writing and midlife, or, Perimenopause, coming soon to a keyboard near you
My motivation for lifting the veil here is that had I known about these symptoms, I might not have indulged in quite so much self-loathing as they set in. I might even have developed coping strategies in advance. As it was, I largely just retreated into myself and stopped going out in company, because I couldn't bear the experience of being suddenly bereft of words in front of friends, companions and colleagues. Worse, I didn't know entirely who I was anymore. Long before I found out about sex, I loved words. If they were deserting me, who was I? Who am I?
While the medical jury is still deliberating on what treatments, if any, remedy these problems, there is a general consensus that these symptoms coincide with perimenopause (and halleluiah, there is new research that suggests that once menopause sets in, some of these problems abate). But I'm getting ahead of myself...
Perimenopause, if your Greek is rusty, is the time that comes before menopause. It's the lead-up where the hormones go nutso, recalibrating for life's next stage; it can take anywhere from a year to over a decade. (In my case, I've been in perimenopause for almost a decade. Each month I shout at my ovaries, "I'm too old for babies, and I ain't gonna have any, anyways!" and each month, they ignore me.) Where was I? Oh yes, chances are that the woman you are or a woman you know is experiencing or is going to experience these symptoms, and they will affect your ability to write and your identity as a writer (with or without a capital "W").
By writer, I mean anyone who writes for love or money - administrators, novelists, project managers, teachers, the list goes ever on and on. So let's get started. Remember, I'm only dealing with symptoms of menopause and perimenopause that specifically affect the writer; I don't pretend to be exhaustive, and I'm happy to be corrected or have more info. I'm going to set out symptoms first, a few at a time, and then talk about remedies, such as there are, later. I'm going to go through the negatives first, because of the culture of silence around the topic, and then I'll hit a few positives (or report on them, because frankly, they haven't come to visit me...)
1) Vocabulary holes.
A while ago, at a frantic loss for a word, I had to get to it by plodding laboriously through its adjacent semantic fields:
hard --> iron --> scratch --> nail
Nail! That was it, that was the word I wanted. Strangely enough, the conversation had moved on by the time my fish-sucking-air lips had reformed around it. This happens with a chastening and distressing regularity. It happens to a greater or lesser degree to every perimenopausal woman I have spoken with. Words that you know, simple words, complex nouns, ten-a-penny verbs, technical vocabulary, they will fail you. Just like that. Old friends who have kept you warm since you first smuggled a book under the blankets leave town without a note or explanation. (And show up the next day for coffee as if they'd never left.)
Imagine giving a lecture, or a talk, or a reading, or a presentation, with this little Damoclean dagger hanging over your head. Imagine the novelist, hands poised over the keyboard, three complex plotlines rushing headlong toward each other, protagonists lining up like good little ducks, the scene in technicolour 3D with full CGI in her head, and then --- gone, empty, zilch -- some stupid word, that was just the right word, and you know exactly what it is, it's not an unusual word, you use it every day, but your fingers hover over the keyboard, stilled. Poof! -- the scene that was hot and perfect crumbles. Nor, pace Flaubert, is this an instance of swooning over "le mot juste" -- these are inexplicable gaps, sudden, whooshing lexical blackholes, nuggets of stupid right in the middle of your sentences.
2) Those things you capitalise...
Names. I've never been good at names, but I wasn't bad. And once I'd learned someone's name, it generally stuck. I've taught classes of over 200 students, and hosted conferences with hundreds of attendees, and with a few mnemonic tricks, managed to remember most. In the last few years, I can't remember my own cousins' names. The name of my best friend in primary school, the name of the waitress at that cheap but good dive in Toronto where my true love and I would go at least 4 times a week for months on end while we had no kitchen, the name, the name, the name. Place names, people names, thing names. Gone. For a while, I put it down to being an immigrant - I theorised that there was only so much memory allotted to names in the brain, and having moved to another country, I'd acquired a whole new set of proper names, and understandably, my buffer was full. But it got worse, and then it got embarrassing. And then I found out that it's a common occurrence for women in perimenopause.
If you're worldbuilding, or have a novel populated with a cast of thousands, or if you're a project manager who moves from workplace to workplace, or... Yes, there are many ways in which this makes a writing life difficult. I no longer hold quite as much in my head; spreadsheets and charts are my friend when it comes to novel writing. And when I meet you, and I cannot for the life of me summon up your name, even though once, in some bar at a writer's festival, we shared a cup of hot righteous indignation, I hope you will forgive me.
So there's two problems you can count on rubbing up against. They're pretty common, and finding remedies for them is complicated by the fact that they share some real estate with ageing. Still, women in their late 30s and early 40s have experienced the onset of these semantic and lexical gaps. Does this ring any bells?
Next up? Meet Mrs Malaprop.