Sugar Water For My Dopamine-Depleted Brain, featuring George Saunders

The importance of dopamine became apparent in 1954 when the neuroscientists James Olds and Peter Milner ran an experiment that revealed the neurological processes behind craving and desire. By implanting electrodes in the brains of rats, the researchers blocked the release of dopamine. To the surprise of the scientists, the rats lost all will to live. They wouldn’t eat. they wouldn’t have sex. They didn’t crave anything. Within a few days the animals died of thirst.

In follow-up studies, other scientist also inhibited the dopamine-releasing parts of the brain, but this time, they squirted little droplets of sugar into the mouths of the dopamine-depleted rats. Their little rat faces lit up with pleasurable grins from the tasty substance. Even though dopamine was blocked, they liked the sugar just as much as before; they just didn’t want it anymore. The ability to experience pleasure remained, but without dopamine, desire died. And without desire, action stopped.

James Clear, Atomic Habits (p. 105)

Although I’m happily emerging from the slump, for much of this year to this point, I found myself relating to the rats described above, in that I had very little desire to do much of anything. Although this sounds like—and probably was—a classic depression symptom, I simultaneously observed that, like the rats, I didn’t feel particularly unhappy. I still enjoyed flowers and pretty scenery and conversations and food when—like sugar water getting dropped on the rats’ tongues—it was delivered to me with minimal effort on my part. Luckily, because I live with a man who is moved by his own appetites, much of the world is delivered to me: Marvel television programs appear on the screen, food arrives, I am ferried to various destinations. And as these things happened during this time, I thought mmmm, riding in the car in the sun is nice, this view is nice, this Modern Kale Ceasar Salad hits the spot.

The one arena where Paul could not do much for me was in my writing. With a kind of distanced concern, I observed that my sense of hope and ambition for my writing career had disappeared, and my desire to actually write had dwindled to almost nothing. This, more than anything else, highlighted for me the growing similarity between myself and the desire-less rats. I thought,

For most of my life I have cared about writing. While I don’t care right now, it seems probably that I will care again in the future so it makes sense that I should try to prolong my creative life until the caring kicks back in. To that end, maybe I should attempt to be not only the rats, but also play the role of scientists. (Not the scientists who let their rats die of starvation, but the ones who provided sugar water to keep the rats alive, albeit after cruelly disrupting their normal dopamine flow.)

In other words, I needed to procure my own source of sugar water.

I set about doing this by signing up for a session of the weekly writing workshop I sometimes do. It didn’t push me into writing pages as it normally would, but my sense of social obligation drove me to read other people’s work and give decent notes. There was some satisfaction in realizing that, after years of practice, seeking writing solutions when I read scripts is now as automatic as starting to chew after I’ve put food in my mouth. So I think my fellow writers benefitted and I exercised my brain a little. But after a couple of months, I was worn out even by this. I needed sugar water that required zero response.

Normally I keep a running list of the “content” I am watching and listening to, but I also didn’t care enough to do that. Much of what I was consumed was apparently not memorable, but I’ll mention a couple that were:

On Apple TV, there was Severance. Rather than attempt to say much about it, I’ll just recommend it, or recommend reading the second half of this essay in Electric Literature. (Or, like me, you could read the entire essay and then order the book that it talks about in the first half.)

On audio, there was the George Saunders’ book, A Fish in a Pond in the Rain.

In the first weeks after my surgery, my general I-can’t-make-myself-care mood persisted, mixed with a fair amount of physical pain.

“Are you okay?” asked our most curious neighbor, with some actual concern.

I was not great. I had little energy or desire to have back-and-forth conversations or observe the social niceties of stretching my face into different expressions. But as I slowly shuffled around the block like a battery-finally-depleted energizer bunny, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain was pure sugar water piped into my brain via my ears. Inside my head, and even inside my soul, “my little rat face lit up with pleasure.”

Although the book can be described as about writing, Saunders also weaves some discussion of morality, spirituality, human nature and the general poignant ridiculousness of people.

Saunders, like my husband, is an engineer-turned-writer, and it is interesting to observe the ways in which their minds think alike. Saunders elevates this by also being well-read and dedicated to efficiently and affectingly articulating his thoughts that are shaped by years of consideration and teaching.

In each section an actor reads a story by a Russian author you’ve heard of, and then Saunders analyzes each story, beat by beat, page by page, doing both a close reading,” and a larger structural analysis.

If you are a writer, a reader or a lover of stories, I highly recommend this book.

