Not for the Thin-Skinned


At this year’s Boston Book Festival, I plodded into a standing-room-only venue to attend the session, “Writer Idol.” I stuffed a page with the first two hundred fifty words of my memoir in progress into a box bulging with dozens of other submissions, then sat in an aisle seat, in case I decided the session was not for me after all. I stared ahead, waiting for three agents – Kimiko Nakamura, Sorche Fairbank, and Amaryah Orenstein – to enter the stage, where they would listen to two authors take turns reading anonymous submissions. I recalled the description of the event in the brochure: “This session is not for the thin-skinned.” I can handle this.

A few moments later, the agents settled in their seats, and the show began. One of the authors plucked a submission from the box, and started reading. The agents were still, concentrating with their eyes closed. The secret writer knew that an agent could react at any moment, bringing the reading to a halt. The reader finished almost the entire piece before Ms. Fairbank’s hand waved in the air, indicating where she would stop reading and reject the piece. Soon after, Ms. Kimiko raised her hand. Clichés, and too many words are “symptoms of the rest of the manuscript,” Ms. Fairbank explained. Ms. Kimiko agreed. Buried in the audience, the writer knew that if their full manuscript came across either one of the agent’s desks, there would be a good chance they would reject it. As I imagined how that writer felt, a warm current whirled in my chest.

The second submission was weighed down by “too much exposition,” and encumbered with “meaningless” words, Ms. Fairbank said. “I don’t know what’s happening,” Ms. Orenstein said about the third submission. The fourth one was also interrupted. “The scene seems like it’s about to drag on,” Ms. Fairbank commented. I scribbled notes, visualizing my piece. Do I use clichés? I don’t believe I use wasted words.

“The Peach,” a reader called out. I sat up straight, gripping my pen, readying myself for the critique of my piece:

I dig my nails into my thigh, scrape the center of the raw, six-inch scar that reminds me of a scythe. Despite my efforts to relieve the itch, it won’t let up. Then, like a crescent moon, the sliver emerges from my skin. A splinter?  No. A sliver of glass the size of a fingernail tip. I touch it, motion to flick it away as if it were a poisonous insect, but stop, and hold it under the lamp for a closer look. A dull yellow glimmers from its core. Its amorphous – ”

At the same time, all three agents hands shot up. I dropped my head into my notepad, heat gushing into my face. I had read the passage again and again, and “amorphous” seemed fitting. But now hearing it, it sounded as if I were trying too hard. So when Ms. Fairbank said my piece is “over-wrought with language,” I nodded. I nodded again when she questioned my use of “poisonous insect.” The other two agents agreed – too much focus on detail for the start of the manuscript. Ms. Fairbank suggested I have a “fresh pair of eyes” read it.

For the rest of the session, even though I burned with disappointment, I focused on the responses of the agents, telling myself that this was my chance to learn what they are looking for in a manuscript. I jotted notes: “Start off simple. Don’t dump information onto the page. Don’t create long sentences at the start of the book. Don’t use description for description’s sake, and watch out for piling descriptions on top of each other.”

The next day, after my husband read my piece out loud to me, I revised it:

I dig my nails into my thigh, scrape the center of the raw, moon shaped scar. The itch won’t let up. My nail catches on something hard and sharp. A splinter?  I tweeze it with my nails. I pull out a sliver of glass, the size of a fingernail tip. Where did the glass come from? The windshield of the Buick? Is that possible? Has it been inside me for two months?

Though I had left the session feeling as if I could use a transfusion of confidence, what if I had not attended, or not submitted my piece? I would not have benefited from the trio of raised hands?

This post was published in Brevity on October 30, 2014, at

Photo: courtesy of

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It’s on the Tip of My Tongue: Traumatic Brain Injuries and Word Finding


Many people experience moments when they can’t come up with the exact word, or words, they want to express, and resort to the hackneyed phrase: “It’s on the tip of my tongue.” But for those suffering from a traumatic brain injury, this phrase extends beyond its timeworn use. Word finding, or word retrieval, is one of the most common cognitive difficulties in TBI survivors. The language center of the brain is located in the left hemisphere – the frontal and temporal lobes. Difficulty with word retrieval usually means the damage has occurred in the frontal lobe, the location of most TBIs.

What does this mean for individuals who have suffered a frontal lobe injury? Called dysnomia, or anomia, they tend to have difficulty naming objects, people, and places. They may know what the object is that they are looking at, but cannot identify it.  Sometimes the process is selective, say, to colors. For instance, individuals might know the difference between blue and pink, but cannot name them. In other cases, individuals might be able to identity an object through sound – the ringing of a bell – or touch – a needle – but not sight. Others might use the wrong word. For example, instead of saying, “Can you please pass the salt,” they might say, “Can you please pass the tire?”

Circumlocution, a strategy where you “talk around” the name of the object, person, or place you are attempting to identify, often helps. If you’re looking for your cell phone, and you want to ask your husband if he has seen it, you might say, “It’s portable and it rings.” That way he will know what you are talking about. Also, this might prompt you to remember the object. Reciting the alphabet is a strategy that triggers words for me, especially if I can’t recall someone’s name, which happens all the time, even if I just met the person five seconds earlier. So, if I’m trying to recall the name Nancy, I say the alphabet in my head until I get to N. You can also visualize the word written out on a chalkboard, or whiteboard, or even a pad of paper. Similar to circumlocution, if someone cues me by sounding out the beginning of a word I’m struggling to express, my brain synapses suddenly come to life.

