My Brain on My Mind

Priscilla Long in The American Scholar:

Winter-2010 Walter Long was a writer and he was my grandfather. He was courteous, charming, chivalrous, handsome, well-spoken, well-shaven, well-dressed, and completely senile. His mental decline began when I was a girl. In the end he didn’t know me, and he didn’t know his own son, my father. He was born in 1884. He wrote for four or five decades until, starting sometime in the 1950s, dementia destroyed his writing process. We have a photo of Granddad writing with a dip pen at a slant-top writing table. He was a tall, thin man with a high forehead and a classic, almost Grecian, nose. He was a metropolitan reporter for Philadelphia’s leading newspaper, The Philadelphia Bulletin, before the era of regular bylines. What remains of his five decades of reportage? Nothing. His words have been obliterated, eradicated, annihilated. And what do we know about his brain? About his neurons, or ex-neurons? Almost nothing. Before me, my grandfather was the writer in the family. This abecedarium is dedicated to him. To his memory.


Alphabets are an awe-inspiring invention of the Homo sapiens brain. Consider these sound symbols lining up before your eyes. Our 26 letters can create in English one to two million words. (The range has to do with what you consider a word. Are brain and brainy the same word?)

Where in our brain do we keep our ABCs? How does our brain provide us with the use of alphabetic characters without thought? I am handwriting this sentence in my writer’s notebook. The letters flow out of my pen as if they were a fluid flowing from my fingertips rather like sweat. Nothing for which I really have to use my brain.

More here.