P.S. Though I’m a fan of George Saunders’ fiction, I became aware of A Swim in a Pond in the Rain via his Story Club newsletter which you can check out on SUBSTACK for free. I will admit to being months behind — apparently opening emails and reading things on my computer is less like sugar-water delivery and more akin to having to cross one’s cage for sustenance, and I’m not all the way there yet. The minute he compiles his posts into an audiobook or podcast, I will be the first to lay my money down.

I Want to Write Short but I Write Long, I Want to Write Fast, but I Write Slow…

Some people are good at tweet-length writing. I’m not. Some people are good at 500 word or 1000 word “flash fiction.” That’s usually not me either. I had a class once where each week we wrote from a prompt and the limit was 800 words. That was fun. But later, when I went back to turn the exercises into actual stories, they landed more in the 3000-word range. This was okay. 3000 words is about 10-12 printed pages, and even in a world with ever-shortening attention spans, most people can manage ten pages.

My last story that earned some accolades was about 3000 words and there’s a good chance that its contest performance had to do with its abbreviated length. This is not me trying to be self-deprecating. I’m pretty sure that when a reader has an obligation to read a hundred stories for a contest, they are going appreciate the stories with a lower page count! The people running the contest were traditionally screenplay contest people, and readers for screenplay contests can tell you it’s usually a job that pays by the script, not by the page, and it usually doesn’t pay enough to work out to more than minimum wage if you actually take time to read every page. Thus there is often a rule for readers — official or less so — that if the work doesn’t grab them in the first ten or 20 pages, they don’t need to keep reading. (While I’m sure other variables were at play, in was my 10-page story that won, while my 32-page story stalled out in the semi-finals.)

Literary journals also tend to appreciate stories around 3000 words or less — they can print three or four stories instead of one long-ass story. In the last eight or so months, I’ve worked on four short stories. I hoped in the beginning they might end up being about 3000 words.

They have not.

They have turned into long-ass stories. Each one is between 8000-10,000 words. This is like the no-man’s land of fiction. Too long for most journals, almost-but-not-quite in “novella” territory. Technically, I think they qualify as “novellettes, ” which most people haven’t heard of, much less read.

There are things called “chapbooks” which are like fancy, high quality ‘zines of between 16-32 pages. The majority of calls for chapbook submissions are for poetry— I think traditionally, a chapbook has been a mini-collection of poems — but a few places publish chapbooks of fiction. The artsy-craftsy part of me thinks maybe I could commission some illustrations and make a chapbook myself, I guess just for fun, since after I gave a dozen away as Xmas gifts I’m not sure what I’d do next… sell them on Etsy maybe?

The question is not pressing yet, because none of the stories are finished. They are so long that when I reached the end of the second draft of each, I was overwhelmed by the idea of going back and revising right away. They are long, weird, and strangely episodic — I’ve begun giving them miniature “chapters” as an organizational feature. I’m worried they might be boring. And bad. Bad and boring. They might be stuff like people write during a pandemic and then wake up and realize is terrible.

But the truth is, I won’t know if these stories work until they have gone through all the layers and permutations still to come. I am a messy maker. In my high school drawing class the teacher once came by, looked at something I was working on and paid me a sort-of compliment, saying that at some point my art always looked like a hot mess that he would secretly think was irretrievable, but then at a later point he would walk by and be pleasantly surprised because it actually came together. (He also noted that he didn’t really understand the mechanics of how this happened.)

This was a helpful observation to think about when I’m at the hot mess stage in my writing and feeling depressed and fearful it’s not going to get better. I remind myself that the mess is only a stage in the journey, and if I just apply myself, with patience and persistence, I might end up with something good. (It also reminds me that even if people I look up to don’t see my path, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.)

Thinking this helps some, but it certainly doesn’t immunize me against being depressed. With each project, I reach a point where I’m fearful that I’ll never get it to where I want it to be, artistically. On top of this, certain people ask what I’m working on, and in an attempt to show them that I’m not a complete wastrel, I tell them. They, in turn, in the nicest, gentlest way, are like, “What the fuck are you doing? It’s taking you forever, and that is not something we can sell.” When this happens, I often stop working on the unsellable project in order to work on a project that I think is going to be better / faster / more commercial, only to have that project arrive in the same place as project before it — the same place all the older projects are, because even though I set them aside to work on something else, I’m always planning to come back for them, like Rambo First Blood Part II. *

So right now I have four stories and two screenplays that are all in this purgatory, waiting for me to come in, guns blazing, and break them out. But I’m not really a guns-blazing type girl, so it’s more likely I’m going to have to half-carry, half-drag them out. One. At. A. Time.

And it’s going to take too long, because it’s not fast, and the results may be long, though I’d prefer something short, and though I wish the path was straight, it’s circuitous. That’s just the way it is.

