How not being able to walk taught me how to write.

Posted in blog post on April 24th, 2013 by Merrill Markoe

This is a shortened version of a piece I read at a Skirball Center/Beth Lapides/Say The Word event that was called THE NEW ME.  I decided to put this part of it up here because what I learned might be useful to someone else.

It all started when I woke up one day last fall and couldn’t walk.

To cut to the chase: after 30 some odd years of eating health food and taking a million vitamins and doing the best possible exercise 6 days a week (yoga, pilates, the gym, swimming), it still turned out that I didn’t have any cartilage left in my hips. It didn’t seem possible.  I owned and used a goddam juicer!  I took glucosamine/chondroitin and MSM and calcium supplements every day. In fact I had so many vitamin bottles that there was almost no room on my kitchen counter for cooking.  I didn’t eat sugar. I was a vegetarian. I went to yoga and did “hip openers”. I meditated. Why  did I eat all those horrible health food candy bars if not to keep stuff like this from happening?

I felt a little bit like a Buddhist monk who had gotten sick from chanting OM.

Turned out I had to get hip implants.

So, the way this played out in real life was that I spent most of January and February not moving much. On the bright side…well, there really wasn’t a bright side to not being able to walk except maybe that sitting around in bed was no longer connected to an accusation of being lazy. Here is an entry I made in my diary from that period.

But then something weird and kind of magical happened. While I was waiting to have my new robot parts installed, I had a big revelation about writing.

Writing is what I have done for a living for the last 35 years. And when I say that the process was not the least bit enjoyable, it is only because I would struggle to find words strong enough to describe how agonizing it had become and how much I had learned to hate it.

Just to give you a tiny bit of my history: Original Recipe Merrill started out with a degree in art. I was a painter. But then,  I reinvented myself in my twenties as Merrill2.0. I switched from painting to writing because it was a better source of income. 

Still I used to get a real buzz from the act of painting that I never got from the act of writing. And I now believe it has to do with basic brain function.

While I was bed ridden I started reading a lot about the 2 hemispheres of the brain. If you’re not familiar with this stuff: the left brain is the hemisphere that handles all of life’s homework: the organizing, the structuring of patterns, the math. Its not much fun over there but its what we use to pay bills and make to-do lists .  We get things done in an organized fashion because of the way our left brain works. And of all the creative arts, the only one that is centered in the left brain is writing.

The right brain is where all the fun stuff like music and painting takes place. The right brain is intuitive and provides us with a kind of global interactive awareness of our surroundings.  Its where the floaty dreamy drifty enjoyable nirvana stuff lives. When I used to paint, I would marvel at how I could sit down to paint, then get up and not know where the last 5 hours went.

When I wrote,  however, I would marvel at how I sat down, wrote one painful sentence, then wasted 40 minutes on some stupid slide show I didn’t even want to look at on Huffingtonpost about 8 surprising diet foods that won’t help you lose weight. Then 5 hours of baby animal videos later, in order to get myself to start writing again I’d have to envision myself wrestling me back in to a chair, then punching myself repeatedly in the face until I gave in and wrote at least one more sentence.  After which I’d declare myself victorious! “A job well done!” I’d cheer, patting myself on the back as I would pour myself a drink and time permitting, another one. And then, if all went well, I’d be too drunk to write. So off to bed!

But back to my big visionary discovery about how to write:

In January, while I waited for my February 21 surgery date, my immobility caused all my daily rituals  to change. I used to get up at 6 AM and go out to the driveway and get the NY Times. (Yes,yes…I know I am the last person alive who still gets the paper delivered. And I know it’s a ridiculous  waste of money. But I’m pretty sure  that I alone am what is keeping the NY Times from bankrupcy.  And I  can’t really handle bearing the sole responsibility for the collapse the NYTimes.) 

Anyway, the point is that I could no longer walk to my driveway.  It felt like 5 miles away. But because I was still waking up at 6AM I needed some way to fill my morning.  So one day, out of desperation, I decided to try and write.

I had an idea for a play but whenever I sat down to write it during the afternoon, the Nazi voices of my left brain wouldn’t let me. They berated me, explaining at length that the premise I’d picked was too problematic and that I didn’t know my characters well enough. Obviously I needed to do more research, then rethink the whole thing from top to bottom.  Even my imaginary ritual of punching myself in the face to make myself start writing couldn’t get the ball rolling.

But on this particular morning, my inability to walk caused me to try to write before I was even awake.  And to my complete surprise, I effortlessly wrote 15 pages. The same thing happened when I tried it the next day. And the day after that.. And the day after that. 

And so it came to pass that in the six weeks before my surgery, I wrote a rough first draft of my play.

That is how I learned something amazing that I never knew before: first thing in the morning, when I have that sleepy brain that I used to think was useless… while my head still feels like it is full of ground fog and wrapped in flannel and gauze…before the hive of sleep bees buzzing around me has dispersed… THAT is the best brain to use for writing!

Writing is somehow much more easily accessible to me when I am still half asleep because the Gestapo members in my left brain are not able to begin dominating til later in the day.This discovery so amazed me that I thought I should share it, in case it helps anyone else with this problem. I also think its important to hand write the first draft, with a pen or pencil.  I think the act of writing by hand seems to connect you to right brain activity. (Re-writing on a computer might left brain…I say as tho I know what I am talking about.) And while we’re on the topic: stay off the computer until you’ve decided you’re done writing. It completely wrecks everything if you start communicating with other people or checking a lot of sites. It just does.

