The Assay Interview Project: Andi Buchanan
January 1, 2019
Andrea J. Buchanan is a New York Times bestselling author whose latest work is the 2019 PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Award nominated book, The Beginning of Everything. Her other work includes the multimedia young adult novel Gift, the internationally bestselling The Daring Book for Girls, her essay collection on early motherhood Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It, and seven other books. Before becoming a writer, Andi trained as a pianist, earning a bachelor of music degree in piano performance from the Boston Conservatory of Music and a master's in piano performance from the San Francisco Conservatory. Her last recital was at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall. You can find her online at www.andibuchanan.com.
About The Beginning of Everything: Andrea Buchanan lost her mind while crossing the street one blustery March morning. The cold winter air triggered a coughing fit, and she began to choke. She was choking on a lot that day. A sick son. A pending divorce. The guilt of failing as a partner and as a mother. When the coughing finally stopped, she thought it was over. She could not have been more wrong.
When she coughed that morning, a small tear ripped through her dura mater, the membrane covering the brain and spinal cord. But she didn’t know that yet. Instead, Andrea went on with her day, unaware that her cerebrospinal fluid was already beginning to leak out of that tiny opening.
What followed was nine months of pain and confusion as her brain, no longer cushioned by a healthy waterbed of fluid, sank in her skull. At a time in her life when she needed to be as clear-thinking as possible?as a writer, as a mother, as a woman attempting to strike out on her own after two decades of marriage?she was plagued by cognitive impairment and constant pain, trapped by her own brain―all while mystifying doctors and pushing the limits of medical understanding.
In this luminous and moving narrative, Andrea reveals the astonishing story of this tumultuous year―her fraught search for treatment; how patients, especially women, fight to be seen as reliable narrators of their own experiences; and how her life-altering recovery process affected both her and her family.
The mind-brain connection is one of the greatest mysteries of the human condition. In some folklore, the cerebrospinal fluid around the brain is thought to be the place where consciousness actually begins. Here, in the pages of The Beginning of Everything, Andrea seeks to understand: Where was “I” when I wasn’t there?
Sonya Huber: The Beginning of Everything is the story of a random cough that led to a tear in the dura mater surrounding your spine and a grueling 9-month leak of cerebral spinal fluid (CSF) as well as the recovery from that injury. But it’s about so much more than that; you include research and reflection on music, narrative, neuroplasticity, and so many other topics, and your thinking really is front and center in this book. In many ways I’d describe it as an essayistic memoir, as it portrays of necessity the “mind at work,” to use Philip Lopate’s phrase. Did make a conscious decision as you were writing to venture into the territory of the essay? In some ways it would be difficult to write this book without putting thinking itself in center stage, but so many memoirs--especially those about healing--are pushed forward by a narrative propulsion, and I’m impressed with the degree to which you resisted that.
Andi Buchanan: I always joke that each book feels like the first one I’ve ever written and the last one I’ll ever write, but this book in many ways really did feel like my first book—which was, in fact, an essay collection. In lots of ways, this book was a return to form. Creative nonfiction essay writing was what I used to do, and writing it again felt like coming home.
I did have to remind myself during the writing process that this book was not an essay collection. I would often find myself nearing the end of chapters, trying to close things up neatly or make it into a standalone piece, and then remembering, Oh, right! This doesn’t have to resolve here; it’s a chapter, not an ending.
In terms of narrative and narrative propulsion, that was something I really struggled with, not only in the beginning stages of thinking about the book, but in the writing of it as well. I began with a lot of grand ideas about narrative, especially in the context of an illness memoir; about upending the form, about doing something new. But as I went along my goals became smaller and smaller, until I was more like, Are there words on a page? Fantastic! I was happy just to have it exist.
But the question of narrative was a perplexing one: For one thing, the nature of my illness was such that in many ways I existed outside of narrative as it was happening. I wasn’t able to think clearly enough to understand narrative, to give myself a sense of story. It was only as I began to recover, as my brain recovered, that I could fully appreciate the series of events that had occurred, and attempt to make sense of what had happened to me. And it was both healing and profoundly unsettling to explore the process of narrative as a person recovering from neurological injury and as a writer. I was struck by the limits of narrative as much as I was humbled by the necessity of it. In approaching the book, I knew I wanted it to be more than just a timeline of events, or a typical “hero’s journey” or redemption story; but I wasn’t sure how to do that. It was also difficult for me, at the point in time when I first started writing about it, to hold big-picture concepts in my mind; executive function was still shaky, and I often found myself overwhelmed by even trying to choose where to start, let alone actually starting.
