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Writers Talk About Writing

Three Writing Lessons from a Stroke of Insight

In November, I had a stroke. My second one in six years.

Both strokes were established in similar ways -- the puzzling outcome of having had mild abdominal surgery. I'm not trying to make you crazy here. It doesn't seem logical to me -- or to many doctors -- either. Although I have freakishly low blood pressure and exercise regularly and eat healthily, there's something about my body that doesn't like surgery. I have surgery and the main source of blood flow to the brain, my carotid artery, breaks apart (this maneuver is called a dissection) and a stroke spins off into my brain.

In 2001, when I was in my mid-40s, it happened on the right side of the neck and the clot spun off into the right side of the brain. I like to say that it occurred in the "baseball" part of my brain -- and because I don't play baseball, it didn't really matter.

Before repeating the surgery this year I went for lots of cross-examinations with various kinds of doctors. All agreed the stroke would be unlikely to happen again.

But they were wrong. It just happened in a different place.

The stroke occurred on the left side of the neck, spinning off into the left or language side of the brain. This time it was a bit more dangerous because it directly affected my speech center. For several days, I had a great deal of difficulty talking. This has now fixed itself, although, from time to time, I can have trouble remembering a name or term.

Probably the biggest challenge is the mind-numbing exhaustion I feel most days. I've turned from a seven-hour-a-day sleeper into a nine-hour one. I can't exercise like I used to (a minimum of a hour's brisk walking a day) and I don't really enjoy reading much right now. I expect all of these symptoms to resolve in about six months, although it does suck to have to put up with them.

But the more interesting question is: What did I learn? Here are three major lessons:

  1. When you have words, use them. I'm a gabber. I usually talk a lot. I write a lot. And I read a lot. But I seldom see words as precious. They are. Write and speak as if you might never be given the chance again. Don't waste time; don't waste your words. Really communicate.
  2. Plan your time so you use each minute in the way you most want to. Sometimes you might need to be walking or running. Or other times, you might need to abandon making dinner so you can write a sonnet. (OK, I just made that up.) But do whatever it is you most need to do. Don't compromise; don't take second place. Think hard and act harder.
  3. Never forget every day is a gift. I'm grateful to be alive and I'm spectacularly grateful to my patient and thoughtful husband, Eric, and my wonderful kids, Claire, Duncan and Alison. They make my life interesting and challenging and engaging. I'm also grateful to you, all the readers of my various columns, such as this one in Visual Thesaurus.

Life is a gift. Use it. Write with it.


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday January 14th 2009, 5:12 AM
Comment by: Michelle P.
I was drawn to your article today as my mom is undergoing abdominal surgery this afternoon. Your core message - appreciate today, live in the moment - is so important and one that we need to keep as close to top of mind as possible. Having undergone breast cancer treatments this past year, every day felt like steps into the unknown. But that really is life in itself - we never know what is around the corner.

I have learned to listen to my body's messages. Rest when I am tired, allow others to help and, when I have energy and feel good, celebrate and appreciate good health.

Thank you for sharing your story with us... connecting with others keeps our humanity alive and prospering.
Wednesday January 14th 2009, 7:41 AM
Comment by: bluefade (Chagrin Falls, OH)
"I like to say that it occurred in the "baseball" part of my brain -- and because I don't play baseball, it didn't really matter."

Now THAT mde me laugh!

Thank you for such great honesty, insight, humor and advice. You are so blessed, especially to have the family support that you do. I suspect you know that already though.

You are an inspiration. Today I will remember your words and take them to heart.

Mike
Wednesday January 14th 2009, 8:54 AM
Comment by: Elisa B. (Addison, TX)
Thank you so much for writing this. I find your medical condition interesting. My older brother had a similar stroke condition right after colon cancer surgery. It makes me wonder if his two incidents were connected. Anyway, your determined conclusions are spot on: communicate, designate - appreciate.
Wednesday January 14th 2009, 8:57 AM
Comment by: Michelle D.
Indeed! Your words are ringing true. Every one of us will surely face some difficulty in these trying times. We can all benefit, yet again, from your sage advice to think hard and act harder. As the mother of one terminally ill child and one gifted child, I live between the two worlds/words of hope and fear. I imagine you might understand this.

