Andrea J. Buchanan’s 2018 memoir, The Beginning of Everything, explores Buchanan’s battle with a cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) leak, an incapacitating condition where cerebrospinal fluid leaks from a hole in the dura mater, the tough membrane covering the brain. She tells of the painful period where she searched for answers in the face of neurological damage, while also redefining her life as she and her husband divorced and continued to raise their children. Her book was a finalist for the 2019 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award, which honors “literary excellence on the subject of the physical or biological sciences and communicates complex scientific concepts to a lay audience.”
In 2003, Buchanan helped found Literary Mama when she, Amy Hudock, and a group of mother writers from Berkeley, California, came together to create this unique literary publication for mothers. Buchanan had published the book Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It which she later turned into a Literary Mama column. Buchanan and Hudock also edited the anthology Literary Mama: Reading for the Maternally Inclined, which included some of the best writing from the site.
This month, Buchanan returned to Literary Mama to share an excerpt of The Beginning of Everything with our readers, which we invite you to read in our Creative Nonfiction department. Editor-in-Chief Amanda Jaros was delighted to correspond with Buchanan and find out more about her memoir and her life since she left Literary Mama.
Amanda Jaros: Thank you for returning to Literary Mama to talk with me and share some of your current work. Writing memoir can be a risky pursuit, and like most memoirs, The Beginning of Everything is a deeply revealing book. How and why did you decide to write it? What did it mean to you to tell this story?
Andrea J. Buchanan: The time I spent surviving my spinal CSF leak was a profoundly destabilizing and debilitating experience, made even more intense by my inability to comprehend and create narrative while enduring it. My brain was so compromised by pain and injury that I couldn’t follow simple instructions, found myself lost in conversation, was unable to remember my children’s birthdays, couldn’t manage the stamina or comprehension required for reading or writing. The experience brought up fundamental questions of identity and self, which of course, is the very stuff of memoir, and in my fleeting moments of lucidity I knew that if I were ever able to think again and reckon with words on a page, I would be writing about it—and that writing about it might be the only way I could ever come to understand it.
Being able to tell this story meant everything to me. When I was sick, I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to write again, if I would ever be me again. When I first started working on the book, about nine months after the procedure to fix my spinal CSF leak, I was still struggling with pain and executive function issues. Sustained focus was exhausting. Many times just reading a paragraph was enough to overwhelm me, forget writing one! Aside from the practical challenges, writing this book was also emotionally difficult. My experience was one that I had not been able to process at the time I was living it—something that was, I think, almost a protective function, as my inability to think clearly and deeply while ill spared me from the terror of feeling as though my body and brain were existing and operating without my mind. Writing about the experience as I recovered was the first opportunity I had to think about any of it narratively. It was rough, and much of the book is about the limits of narrative and both the importance and peril of relying on story to make sense of things.
AJ: We’re excerpting one of the chapters of your book in which you share a particularly powerful and painful scene where one of your children nearly died. Guilt is an almost universal feeling that comes with motherhood, but yours led you to thoughts of suicide. What was it like to write about this experience—difficult, scary, healing? How do you deal with writing about hard things?
AB: This chapter was one of the most difficult to write—and read. When I recorded the audiobook, I had to stop nearly every paragraph because I found it so emotionally wrenching to say it all out loud. Writing this chapter was actually the first time I’d written at all about this incident, outside of emails and messages to friends and family from around the time when it happened 13 years ago. It had just been too raw to confront, even after so much time had passed. I found myself thinking about it a lot, remembering what the guilt and terror had felt like, and realizing how similar those feelings were to what I felt when I was very sick. There were some aspects of the writing process for this particular chapter that were almost clinical: I researched the event by looking through my old emails, notes to myself, messages I had saved in the aftermath, and was able to piece together the timeline of the day of the accident itself and the psychological timeline of our various healing processes in the wake of it. While the content was quite emotional and difficult to write, it was helpful for me to reckon with our previous experience with something traumatic, and to remember how resilient my kids were then and still are now.
Writing about hard things requires time and patience. I remember checking in with my therapist as I was working on the book. I was finding it so slow-going and difficult, and I felt myself meeting resistance at every turn. Normally if I were having such a difficult time writing something, I would see that as a sign that I was on the wrong track, and that whatever I was working on was wrong or needed to be put aside for a bit or even abandoned altogether. When I told my therapist about this, she didn’t seem surprised at all. It would surprise her more, she said, if I was enjoying this process and finding it easy. I was writing about trauma, and in some instances processing that trauma for the very first time—of course it felt awful! She also pointed out that the experience of writing about that trauma was in some ways re-traumatizing. So even though I was on a deadline and had to keep things moving, I needed to be patient with myself, and allow myself to move slowly, and to meet that resistance not with frustration, but with compassion and gentleness, finding my way through obliquely when it was too much to encounter head-on.
AJ: Because this book is in large part about neurological science, I imagine that you had to do quite a bit of research. How do you conduct research? How do you keep materials organized? Along those lines, what is your writing process like?
AB: I interviewed people, both in person and via email, and did a lot of reading of various neuroscience and medical books and articles. I use Scrivener, a word processing program and management system for documents and other data, which makes it very easy to keep track of notes, photos, really all research. My writing process is different for every book, and usually I tell people two things about process: one, the best process is the one that gets the book done, and two, often the book you’re writing teaches you how to write it as you go. This book’s writing process was unlike any I’d experienced before, but I tried to take my own advice and pay attention to how this book was teaching me to write it. Because of my issues with my still-healing brain, I found it difficult to conceptualize things and to hold ideas in my mind for any length of time. So when I began, I needed things to be very literal and physical. I bought a bunch of multi-sized Post-it notes and used an empty wall in my bedroom to kind of map out the book, or at least chart areas of focus I wanted to explore. On the largest Post-it notes, I’d write a word denoting a main concept area, and then I used smaller Post-it notes to write down themes or ideas or topics and cluster those around the relevant larger Post-it notes. This helped me see how my ideas grouped and overlapped in a way that at that point I wasn’t able to visualize mentally. It also very much represented the way I felt when I was very ill: I couldn’t connect the dots of my life in real time much of the time, and everything felt like a series of discrete moments rather than one seamless experience. It seemed fitting to me to begin my initial approach to the book that way, zooming in on this big dot and that big dot and the small clusters of dots around them, and gradually connecting them via the process of writing.