On February 21st I had both hips replaced.  By March 21st I was walking AND writing painlessly every day. I was so thrilled to welcome back two things I really feared I might never enjoy again that I see this as the beginning of the All New Merrill4G.

All New Merrill 4G sees Merrill 2.0 as a girl who had a stick up her butt. I still eat healthy, but Merrill 4G has cut way back on the vitamins. I’ve also decided that cake, cookies and candy are an  acceptable part of a smart health food regime. One day when I was in the hospital, I had chocolate cake for dinner.  Well, what was I supposed to have? More of that green juice that put me in there?

But most magical of all, Merrill 4G actually likes getting up in the morning and writing with ease for 3 or 4 hours every day. This new method always works… as long as my head is still half asleep. Merrill 4G understands that the clear-minded over-caffeinated head is better used for paying bills and running errands or working out at the gym. Plus, by getting my writing done in the  morning, if there’s any time left over in the evening  and I want to get back into my right brain, I can paint.

So far the NEW new me is having a lot more fun than all the versions of the old me combined. That breathtaking magic tricks like walking and writing came out of being bedridden is an act of the supernatural that truly blows me away.

Walking, writing and cookies: the cornerstones of Merrill 4G.

PS: Dr. Eric Johnson at UCLA is a great orthopedic surgeon. If you have to get hip surgery, may I humbly recommend you look in to the type called ‘anterior.’

PS: For those who are interested, I am now on Twitter.  @Merrillmarkoe

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16 Responses to “How not being able to walk taught me how to write.”

  1. Marian Allen says:

    Congratulations on your new hips. I’ll bet they look like they were made for you. Seriously, I’m very glad to hear that you’re all better and that your writing is as much fun for you as it is for your readers.

  2. OMG..this is exactly what happened to me. I was not able to write for years and then because I had this little thin Mac by my bed and would wake up around 5 AM, I started writing a blog. Then I started writing a weird short story which is turning into a novella. And then I started writing a short story which is turning into a novel. And every morning around 5 AM or 6 AM I get so many pages written it’s amazing to me because I just can not stop writing because it feels so good..this is SO TRUE! Another weird connection I started out wanting to be a painter as well….WOW!

  3. Mary Novaria says:

    Bless you for a great lesson in getting out of our own way. We writers can talk ourselves out of everything. Welcome back!

  4. George Lyons says:

    Bully for you, Merrill, I always knew you were hip, now you have redefined the standard.
    All good wishes and thanks for the “early AM” share.

  5. Janis Hirsch says:

    As the world’s oldest living female sitcom writer who also had polio as an infant – how’s that for a non-key demo? – you’ve explained why I am having trouble writing of late. I can walk. I just do it badly, with crutches and a brace. I will be melting them down for mouthguards and expect to be on my merry way again soon.

  6. Jennifer says:

    What an ordeal–but what a revelation!

    When I take notes for a review, I absolutely have to write them and my first draft in my notebook–revising the review for publication is done on the computer mainly because that’s how I have to submit the final copy (if it’s just for the blog, I do write it on the computer, but those are much more conversational and casual). Same thing with brainstorming ideas for programs–cannot do it on the computer or on the iPad, no matter how awesome the app sounds.

    Are you going forward with your play?

    (Or perhaps a graphic novel?)

  7. Sarah T. says:

    It makes sense! (Is that my left brain talking?)

    Julia Cameron has suggested something called “morning pages” for this very reason. I’ve found that meditating before doing any kind of writing helps enormously. And meditation in general helps with all those nasty voices that we tend to buy in to, blocking our creative flow.

    Congrats on the hips!

  8. Mark Miller says:

    Congrats, Merrill. A great discovery. So, was the other insight that good health habits are absolutely unconnected to the need for a hip replacement? If so, what caused the hips to deteriorate?

    • There’s no one reason. One guy talked about slight variations in the way a skeleton is put together and the way wear and tear takes place because of that. Kind of like tires out of alignment. Another guy said “Stuff wears out.”

  9. joe rhodes says:

    You are robbing me of the perfectly good excuses which are the basis of my lifestyle. Now I will have to make up new ones. Wait, does that count as writing?

  10. Shira says:

    Are you familiar with Lynda Barry? She’s a big proponent of hand writing rather than typing/using computer, for similar reasons. She wrote her wonderful novel, Cruddy, by brush and ink. It is nice that that’s working for you. We’re all eager to read whatever comes next. (I am in Chicago so am guessing I won’t see the play).

  11. Lucy says:

    On the other hand, early AM suck for doing that Lumosity Brain Training.

    Congrats on the new body parts. Do you have to be patted down at airports? My FauxKnee has me shuttled off to the glass cage until a female agent in latex gloves can make sure I don’t have a knife strapped to it.

  12. Carolyn H says:

    Hi Merrill, You have done something that I wanted to consider – double hip implants (anterior). I have not found any help in my online research.

    What led you to do both and would you do it the same way if you had the choice now? Was your dr. opposed originally or supportive? My dr. does anterior, but did not encourage a double implant. I am on Medicare and in great shape generally and would like to just get it over with. It is so hard to choose which one since both are equally painful.

    Thanks

  13. Mary Holden says:

    May your sense of humor and skill with writing and painting never need any sort of replacement; may they never wear out or go skeletal. (My young neighbor–well, younger than me and I’m 57–told me that she needs a hip replaced so I am going to give your writing to her as a screen full of the equivalent of chicken soup!) And just so you know, I found you through the magic of Kevin Pho, M.D. Thank you.

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