Some days I just have to plow throw and get to the other side. Other days, I get through and little gems pass by my consciousness (read your Power Writing Column) and it makes getting to the other side a whole lot easier. I appreciate your words. I appreciate you.

Here's to your gift and your health!
Wednesday January 14th 2009, 9:48 AM
Comment by: Val E. (Minneapolis, MN)
I have had similar strokes, under similar circumstances, and had a similar reaction as yours. My grandmother used to say, "Pain builds character." It's true. My life seems so much more full than the people around me who have never suffered an injury or illness. Pain makes you aware of the beauty of everyday life.
Wednesday January 14th 2009, 9:58 AM
Comment by: Susan C.
Thanks for a great article. I agree that we should all appreciate our facility with words more and our time and families. I've done volunteer reading with Alzheimer's patients and my mother has dementia, so I've seen firsthand how much is lost when communication gets diminished.

When my diabetic dad got prostate cancer 15 years ago, we researched the odds of good surgical outcomes for his condition, which were poor. Most surprisingly, another fact stuck with me, which was the strong association of cardiovascular incidents (heart attack, stroke) within 30 days of a surgical procedure involving anaesthesia for those over 60. I don't remember the percentage but it was above 50%! You get through the surgery okay, but the next month brings the risk. The older you get, the more you should avoid any surgery, even "mild" ones.

It's amazing how you can have a spinal block or a local instead, if you and your doctors are willing, even for something like hip surgery. General anaesthesia is toxic to all of us--they take us to near-death, after all--and can result in damaging oxygen-deprivation to the brain and huge stresses to the cardiovascular system. A common side effect is a non-lucid post-surgical period, followed by "less than sharp thinking" that can last months or more. But it's easier for surgeons so it is the tradition. Talk to your doctor, folks. And do your own research.
Wednesday January 14th 2009, 10:39 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks for all your supportive comments, everyone. I really appreciate hearing from you!

Funnily enough, I'm now at the point where most of an entire day can go by and I don't think about the stroke even once. I did think about it yesterday, however, as I was having difficulty finding a few words while speaking (this problem still occurs from time to time.)

I'm also doing research to try to get at the source of the problem. Val, because of your experience with a similar situation, I'd love to hear from you. You can email me at daphne @ publicationcoach (dot) com.
Wednesday January 14th 2009, 11:01 AM
Comment by: KAREN H.
Thank you for sharing the gifts you have learned. A fourth lesson you taught us, though you didn't spell it out, it about optimism. It is obvious to everyone who reads your articles, and not just this one, that you choose to live in the happy world, regardless of all its contrary opportunities. Your optimism and your beautiful smile will carry you and your family through anything. Thank you for the constant reminders.
Wednesday January 14th 2009, 11:19 AM
Comment by: Jericho L. (San Mateo, CA)
Amazing article, thank you for writing. Sometimes it takes constant reinforcement such as this to really shake me out of negative patterns. I've been focusing on self improvement and your story definitely helps. Thank you.
Wednesday January 14th 2009, 3:30 PM
Comment by: Paul David W. (Chicago, IL)
What is aphasia?

Aphasia is a disorder that results from damage to the parts of the brain that contain language. Aphasia causes problems with any or all of the following: speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

Damage to the left side of the brain causes aphasia for most right-handers and about half of left-handers. Individuals who experience damage to the right side of the brain may have additional difficulties beyond speech and language.

Some people with aphasia have trouble using words and sentences (expressive aphasia). Some have problems understanding others (receptive aphasia). Others with aphasia struggle with both using words and understanding (global aphasia).

Aphasia can cause problems with spoken language (talking and understanding) and written language (reading and writing). Typically, reading and writing are more impaired than talking or understanding.

Aphasia may be mild or severe. The severity of communication difficulties depends on the amount and location of the damage to the brain.

Paul David W. - Survivor?
Wednesday January 14th 2009, 3:34 PM
Comment by: Paul David W. (Chicago, IL)
Survivor. Yes!

