forum, because it supports other people when they have to do that kind of thing. And it’s also funny. Let’s all have a good laugh at the ridiculous things we have to do to get by.

            HSP or not, I’m guessing we all have some weird needs. For all our commonalities and differences, neurologically speaking every person is a subset of one. That’s how diverse we are. It’s mind-boggling and mysterious. Maybe we can just celebrate that.


Jenny Jaeckel (bio) is the author of four books, including the forthcoming House of Rougeaux, a highly anticipated historical and literary novel for 2018.

Foreword Reviews says, “Perhaps the greatest achievement of the book is that in spite of the inescapable presence of slavery and prejudice, it isn’t really about either of these things. Jenny Jaeckel’s House of Rougeaux is about people–varied and fully realized individuals who make the flawed world their own.

Available for preorder now.

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