Low to no words

Kate sits at a table center stage. On the table is a digital overhead projector, with its projection on the screen behind Kate. Also on the table is a dish of water with a brush in it, a folded paper towel, a tray of watercolors, and a sheet of watercolor paper. On the sheet of the watercolor paper is a line pattern of interlocking triangles.

Kate picks up the brush dabs it on one of the watercolors and proceeds to fill in the triangles. She follows a repetitive pattern of her own devising. Her painting is visible on the projected screen behind her.

Kate’s pre-recorded voice starts playing. While the recorded voice is playing, Kate continues to paint the triangles.

Kate (VO): Sometimes words stop being my friends. It becomes very difficult to verbalize coherently. It isn’t either writer’s block or a speech impediment exactly. It’s that my mind doesn’t seem to be able to channel the flow of language in my brain in a productive manner.

Words tend to rush out in an overlappingly indistinguishable torrent of half formed ideas or slip me into repetitive imaginary conversations with other people about painful or uncomfortable topics or weave terrible scenarios about loved ones that overwhelm me with emotion.

For a number of years, when I experienced one of these verbalizing difficulty episodes I forced myself to sit at the computer and eek out some amount of writing. It was difficult and the writing itself was often low quality. But the important part was that even in spite of my deficiencies, I still got words down. I had a strong sense of purpose and accomplishment from these efforts. As well as a hit of puritanical self-righteousness. A sense of having done my duty.

You see, suffering was something I should endure when writing. How else could I make up for the selfish arrogance of believing I had something worth saying? Something that was worth taking all this time to write down?

I don’t remember when I started to pull away from this hard line. I think I was pretty sneaky about it at first. I had to trick myself into being nicer to myself. When I could feel the words in my brain sliding into an unproductive place, I started doing research or organizing things. They still counted as “work” but were less verbally taxing.

Eventually when the nonverbalness hit, I allowed myself to do more with visual art. This included working on quilting projects or painting with watercolors. I had been doing these kinds of tessellated paintings for years, but I never thought of painting as being real creative work.

At first it felt like I was playing hooky. You see, I really like painting. The colors are wonderful. I get so much pleasure from the tactile experience of smoothing the liquid pigments over the absorbent paper. I also get to indulge myself in the repetitive activity of dipping the brush in water, dabbing the brush against the paint, swirling the paint and water together, then carefully applying it to the page.

Over time when I took these times to paint, I told myself I was at least doing something productive, even if it wasn’t real work because it wasn’t nearly as difficult as writing.

When that excuse seemed less necessary, painting became a “secondary practice” that gave me brain space to marinate on ideas for my writing.

It took a long while before I was able to say that painting was worthwhile creative work on its own. It took even longer before I planned to take care of myself when I recognized the approach of a nonverbal spell. It was a big deal the first time I decided in advance to do something unambiguously enjoyable like painting when I couldn’t pull off being a writer that day.

It’s hard to admit that these kind of days exist for me, and it’s hard sometimes not to feel like I’m weak or lazy for having a brain that does this. It’s also hard to decide to stop punishing myself for my brain’s failure to be ready for verbal work every time I think it should be.

Kate paints one last triangle, finishing after the last line.

But it’s getting easier. Bit by bit.

Kate rinses out the brush in the water, then dabs it dry on the paper towel. She smooths out the bristles and places the brush on the table.

Curtain.