*Full disclosure, Rambo First Blood Part II is not actually a movie I have seen, but I believe he goes back for the POWs who have been left behind. That’s the intended metaphor.

Eight Things I’ve Been Doing in the Last Six Weeks

It’s a beautiful sunny Sunday in April and this blog is officially neglected. The problem with neglecting something — like your student loans or cleaning the kitchen junk drawer— is that the longer you leave it, the more daunting it feels to come back to it, which makes it take even longer – so when you do, the loan interest has grown into a house-sized demon and inside the kitchen drawer all the ketchup packets have become tinged brown and stuck together with leaking soy sauce.

(Fun fact: Due to the pandemic there is a nationwide shortage of ketchup packets. Heinz has promised to increase production to make up for the 12-billion packet shortfall. Little do they know they could have just asked us for the contents of our kitchen drawer.)

So it is with maintaining a record of one’s life on a blog — there’s too much to catch up on. But I’m gonna try to hit some highlights:

  1. Getting Vaccinated! Just the first shot so far. It’s Moderna. I went to a drive-thru site at Dodger Stadium. I get my second one in a couple more weeks! Here is a rather boring one-minute video of that:

2) Learning to use TikTok. I could have simply embedded a video above, but I wanted to give you an example of item #2, which is that I’m learning how to use TikTok. It’s for my own curiosity, and also research for a screenplay that I’ve started where social media plays a large role. I have mixed feelings about TikTok-ing, as it is interesting to me in theory, but I only have about a six minute scroll tolerance before I feel like my brain is going to bleed! I’ve learned that TikToks can be as long as 60 seconds, and also that 60 seconds feels MUCH longer that it sounds. For instance, the above video is 58 seconds, and it basically feels like eternity. I need to add “editing” to my repertoire.

3)Starting a new screenplay. I’ve been delaying for a long time — I’ve been working on other things — like work for clients, short stories, polishing older work — all good causes, but it was still getting to the point where I was beginning to worry if I could still write a feature from scratch. To put and keep this project at the top of my priority list, I joined not one, but TWO writing groups where I have to turn in pages, and it’s feeling good to push through it.

4) Winning a contest. My short story, “Shell,” which I’ve noted in previous posts was a semi-finalist and a finalist, did go on to win the Grand Prize in the Screencraft Cinematic Short Story Writing Competition. I won some money, and the folks at Screencraft have been really nice, talking to me about my career goals and even introducing me to a showrunner who was one of their judges. (For anyone reading this in the future, you can this story, as well as 29 other horror stories by women writers in The One That Got Away: Women of Horror Volume 3.

(Fun Fact: The One That Got Away was ordered for an English class at Butler University, and so seems like it will be discussed by students in a college class, which I find exciting! Also, Butler is located in Indianapolis, very close to my home town, and my sister and several friends attended back in the day.)

5) Meeting with my first showrunner! In all my years of trying to get established as a writer, I have been fortunate to meet with a number of executives at companies, but never with a showrunner, which has been a source of some frustration. Executives are awesome in that they offer to develop a pitch or a project with you — however that development, though fun and exciting, is seldom paid. Executives generally can’t hire you to work on an established TV show. The person who can do that is a showrunner. I have dreamed of working on a show — but my chances of that are slim without ever meeting someone who might potentially, hire me on one! So, even though this particular showrunner isn’t currently running a show, it was still a momentous benchmark, and he was super complimentary of my story, which was edifying.

6) Celebrating my 20th wedding anniversary. Worthy of note, though it was a very normal day. At this point in time, I think most of us cherish normal days! As usual, Paul and I both worked from home at opposite sides of the apartment. I bought him (i.e. “us”) some new cutting boards and a cake carrier, and he gave me permission to use him as my TikTok test subject — he’s definitely hoping that would never come to pass, but I vow it’s going to! In the evening, we finished Season One of Ted Lasso, which is just as freaking heartwarming as everybody annoyingly kept saying it was. Maybe even up there with Schitt’s Creek. If you haven’t seen it, go ahead and get the one-week free trial of Apple+ and binge it, then come back and thank me.

7) Adding yoga back into my life. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I have been pretty faithful about going for daily walks, but largely gave up the diligent yoga practice I had maintained for over a a decade. I’ve known it was a loss, but just hadn’t figured out how to work it back in to my routine until my friend, Gina, sent me a link to this Morning Yoga Challenge: 10 min of Morning Yoga for 30 DAYS. For me, it was perfect — bite-sized morsels that didn’t seem too time consuming or painful. Each episode also has an affirmation to carry through the day.

