Out of the Maze

Sandy Allen in Guernica:

I have read before with fascination about the neurology of London cab drivers. Prospective London cabbies must memorize a preposterous amount of geographic information in order to pass the rigorous cab driver exam. Researchers have put drivers in brain scanners, wondering, is there something inherently different about their brains that allows them to memorize so much? Or does the memorization change their brains? They’ve found that in London cabbies’ brains, the area associated with memory is larger. This raises an enormous question, one that medicine still hasn’t figured out: when it comes to what happens inside our skulls, what makes an individual fall into or out of some standard called “normal?”

I thought about this on a Friday morning in early 2016, after my red-eye landed at Heathrow and I walked to find a cab. There was a particular museum just south of London that I desperately wanted to go to. For some months, I’d been visiting its website over and over. More recently, I’d been trying to convince my boyfriend that we needed to go to London for a weekend. He had some days off coming up and the means to go, I reasoned. It’d be romantic. “Plus,” I said, as if it were an afterthought, “I can go to that museum I’ve wanted to go to!”

The day we were to fly was also the day I was supposed to file a draft of my first book to my publisher. In the days leading up to the deadline, I hardly slept. I woke early and worked continuously, eventually closing my eyes past midnight but rising again in the dark, making another pot of coffee and continuing on. I paced the apartment. I read aloud to myself. I printed pages and wrote profanity in the margins. I muttered and cursed. I looked out the windows and wept. I handed in the draft just hours before we left for the airport.

I felt good! I felt great! The book was done! I told anyone who asked, and some who didn’t. Some weeks later, my editors would summon me and make clear, as gently as they could, that the work wasn’t finished, not at all. As they explained this to me in a small conference room over the course of an hour and a half, I tried not to cry. I managed to hold back tears until I was on the train home, and then kept at it for many days after. Eventually I’d tear the draft apart and rewrite the book entirely. Some months later, I’d do it again. The actual “the book is finished!” feeling wouldn’t arrive for another year and a half.

More here.