AJ: Literary Mama is proud to say that you are one of our founding editors. Back in 2003, in the early days of the Internet, the journal originally focused around a group of mother writers. What was LM like then? What were the greatest challenges you faced in getting the journal started? What did you draw inspiration from?
AB: I still remember connecting with Amy Hudock back in 2003 and kicking around the idea of a literary magazine—and then meeting with her mother-writer group in Berkeley and finding an enthusiastic, talented bunch of writers more than ready to jump in and make things happen. It was a really exciting time. All these years later, I don’t remember so much the challenges as I do the excitement of all of us working together to create something we wanted to see in the world. That was really the inspiration: to provide a platform for mothers who write, and to allow women to use their voice in a space that, at the time, didn’t really exist until we all created it together.
AJ: Literary Mama is coming up on its sixteenth birthday. How do you feel about the fact that you started something that is still going strong, with a continually growing readership and an important place in the literary community, after all these years?
AB: I’m so proud to know that the work continues! It’s wonderful to see writers for whom Literary Mama was their first published writing credit way back when, now emerging as big voices or having become established, well-known writers. There’s a lineage there I’m honored to have been even a small part of.
AJ: How do you think your writing has evolved over the years since the early days of Literary Mama?
AB: One thing I noticed in writing The Beginning of Everything was that it felt like coming home to be writing literary creative nonfiction again. It reminded me of the early days of LM, when that was primarily the kind of writing I did and the kind of writing I edited. So, although I’ve done a little bit of lots of other things since my first book in 2003, and even though The Beginning of Everything was a difficult book to write, I felt like there was something very comfortable and familiar about returning to that kind of writing.
AJ: Your children were young when you were writing at Literary Mama. Now that they’re older, do they have feelings or thoughts about being written about? How do you feel about writing about your kids now?
AB: We each have our own stories of ourselves, and my story of them is not the same as their story of them. I have always tried to be respectful of that, mindful that their stories are as true as mine. I stopped writing about my kids for publication, with one or two exceptions, when they were maybe five and eight years old. Now that they’re older—my older daughter is 20, my younger one 17—I ask their permission before I write about them, and they vet what I’ve written. Sometimes they don’t bother. When I was writing The Beginning of Everything, I told them I was writing about things involving them, gave them the overview of what that was, and suggested they read through the draft in case they objected or didn’t want something included, and neither of them actually did. They were just like, “It’s fine.” For my most recently published essay, “Two Hearts,” in the July/August edition of The Kenyon Review, I asked my younger daughter to read it before I even considered submitting it for publication, and I told her I wouldn’t publish it without her consent. It’s about my experience with a serious chronic health issue as a consequence of my spinal CSF leak, and her experience coming out as transgender. So it was extremely important that I had her permission to write about it and publish it.
AJ: The perennial question we ask mother writers is about balance. How was your writing/mothering life balanced when you were working on Literary Mama? How has that shifted? And how do you find balance now?
AB: Oh, wow, my writing/mothering life was not balanced at all when I was working on Literary Mama! Those early years of motherhood were so difficult—it’s so hard to sustain creativity or develop creative ideas when you are constantly interrupted and have so little time to write. I had to get really good at “pre-writing” or “extra-writing”: holding ideas in my head and mulling them over in the background, letting them take shape while doing the more mundane tasks of parenting so that once I had a moment to work, I could move quickly. But that, too, is tough to do when you’re also trying to be present for your kids. Even that required a deliberate balancing act. I did a lot of frantic work during nap times, and at night while everyone else was asleep. I look back at that time and marvel that I was able to get so much done when I had so much less time than I do now. Things definitely shifted once both kids were in school—my world opened up to include several unbroken hours of sustained work time almost every day, and that was a game-changer. Now, with only one child living at home and the other one only coming home from college for a weekend here or there, my attempts at balance don’t revolve around them so much as they do my own health. Dealing with an unpredictable chronic illness is challenging, though slightly less relentless than dealing with a toddler.
AJ: What’s on your bookshelf?
AB: I just read The Strange Case of Dr. Couney, by Dawn Raffel; Bottle of Lies, by Katherine Eban; Flash Count Diary, by Darcey Steinke; Heartland, by Sarah Smarsh; and The Edge of Every Day, by Marin Sardy. I’m currently in the midst of No Visible Bruises, by Rachel Louise Synder, and Wild Life, a memoir by Keena Roberts.
AJ: How do you define success?
AB: Being able to write and to understand myself through writing, was something I had taken for granted before my spinal CSF leak. The process of writing The Beginning of Everything was humbling, feeling like I was starting over. I was incredibly grateful to work my way back up to some kind of fluency through the process of writing about it. To finish the book at all felt like a miracle, and to have it go on to be a PEN Award finalist was truly amazing. But really, success to me is the luck of being able to be upright without pain, to not have to be flat on my back in bed 22 hours a day. The luck of my children being happy and thriving, excited about what they’re doing and learning, and resilient enough to handle the setbacks they naturally encounter. The luck of us having crossed through this difficult time in all of our lives and to be okay.