8) Reading some great books. One of these was Kindred, by Octavia Butler. A continuation of my informal Octavia Butler project that began in December of 2019 when I read Parable of the Sower. In the last month or so I’ve also read (listened to) Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, and The Fact of a Body, by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. The book that really blew me away though, was Assata: An Autobiography, by Assata Shakur. If you know only a little about her, it might be how she was chained to her bed in the hospital after being accused of killing a police officer on a New Jersey turnpike in the 70s, and it might seem like dark reading. It was not — this woman is full of light and gratitude and wisdom. Honest about her own blindspots and awakening, educational about the great numbers of sneaky and unjust things that happen in our country and elsewhere. At the same time, she manages to be flat out entertaining. The chapters alternate between her time after she was arrested and imprisoned and her life up to that point, beginning in early childhood.

I’m sure there are a couple things I’m missing — but eight is a good number. Hope everyone is enjoying their spring!

Author Interview for “Shell”

I said I’d let you know when interviews were up in conjunction with the upcoming Women of Horror anthology, The One That Got Away, which I thought was launching Feb 1, but I see is ALREADY on Amazon! Here is the first one! The delightful Paula R.C. Readman, who also has a story in the book, fed me virtual cakes and hot chocolate and let me ramble answer questions on her blog.

Some additional news I got this week is that this same story in this anthology, “Shell,” is one of two stories that are now semifinalists in the ScreenCraft Cinematic Short Story Competition. Here’s the list which, you can see, is very exciting and official because there are laurels around the word “Semifinalists.”

Words To Drive By “Superman Falling”

EPISODE 06: “Superman Falling”
To save his marriage, a New York advertising exec reluctantly accompanies his wife to the Midwest.

Superman Falling lives near to my heart, first because it came from an emotional place, and second, because it I learned so much working on it.

The emotional origin was years ago. I was recovering from a major abdominal surgery – the removal of a cancerous tumor that had been discovered as during tests as I was trying to get pregnant – and I had a dream.

In the dream, I was standing near a window on a high floor of a building, holding a baby. The baby slipped from my hands and fell out a window. After he fell, I started running as fast as I could down a stairwell, desperately hoping… for what? That all wasn’t lost – or that I would make it to the ground first and somehow catch him? But as I ran and ran, the realization sank in that there was no saving this. The sorrow and guilt was overwhelming.

When I woke, I felt compelled to write the dream, which I did, making up some of the circumstances that weren’t clear in the dream, but leaving its core – the child falling and a parent running down flight after flight of stairs, hoping desperately for a miracle — while at the same time knowing what waits at the bottom.

A couple years later, I took a version of the pages I’d written to one of my first writing classes, where I learned something important:

Just because you feel certain emotions when you’re writing, doesn’t mean readers will feel those emotions when they read what you’ve written.

The folks in my writing workshop didn’t feel what I felt. Instead, they were confused. They floated different theories as to why the story “wasn’t working yet,” and offered advice on how to possibly fix it. But the killing blow was the instructor’s note. He said, “The moment you’ve written about isn’t the real story, the real story is what happens after this moment.”

Notes that are versions of “go write something completely different,” are tough to swallow. I’m sad to say that I have entire projects sitting on aging hard drives after getting similar notes. So kudos to my past self — determined and energetic and a little bit dumb — because she went off and actually wrote the “after this moment” story.

Which still didn’t work.

My instructor read it, and gave me a new note: You want to have two stories, not just one. There’s a present-tense story, then there’s a chronic tension born of the past that puts pressure on what’s happening in the present.

These weren’t words I was ready to I understand completely, but something about them resonated. And when I went back to the page and bludgeoned my way through another draft, I began to experience a slow-motion epiphany: The past shapes the present and adds meaning to it—and there are different ways of weaving the past into a narrative. Later, when I studied screenwriting, I recognized this more clearly. Even today, when I’m watching or reading, I find myself observing whether a narrative is a “two-story” story.

In the final version of Superman Falling, the plot is entirely fictional, the protagonist is not me—his guilt has different roots, the situation is different – my own experience mostly replaced. But somehow the act of replacing almost everything, and transplanting my sense of grief and guilt – made the story “work” more effectively—not perfectly at all, but the best I was capable of then!

And the process of crafting the story was part of a transformation in my life. Those flashes of understanding and fleeting moments of control I’d felt whetted my appetite for learning more about storytelling… and that hunger is something that has given my life purpose and meaning for more than a decade.

“Superman Falling” was first published in Colorado Review.

Cover art by Ted Giffin. Sound design by Greg Gordon Smith.