Paul David W.
Wednesday January 14th 2009, 4:01 PM
Comment by: Marjorie R.
Daphne, do you truly know how lucky you have been?

My daughter Nora, whose poems were beginning to find publication, wasn't yet 30 when she suffered a spontaneous dissection of the left internal carotid. The resulting clot caused a massive stroke that destroyed her speech and comprehension centers, and nearly killed her. It's possible that an over-the-counter diet product may have been implicated, but she also had suffered migraines from the age of nine -- and we now know migraines in women are a strong indicator of potential future stroke.

Strokes, by the way, are now regarded as brain attacks, in much the same way that clots to the heart are called heart attacks. Either can be deadly, but a brain attack far more often leads to lifelong disability, something none of us would wish on our worst enemies.

Fifteen years post-stroke, Nora is severely right-side affected, but that's nothing compared to the extreme disability of having lost her language, her primary means of communication. She lost not just speech and comprehension, but her ability to use language in any form, and despite exciting recent developments in stroke therapy, she is unlikely to regain function -- at least in part because short-term memory loss makes it extremely difficult for her to make the connection between cause and effect.

Thank you for writing. Young stroke is still considered unusual, and as in Nora's case, is often misdiagnosed as a mental condition. Getting proper treatment immediately is essential to stroke recovery In addition to your excellent observations, we have learned the tremendous importance of taking low-dose aspirin (with your doctor's approval, of course) as a clot preventative, folic acid as a means of ameliorating the effects of stroke, should you have one, and of using your non-dominant hand as often as possible to build channels of brain activity across the corpus collosum. Nora's childhood ambidexterity, her neurologists say, may well have allowed her to regain the ability to cook (she turns the bacon with her fingers!) and paint -- with her left hand.

Fortunately for her, and for us who love her, Nora still has more left than some people have to begin with. She was bereft, and angry, at her losses, which are -- let's face it -- monumental, but she has moved beyond that to a deep passion for living, a sparkling appreciation of all the beautiful, sad, and funny parts of life. She can't speak, but has developed an associative gestural "language," can't sing words, but hums tunes quite beautifully. And her laugh? The best I've ever heard.

Those of us who are whole? We should be so lucky. And so
Wednesday January 14th 2009, 7:23 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I admire your courage and the utter honesty of your words. Thank you.
I am a retired medical doctor and fully understand the physiology of a CVA (cerebrovascular accident) and would like to extend my concern.
But your spirit of survival and optimism is what I find most attractive in your words.
When calamity is faced with humor, perspective, patience, and faith, surviving is only the first step in "living the rest of your life". The human spirit is so much more than that. And with the loving support of close family, your best days may lie ahead of you in our earthly journey. I can see you find the comfort and love you need and that you fully appreciate your marvelous family.
Yes, life is a gift. And to the person who understands this, all things are possible!
Wednesday January 14th 2009, 10:34 PM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thank you all for the continued positive comments. I feel very lucky to be surrounded by such a concerned and interesting community.

I also know I'm incredibly fortunate not to have suffered more severely. There is a surgeon in my neighborhood who had a similar stroke -- in his case, caused by whooping cough (his coughing caused his artery to dissect) -- and the stroke was monumental. He was 40ish when it hit and, sadly, he has been left in a wheelchair and is on disability.

Your story is extremely moving, Marjorie and I really feel for you and your daughter, Nora. I'm glad she has such a deep passion for living and I laughed to read about her cooking ability. That's lovely.

Paul David, thanks for writing about asphasia. I think I am mildly affected by this. It was quite bad for the first three days after the stroke. Now most people wouldn't be aware I'd had a stroke, but I do have difficulty remembering people's names and, when speaking at length about something, I tend to be a bit slow. Congrats on being a survivor yourself.

Fortunately, the stroke hasn't really affected my writing. (Or, at least I HOPE it hasn't!)
Thursday January 15th 2009, 1:40 AM
Comment by: Lita (Abbotsford Canada)
Dear Daphne,

Thanks for your sagacious comments,tomorrow in my class I will mention the importance on exercising their brains in using different words, not just on learning English.