In the end, I took a cue from my experience of being sick. I felt so fragmented when I was sick. If normal life was looking at a pointillist painting from across the room and seeing a full image, being sick was like being an inch away and only being aware of the individual dots. So that’s how I began to approach the writing and organization of it: zooming in, looking at a dot of a topic and then zooming out slightly to add more context. I had what I affectionately called a “murder board” on my wall, though instead of the traditional CSI show display of pushpins and suspect photos and red string to connect all the facts, it was a bunch of different sized post-it notes. Large ones, for main themes or topics, were surrounded by smaller ones, which were for sub-topics or related concepts. Sometimes the cluster of large-with-several-smalls would itself cluster around an even larger post-it describing an even larger theme. This was a concrete way for me to work, in the beginning, to literally see what I was dealing with. Being able to physically assemble and move ideas around was very helpful at a time when I wasn’t able to think as nimbly as I wanted to. And that’s how I began doing the work: picking a dot/post-it note/theme, and writing about it. The idea being that once I had these writing “dots” assembled, I would be able to start connecting them.
Later, when I was deeper into the process, and deeper into my recovery and able to think a bit more, I began thinking more specifically about timelines and linear narrative, and what connecting these dots might actually look like in terms of a larger storytelling. I knew I had three basic timelines going on: One, the actual linear timeline of what happened when during this medical journey of getting the leak and getting treatment and recovering; two, the historical timeline of medical understanding about spinal CSF leaks, and pain, and brains, and healing, which, although all of that existed along a timeline, wasn’t necessarily bound by one; and three, all of the stuff that existed outside of time, including my memories, events from other moments in my life, medical facts and quotes, the concept of story. So, linear time, contextual time, and timelessness. I tried to balance those and alternate between them in writing the book.
The timelines--and the way they each emerge--really are a study in complex musical structure itself. Music itself plays a major presence in the book on multiple levels. This is kind of a random question, but do you feel that your musical training has helped you with thinking about structure in writing?
I think it would probably be impossible to study and play music for decades without absorbing something about structure; but I’m not sure how much music has had a conscious impact on my writing in terms of thinking about structure and storytelling. I’ve found a lot of practical aspects of piano practice transfer well to writing practice—the physical parts, the discipline, the time, the stamina, the self-direction and self-critique required of productive practice—as well as the more philosophical aspects, about process and taking things apart and putting them together again. But I suppose I hadn’t thought about musical structure, really, as it informs my own writing. As a pianist approaching a piece, I’m trying to understand an existing structure, maybe reverse-engineer it so I can fully comprehend how it works from beginning to end. As a writer, I am attempting to impose a structure, creating it as I go, trying to understand it even as I assemble it. So I’d been thinking of playing piano and writing as opposites; and yet it makes sense that some of that reverse-engineering work in understanding musical structure might show up in my thinking about writing.
One of the most basic structures in traditional classical music is sonata form, which has three sections: the exposition, the development, and the recapitulation. This feels very comfortable to the listener, because it’s very much like traditional storytelling in that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end. The musical theme or subject is introduced in the exposition, set in the “home” key of the piece, often with a secondary theme as well. Then in the development section, a contrasting key is explored, and the themes take on different forms—they’re split up into fragments, or they become more elaborate, or they’re so far afield from the starting key they sound almost unrecognizable out of context. Finally, in the recapitulation, the main theme returns, in its home key, both grounded in its restatement and changed by its journey. It’s like a very truncated version of the “Hero’s Journey” structure in storytelling.
In trying to think about my illness, I felt very stuck in the recapitulation. Not necessarily in the traditional sense, with the theme returning triumphantly and vibrantly, signalling that all is well; but in the sense of an endless iteration, returning to the same subjects over and over, developing but never getting anywhere, endlessly repeating the same ideas. I suppose in its finished form the book turned out to be more of a theme and variations structure than anything else—I was able to take several topics and weave them throughout the book, with them explicitly returning at several points throughout (like the recurring theme of being an unreliable narrator, and the uselessness of story).
