Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

December 18, 2016

On Focus and Reading

My brain feels like swiss cheese, only instead of holes, I have portals. Tunnels, sucking me out of my brain and into some other place, some other thought, and then sideways, down again, and – and I’m already off topic, because I barely know what the topic was. So, I will go back to the middle, and then digress a few times to points earlier than that, and maybe, if I’m lucky, I might find a beginning that hints at a source, or a cause, of my problems.

I have always had a hard time focusing on one thing, but it has become worse. So much worse. Infinitely worse.

Initially, I pegged the point where my lack of focus was actually hindering me – as opposed to just causing a kind of multitasking superself that could accomplish multiple things at once – as the decision to start taking anti-anxiety medication. The drugs helped me in so many ways that I didn’t mind much that I was having trouble with my memory, short term especially. My brain was overactive before, being merely active should have been fine.

But things slip from me now like I’m carrying water in a net. It’s not just funny things, like putting the sugar pot into the freezer or calling a bus a train. I read ten pages of a book and find I have no idea what I’m reading about. I’ve been thinking about something else, something unrelated. Or I schedule a lunch date and a doctor’s appointment into the same slot, and despite knowing I have both upcoming, I fail to notice they conflict. They’re on parallel, separate, timelines in my head. I don’t put them together until I’m in trouble.

I blamed the drugs, but in all honesty, the stress of the events leading up to the decision to take drugs had caused my brain to fragment long before drugs got involved, and the extra work I took on in its wake didn’t help either. I’m assured that this kind of dysfunction is common in overworked people. “Pregnancy brain”, “mommy brain”, and, probably, “freelancer brain” are all real things that turn high-functioning adults into badly-trained puppies. I’m told I should relax, maybe take less on. I had an ex who told me his over-worked sister had a stroke in her 30s, and I should be mindful of that. I dismissed that, at the time, as not how strokes work. Now I wonder.

But could I ever focus? Really? I recall being a teenager, sitting in my favourite spot on a baseboard heater, trying to read – something – but being so distracted by my own reactions to the text that I just couldn’t make any headway. I had my journal at my elbow, and I’d have to put the book down and write instead; get my own thoughts out of the way. I say “out of the way” like I could dump them, then go back to the text unimpeded; but no. Once my brain was headed in another direction, there was nothing to do but follow it. I’d start a novel instead, or a web venture, or rope three friends into mounting some kind of expedition. There was nothing for it, really. I never finished anything.

My generation is remarked upon as being one with no focus, no ability to read or learn deeply. We, society, blame media. That might be it. I’m on the edge, GenX by some calculations and Millennial by others, but the internet came early into my life in the form of BBSes and the Carleton University Freenet in the early ’90s. I was always dividing my brain space between what I was supposed to be doing, and this secondary track wondering, how was I going to mine what I was doing for a good narrative to share? Could I post about this to alt.gothic, or send an email about it to the-boy-I-liked?

If media – social media – is to blame, can I pull back? Is the solution to my lack of focus, to my declining memory, to flip a switch, go offline? The world is full of pundits who certainly think so. But they tell stories of existence that mean nothing to me. They have always been good, focused students who chose to avoid the distraction of the internet, or introverts who were just as happy without external stimulus. I read a study about alcoholics recently that found the people with the easiest time avoiding alcohol were – get ready for it – people who didn’t really like alcohol anyway. Alcoholics had a taste for it.

Extroverts, too, are energized by social interaction, and what is the internet if not a constant, 24/7 source of stimulation? Introverts find this tiring, but I’m not an introvert, and never have been. I’m not going to become one by quitting Twitter. Even as a child, before media, I invented friends in my head and spoke to them for hours. I started journaling at a very early age, more interaction with an imaginary companion. I wrote letters to all my friends and talked to them on the phone whenever possible. It’s not media. It’s me.

When I realized I was having greater-than-usual problems with my focus, I thought it might be my nearly-drugged brain needing time to form new connections. The net needed to be woven a little tighter. I could still take on everything, I just needed to practice. Like mythical monks or vikings, my version of training involved beating my head against the stone wall in order to make it stronger. I’m not sure if it’s working, or if I’m giving myself a concussion. Is it both? Maybe I need more training.

Last night I found myself playing video games – one of the few things I can focus on, because of whatever it is that makes hyperfocus work – and I realized I was too tense, too stimulated to get to sleep. So I shut my device off and picked up my book instead. My brain physically hurt. I’d been having headaches for days. Christmas does this too me – too much to remember and keep track of. Even I can see a limit when it is that obvious. So I climbed into bed, picked up my book and resolved to relax and focus.

Within moments, I could feel the hole. A portal, with a tunnel. I wanted to channel what I was reading – and the fifty thousand ideas it had spawned already – out. I was composing Tweets and a blog post and wondering how I could use this idea for a story and wondering if I should Google stroke symptoms. It was the same feeling you get when you get “sucked into” a book, only it was sucking me out; or perhaps sucking me into something else, something more fragmented. I tried not thinking, but that just made me sleepy, and the whole point of reading this book (interviews with authors) was to make me think. I wanted to be sucked into the book, not out. Why can’t I just focus?

How does anyone? I could have read a stupider book, I suppose; something that would only amuse me and not give me any cause to think about anything. Or I could have kept a notebook at hand, like I used to – a bedside book to make notes as I read. I could try to “just listen,” reserving reaction until I had absorbed the whole, but I can’t even do this in a conversation. If I wait for someone to finish their soliloquy, I can’t remember by the end what I’d been desperate to say at the beginning. I am a terrible interrupter. Apologies to literally everyone I have ever met in real life.

I try to imagine the habits of great, deep readers of pre-media pasts. What did they do? Could they somehow channel their own ideas and thoughts into a holding area of their brain, to be written out and expanded upon at the end? Is this a brain-building skill, like a memory palace? Will it help me hold all of this *gestures at all of space and time* a little better?

How is it done, and can it be done by me?

I don’t really know.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: