Once upon a time, in a land not-so-far-away, I had decided with certainty that I was going to become a writer when I grew up. As a teenager, I used to spend hours reading epic novels at the kitchen table and the remaining time lost in my own daydreaming. It eventually got to the point where my mother once threatened to burn all of my books in the fireplace. At the time, I didn’t care. I felt in my soul that it was my calling, my passion.
Then I went to college.
Clearly we all know how this story ends. I met many talented young and equally passionate writers and readers like myself and it began to dawn on me that maybe this whole writing thing wasn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be. In fact, it was quite hard. So after one semester of struggling through my introductory freshman non-fiction writing class, I decided that maybe I wasn’t going to be a writer anymore. I thought that perhaps I’d take the easier route and try med school instead.
But those long nights typing away at my computer were never a waste. I learned a number of things that have helped my perspectives in life, as well as in the occasional short story. My all-time favorite book on writing is Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. One of the chapters is titled “Radio Station KFKD” and nowhere else have I found a better description of the chaos that goes on inside my head while working during a Friday overnight in the Emergency Department. And this chaos is probably not a unique experience to only me. She writes:
“If you are not careful, station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo. Out of the right speaker in your ear will come the endless stream of self-aggrandizement, the recitation of one’s specialness, of how much more open and gifted and brilliant and knowing and misunderstood and humble one is. Out of the left speaker will be the rap songs of self-loathing, the lists of all the things one doesn’t do well, of all the mistakes one has make today and over an entire lifetime, the doubt, the assertion that everything that one touches turns to shit, that one doesn’t do relationships well, that one is in everyway a fraud, incapable of selfless love, that one has no talent or insight, and on and on and on. (p. 116)”
“If you are not careful, station KFKD will play in your head twenty-four hours a day, nonstop, in stereo.”
Although Lamott only peripherally mentions her interests in mediation and mindfulness in the book (it is, after all, a book on writing), she provides a very helpful exercise for those times when you just can’t get control of the voices rattling around inside your brain:
“Close your eyes and get quiet for a minute, until the chatter starts up. Then isolate one of the voices and imagine the person speaking as a mouse. Pick it up by the tail, drop it in the jar. Then isolate another voice, pick it up by the tail, drop it in the jar. And so on. Drop in any high-maintenance parental units, drop in any contractors, lawyers, colleagues, children, anyone who is whining in your head. Then put the lid on and watch all these mouse people clawing at the glass, jabbering away, trying to make you feel bad because you won’t do what they want—won’t give them more money, won’t be more successful, won’t see them more often. Then imagine that there is a volume control button on the bottle. Turn it all the way up for a minute, and listen to the stream of angry, neglected, guilt-mongering voices. Then turn it all the way down and watch the frantic mice lunge at the glass, trying to get to you. Leave it down, and get back to your work … A writer friend of mine suggests opening the jar and shooting them all in the head. But I think he’s a little angry, and I’m sure nothing like this would ever occur to you. (p.27)”
So I suppose the moral of this particular story is to remember that the next time you’re on shift and find your thoughts racing around like it’s the Indy 500, take a second to imagine the mason jar and stick all those little mice inside. And then get back to the business of saving lives.