I very much valued that effect that you describe, of trying to recreate that amorphous timeless feeling of being sick, where time seems to come unglued--within the container of a larger timeline. And I love the idea of a thematic story board! That is a wonderful visual. One of the very essayistic things you do in the book--and something I’ve encountered in nonfiction conference presentations but never on the pages of a memoir—is the degree to which you foreground the narrative problem, reminding readers about the ways in which we all reach for “story,” the comforts of story, but also the dangers of story when it turns out our lives don’t conform to those pre-cut narratives and expectations. In some ways this choice, to talk to readers directly about the promises and pitfalls of “story,” might be the element that stays with me. It felt like a way to really respect the reader, too; this is a philosophical and even spiritual issue well beyond the medical challenges you faced. It just opened up so much space in the book. Was this a topic that became urgent during the living of the medical crisis, or did it reveal itself during the writing?
“The promises and pitfalls of story”—that’s a wonderful way to put it. Really, that was something I struggled with during the entirety of being ill, as well as in the aftermath: how to make sense of something insensible. When I was sick, and in constant pain, and unable to think clearly, it was difficult to comprehend how anything made sense, from the most basic daily functions to the larger existential questions of what was happening; and yet I needed stories. I needed A story, a story that could explain this freak medical event to my kids, a story that could explain it to the strangers who wondered what was wrong, a story that could explain it to me and comfort me with the reliability of narrative, an instigating moment, a climax, an ending. But I didn’t have any of that. I didn’t know what was happening, or what might happen. The stories I offered as explanation to family, to friends, to my children—that I had a headache, that my brain fluid was leaking out, that I didn’t know why, that maybe there was a way to get it fixed, but maybe not—all seemed hollow or false, or incomplete and thus a giant lie, somehow.
In moments of clarity, when even then I still had to lay flat and not move, I traced and retraced my steps, trying in vain to find the reason in it, the clue that would help me solve this mystery, the moment that changed everything, the piece of truth that would make it all make sense. And once I had the procedure that fixed the leak, I still walked these paths in my mind, as I stayed in bed, healing, as I began to improve, as I could begin to feel some distance from the pain and confusion.
When I finally began writing the book, I found myself continuing to struggle with the idea of story. For one thing, a memoir obviously demands a first-person perspective, and yet the most unnerving part of my experience with my spinal CSF leak was that I had felt so cut off from myself. There had been no first-person; or rather, the first-person of that first-person experience wasn’t exactly me. I had been an observer, on the sidelines of myself. I had felt so separate from myself, so trapped outside of the experience of my body continuing to function and my brain continuing to make decisions and think thoughts without me, that it was hard to conceive of telling the story as the “I” who had experienced all of that. And for another, “story” had seemed so useless to me when I was ill. The very thing I had always turned to for comfort, the predictability of plot and resolution, had seemed cruel, with false promises of happy endings, the patness of too-satisfying explanations. I longed for the reassurance of story, but I felt betrayed by it. And of course, maddeningly, I realized that that too was a story I was telling myself.
When talking about this issue of how to grapple with story with the therapist I had seen throughout my illness, I kept approaching it as a writerly problem, a structure problem or a process problem—something I needed to think my way through so that I could figure out the way to tell this particular story. But she suggested that maybe part of my telling of this story was acknowledging the telling of the story. I resisted that idea—I didn’t want this to be some kind of meta thing that would end up being a book about a book—but I eventually realized there was some truth there. If I was investigating a time when “I” wasn’t there, and yet there needed to be an “I” to tell the story, it would be hard to do that without being outside of it somehow, acknowledging the hope and hopelessness of storytelling at its most basic. And so I began the book by acknowledging the unreliability of my own narration, and tried to investigate the limits of story in the way I investigated the limits of self.
Sonya Huber is the author of five books, including the essay collection Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. Her other books include Opa Nobody, Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton and a textbook, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and other outlets. She teaches at Fairfield University and directs Fairfield’s Low-Residency MFA Program.
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