Hope you get better...
Lita.
Thursday January 15th 2009, 10:10 AM
Comment by: Arlene H. (Aurora, CO)
It often takes a crisis to remember what we so often take for granted. Thank you for reminding me and allowing me to be thankful again for the every day blessings.
Thursday January 15th 2009, 10:47 AM
Comment by: Gene C.
Thank you for this wonderful article. I had a "Brain Abscess,"in 1995. I too came up with a list of lessons served which have guided me in my life ever since. I am an aspiring fiction writer working on my first historical novel. I plan to check out your site and publications. But most of all, thanks from the heartfor the courage and conciseness of your column. Gene
Thursday January 15th 2009, 10:00 PM
Comment by: Gene Benson (Sandusky, OH)
Language, one of many God given gifts. It is treated badly ... misused till it is almost unrecognizabl. This is all in a general usage way. Professionaly in news papers ... it is used at a 4th grade level and filled with a lot of unsubstantiated realness.

Oh don't worry about my ability to know good writing verses someone trying to throw me a parabola of kit and caboodle. (the prior is an example) However; used in an interesting story it can take on a rich realness.

I have seen PhD,s try to throw the old caboodle trying to show how grand their learning is. I don't mind this,if they keep it to themselves.

God knows sports writers can be a hoot to read. And, poets, ah poets may play with the language and make you think about the beauty found in words and thoughts.

I pray this writer who has suffered two strokes never runs out of the fun found in the written word. I hope to find my way to that same place.
Friday January 16th 2009, 11:26 AM
Comment by: Mary Alice Amidon
Do you know neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor's book My Stroke of Insight about her experience of a stroke? Its great and she also slept a ton afterwards. You can see a great 10 min. or so lecture by her on TED talks.
Good luck and be well.
Thursday January 22nd 2009, 1:50 PM
Comment by: Thomas S. (Alexandria, VA)
I found your story truly inspirational as one who has travelled down a somewhat similar path only in reverse. I first lost my vocal chords to cancer 9 years ago. A non-smoker and one with a gift to gab it was hard to make the transition to being a laryngectomee, speaking differently from most.

Two years ago I suffered a massive stroke in a movie theatre and was able to get myself to a stroke center within the critical three hours before long term damage could set in. The consensus was that radiation to my neck area eight years previous had damaged an artery and went undetected.

I still talk as unuaul as ever. After the stoke the most e-mailed question to me was "did it alter my speech in anyway?". My reponse "unfortunately not".

Writing has held me together and given me an outlet for my inner self.
I sense it had done as much for you and many others,
Monday February 16th 2009, 9:49 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
Hello Daphne:

What a privilege for you to share these intimate health issues with us. I have been wondering about your health every since I last emailed you, wishing you a speedy and full recovery. I still pray for your health. I love receiving your helpful emails. In addition to them being informative, I get to enjoy your warm and wonderful smile. It is great to know that you have a supportive family. I know that a loving family suffers as they watch your struggle. I will continue to pray for your full recovery (might as well go for broke), and for your family. My prayer is that they will be able to remain calm, radiate peace and have stamina for whatever help you may need or desire. Take hold of my prayers and please be well.


Ellen D. S.
Saturday April 4th 2009, 6:43 PM
Comment by: A. Z.
Great article! I have multiple family members undergoing physical and emotional problems.
Saturday January 14th 2012, 10:30 PM
Comment by: Lily T. (Mesilla, NM)
More of Daphne's genius! Thanks for these lessons!
Tuesday March 12th 2013, 10:22 AM
Comment by: Meredith C. (Murfreesboro, TN)
This article brought a lump in my throat and tears to my eyes. I simply can't imagine being sidelined so cruelly. Reading this, it occurred to me that I'm not deeply grateful for my facility with words. I'm too busy fearing criticism of my story, of second-guessing my work, and pushing publication further down the road, all of which feels legitimate because there are so many ways to dislike writing. I'm just sparing myself the comments that hurt. And so far, I have. I'm lost in a multitude of detail: rewriting, editing, and changing my characters. So--in a much lighter way--this article has given me a stroke of insight. Thanks, Daphne, for your enlightening article. I'm putting your words on a card and reading them every morning!

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