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How One Writer Overcame a Brain Injury and Wrote an Award-Winning Memoir

Narratively contributor Andrea J. Buchanan on memoir, recovery, and the future.

How One Writer Overcame a Brain Injury and Wrote an Award-Winning Memoir

In July, New York Times bestselling author Andrea J. Buchanan published the article “The Maid Who Mapped the Heavens” at Narratively, which tells the story of Williminia Paton Flemming, a maid who became a groundbreaking astronomer.

This was not Buchanan’s first foray into literary science writing. Her memoir The Beginning of Everything: How I Lost My Mind and Found Myself  is a 2019 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award finalist. Like Flemming, Buchanan had to overcome obstacles, in her case while recovering from a brain injury. We chatted with Buchanan about her recovery, her approach to memoir writing, and what’s in store for her in the future. 

Narratively: Your book The Beginning of Everything: The Year I Lost My Mind and Found Myself explores your journey of recovering from a brain injury. What was going on in your life before this happened?

Andrea J. Buchanan: It’s kind of fitting that this all happened as I was literally at a crossroads, in the midst of crossing the street, when my life changed, because at the time I was also metaphorically at a crossroads. I was 44, I had two teenagers, and my marriage was ending, but they didn’t know it yet. I was trying to figure out what my life might look like solo after 20 years of marriage, trying to understand the practical logistics of what I was taking on (and what I was letting go of), and trying to be brave in the face of an uncertain future. And then I crossed the street on the way to brunch one morning, coughed, and the metaphorical and literal combined in one seemingly random moment that divided my life into a stark timeline of “before” and “after.”

Narratively: Could you tell us about the injury itself —  what happened?

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Buchanan: I’d had a bad flu, one of those bouts with super high fevers and coughs that make you remember that people actually die from the flu, but I was finally feeling well enough to go to brunch with a friend. About halfway there, though, I had a coughing fit while crossing the street — a really bad one. I couldn’t stop coughing and had to stop in the middle of the street because I could barely catch my breath. Once it was over and I’d made it to the other side of the street, though, I just kept walking and didn’t think anything of it. But days later, a strange headache began. It was really specific: a softball-sized area on the right side of my skull, at the base of my head. It was unlike any headache I’d had before. And I noticed it felt a little better when I laid down, and much worse when I stood up. It took a few months to get an actual diagnosis, but eventually I learned that I had what’s called a spontaneous spinal CSF leak. When I’d coughed that day, the coughing caused a tiny tear in my dura mater, the tough membrane that covers the brain and spinal cord. And thanks to that small tear, my cerebrospinal fluid, the fluid that surrounds the brain, was leaking out.

Narratively: In your book, you wrote about returning to play piano as part of your neurological recovery. Would you say it also helped you engage your identity as a pianist?

Buchanan: Returning to music as a way to help my brain reconnect itself also helped me reconnect to myself. I studied piano nearly my entire life, trained at conservatories, and got my degrees in piano performance. In revisiting all the old repertoire from my youth and from those years of intense conservatory study, I got to revisit my old self. This was so valuable and important—and healing—because one of the most profound features of my experience with the spinal CSF leak was this feeling of being disconnected, of no longer having a “self.” I had been disconnected from my ability to think clearly, and my ability to process information, and my ability to put things in context and make connections and have insight. To re-learn music from my past was a way of communing with my old self, and of realizing that that old self is still me, still my present self, and that I was no longer cut off from my sense of having a self at all.

Narratively: What was the process of writing this book like while recovering from a brain injury?

Buchanan: Really challenging. When I first started working on the book, I was still struggling with 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, it was also emotionally difficult. My experience was one that I had lived through, but not fully processed at the time. In some ways, my inability to think during that time was protective: most of the time I was out of it, and thus I was spared the terror and existential horror of the experience of feeling as though my body and brain were moving on without my mind. When I was sick, I was incapable of narrative, and thus incapable of fully understanding what I was going through. Writing about it all as I recovered was the first opportunity I had to think about the experience narratively, and to try to understand it and process it. It was rough, and much of the book is about the limits of narrative and the importance of but also the peril of relying on story to make sense of things.

Narratively: What was your reaction when you heard that The Beginning of Everything is a 2019 PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award finalist?

Buchanan: I was thrilled. And surprised. And so grateful. When I’d first started writing about this, once I was at the point where I was able to write again, I remember feeling so tentative. I couldn’t trust my brain, I couldn’t rely on myself to be a good judge of anything. I used to be a quick writer and a sharp editor, and now my fuzzy brain just didn’t work that way anymore. I remember sending what I’d written to my agent and asking her, “Is this even writing? Does this still sound like me?” So to go from there, being barely able to write, to actually writing the book, and then having that book go on to be honored as a finalist for a PEN literary prize? It was just unreal. My biggest fear when I was sick was that all of that would be lost, that I wouldn’t be able to write again, that I’d never publish another book. The PEN nomination was a wonderful gift, and a really amazing answer to that “is this even writing?” question that so had haunted me.

Narratively: What advice do you have for other people writing a memoir?

Buchanan: I think sometimes in memoir a story can feel so big that it can be hard to know where the real story is. So I like to tell people who are just starting out to first try to write it all out just for themselves—just get it all down, in whatever way works best, without worrying about form or narrative or craft or anything. Just tell yourself the story. Then you can go back and see: what are the larger things there? What do I keep returning to? Are there common threads here, or recurring experiences? What stands out to me? Then you can start to connect the dots and think about form and structure. But really the best process is simply the one that gets the book written. And sometimes the book you write teaches you how to write it as you go. So opening yourself up to that is good, too. A willingness to be vulnerable is key.

Narratively: Your Narratively story “The Maid who Mapped the Heavens” tells the story of a Williamina Fleming, who overcame many obstacles to become an astrologer. Do you think you’re drawn to stories of people overcoming challenges because of your own experience?

Buchanan: Absolutely. Fleming’s story has captivated me ever since I first came across it over a decade ago working on The Daring Book for Girls, but in the wake of my recovery from my spinal CSF leak, I found myself drawn to stories like hers, of people overcoming challenges and pushing themselves to the limit. Whether it was early Everest climbers making the ascent without modern technology or oxygen, monks able to regulate their body temperature, or the ancient tropes of fairy tales, with protagonists having to answer riddles or overcome adversity or otherwise persist in the face of incredible hardship, I found all of that inspiring as I searched for ways to make meaning out of suffering, solitude, and transformation.

Narratively: What’s next for you?

Buchanan: I recently had an essay published in the Kenyon Review about my experiences with my evolving identity and precarious health after recovery from the leak, and how that paralleled and intersected with my younger daughter’s experience coming out as transgender. I’m continuing to work on that to expand it into something larger.

You can buy The Beginning of Everything from Bookshop, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or an independent bookstore near you.