Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

Flexing the Muscle

First, let’s be clear about one thing: I know that the brain is not a muscle. The physical brain is a collection of neurons, glial cells and blood cells, wrapped in a membrane full of fluid. It is not a muscle. It cannot move. It can’t go out for a brisk run. It can’t lift weights. It can’t flex. It is not a muscle. I know this.

Yet I also know that the brain—the metaphysical brain, that is, if I’m using that term correctly needs exercise. Challenges. Puzzles. Things to figure out. Stimulation.

I don’t exercise my muscles the way I should. I don’t go to the gym, or work out to whatever is the modern day equivalent of Jack Lalanne, Jane Fonda, or Richard Simmons. But I also know that when I do get up off my butt and do something, I get tired, but I also feel good. Expending energy has a tendency to create energy, or it just taps into the reservoir of energy that is there all the time, sets things in motion and once something’s moving, it’s easier to keep moving. Not sure. Anyway, getting up and tackling home project X makes it easier to just move onto project Y when you’re done with X, and before you know it, you’ve crossed a bunch of things off your list or at least made headway on them. You’ve flexed your muscles, started warming them up.

So the brain is not a muscle, but we often talk about it like it is, and it’s amazing how it can often behave like it is. Almost one year ago to the day I sat down at my desk in the morning and started doing something I hadn’t done in three and a half years or so: I started working on a new piece of fiction. The three-plus year gap wasn’t planned; it just sort of happened. Instead of having a new idea there ready to go and fill the space that had previously been occupied by another project, there was…nothing. And so I put down my figurative pen and pushed my chair back from my writing desk and that was it. My brain exercised itself in other ways on other things. I thought about writing from time to time, but didn’t do anything about it.

 For the year-and-a-half or so I was working on getting Powerless ready for publication, I didn’t think of myself as writing. Sure, editing is part of the writing process, and of course, there’s writing involved, but it was mostly polishing to bring out the shine. Buffing out some dull spots. Smoothing some inconsistencies. There were no new characters, no new scenes, really, no heavy writing, if you know what I mean. I was editing, not writing.

All the same, it was flexing the brain, I guess, warming things up the way some stretches loosen things up and warm up the muscles before you get to the lifting or the running or hit the rowing machine. Almost a year ago to the day, inspired by something I’d seen on Last Week Tonight, I put myself back at the writing desk and began working on something new for the first time in 3-plus years. I’ve written about it before: it was a horrible experience. I talked about this in another post, but I had a really hard time catching hold of this project. I stopped. I started. I couldn’t see where it was going. It didn’t live in my head, wasn’t my constant companion when I wasn’t writing, and I even set it aside for a few months, nearly gave it up entirely, in fact, before it finally came together. Working on that piece was like running with cramps, with shin splints, with a tiny little pebble or two stuck in your sneaker, and it showed. It stumbled across the finish line, but it finished the race, and that was important. That was writing.

That exercise, that flexing of the brain may finally be paying off. I recently started something new, something that I think may be a short story (‘short’ being a relative term), but who can say for sure with these things? Not me. At any rate, for the first time in a long time I had to grudgingly push away from the desk yesterday morning to run errands that took almost all day. I was in the car, I was in the store, but for much of the day I wasn’t really there, not completely. For much of the day, I was with my characters, hearing them talk, watching scenes play out, trying to see what comes next. And I can kind of see it, kind of. This piece, that may be short or may turn long is in some ways much more real that that horrible WiP which is now doing cool-downs off to the side somewhere. And though I know I will cringe when I crack that one open to take another look at it in the not-so-distant future, maybe I will be sufficiently warmed up that the cramps will be gone, the shinsplints will have cleared up, the rocks will be out of my shoes.

It’s exciting to be back in this headspace. It’s exciting to feel again about writing the way I feel after taking a long walk in the woods on a brisk day: tired, yes, but refreshed, invigorated. And hopeful.

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