For writers with a TBI, difficulties with word retrieval interfere with crafting poetic sentences for our readers to chew on. I typically find myself staring at a sentence for several minutes, rubbing my forehead and biting on my pencil. It’s not unusual for me to spend hours working on one paragraph. I usually end up resorting to my pile of notebooks of quotes I’ve collected from some of my favorite authors. For instance, if I’ve used “walk” a hundred times in my manuscript to describe someone entering a room, I flip through the notebooks, scanning the pages for unique ways other authors describe this same action. Of course, I do not steal their phrases, but seeing alternative ways to express “walk” is similar to someone verbally cueing me: My brain lights up with all kinds of options to consider, and I feel as if I just won the lottery.

Give these exercises a try, and feel free to share what works for you.

(FYI: Including research, it took me five hours and twenty-eight minutes to write this bog post).

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How to Write Your Way Out of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder


More than six years after an older driver ran into me, causing multiple injuries including post-traumatic stress disorder, I decided I wanted to write a memoir about the tragedy and its aftermath. I wrote (actually I typed) nearly everyday. Essentially, I dumped my brain onto the page, ignoring the logical left side as I typed fast and furious without thinking about the structure of my story. Six months later, I had 365 pages of facts muddled with emotion. Though I felt proud of myself for my accomplishment, a puddle of grief muddied the moment. I thought I was ready to write about the accident, but maybe I wasn’t. Maybe I hadn’t yet figured out how to navigate my PTSD speed bumps. As the months and years passed, I read the pages again and again, examined with a closer eye what I had written, pondered the subterranean meaning of each passage and turn of phrase. The combination of time, taking breaks from my story, and reuniting with it from the perspective of a maturing writer, helped me gain insight into my work. In essence, I had stepped outside of myself, outside of my PTSD, and looked at the endless pages from a different, non-PTSD angle.

I’m glad I stuck with writing because research shows that it helps heal PTSD, even brief periods of putting pen to paper.

When we experience a trauma, physical and/or emotional, our brains work overtime to process it, interfering with our ability to be present for others, and ourselves. Writing our thoughts down helps to release the emotional burden, and helps us to organize, put our thoughts in order – clean up our metaphorical cluttered homes. Writing has been shown to benefit the immune system, and overall health. But a professor of psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, Dr. James Pennebaker, cautions: “Standing back every now and then and evaluating where you are in life is really important.” Speaking from experience, I agree.

So, where to start? Here are my ideas:

1) Journaling: Even if you jot down one sentence each day.

2) Carry a pad of paper with you at all times – when a disturbing thought crowds your brain, write it down.

3) In first person (from the perspective of “I”), write about an emotional, or traumatic, event that has kept you awake at night. Just write. Don’t think about who might see it – lock it in a safe deposit box if you have to. The rub: put it away for a month, or two, or three, and then go back to it.

4) Take the same piece you worked on in number three, and write it from a different point of view – second or third person – forcing yourself to step outside of your hypersensitive skin (I’ve engaged in this exercise – it opened a vault door I never knew existed).

Feel free to share how this exercises worked for you?

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”  Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings


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Cannabis and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder


Twenty-three states have legalized the use of cannabis for those who suffer from medical conditions like arthritis, migraines, AIDS, cancer, and psychiatric illnesses. Yes, even post-traumatic stress disorder makes the list, which means, if you are among the 7.7 million people who suffer from symptoms, you’re in luck. It appears that scientists agree cannabis may be just what you need to alleviate your anxiety related to PTSD. Researchers at NYU Langone Medical Center have found a connection between the human brain’s cannabinoid receptors, called CB1, and PTSD. These receptors are linked to an intricate internal engine of chemicals and neurological pathways called the endocannabinoid system, which affects our emotions, appetite, pain tolerance, and memory. Studies have been conducted on animals, showing that cannabis, together with naturally occurring chemicals in the body, stimulate CB1 receptors and interfere with memory.

Physicians at the NYU School of Medicine conducted brain scans on people with PTSD and found that they had lower levels of a certain endocannabinoid than those without PTSD. With this knowledge, not only can they better diagnose individuals with PTSD, they can treat them with a something that works, rather than antidepressants, which don’t always work. Studies have shown that those who take antidepressants continue to suffer from nightmares, flashbacks, night sweats, and poor sleep. But those who were administered a synthetic form of cannabis experienced significantly less intense nightmares, or no further nightmares at all.

So, for those of you who are looking for an alternative to Paxil, Zoloft, Prozac, or any of the other alphabet soup of drugs on the market that claim to create a Zen-balance among the sea of moody chemicals sloshing around in your brain, science is on your side. And there’s good news for those living in Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, New Mexico, Oregon, Nevada, or Michigan – they allow the use of cannabis to help alleviate PTSD symptoms. Arizona recently authorized the use of cannabis use for PTSD – the provision goes into effect January 1, 2015.

Each state’s guidelines are different, but here’s the basic rub: You need to have documentation from a “certifying” physician who can attest that you suffer from “debilitating” symptoms that interfere with your ability to carry out “activities of daily living.”

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