Turning Points: Guest Post by Christine Lee Zilka (+Giveaway)

This guest post is part of the Turning Points blog series here on distraction no. 99—in which I asked authors the question: What was your turning point as a writer? I’m honored and excited to host their stories. Read on as Christine Lee Zilka reveals how she fought to keep writing after a stroke at age 33…

I have had many turning points as a writer, some more dramatic than others, each bringing a unique encouraging message.

I remember my first litmag acceptance from ZYZZYVA for the first piece of fiction I’d ever written; it was a sign for me to pursue this long-subjugated dream.

I remember my first novel workshop with VL, the one in which I began writing my novel. I wasn’t sure I had a novel in me, but by the end of the semester, I had 100 fresh pages. I’ve thrown out all 100 pages since, but the core of the idea remains and flourishes years later.

I remember JD who doesn’t pull punches telling me, “You should be proud. You’re almost there” after reading the opening chapters of my novel-in-progress this past summer. The ensuing discussion made it so I could see the light at the end of the novel-in-progress tunnel. I was so inspired. I got my second wind.

But no turning point has been so life-changing and incredible as the time during which I had zero writing achievements, when I was unable to write fiction, let alone read a novel for two years. It was then that I knew I would do everything in my being to be able to write again, and that I would never give up on my novel.

I had a stroke on December 31, 2006, at the age of 33. Amidst the festivities of New Year’s Eve, no one thought much of the fact that I appeared quiet and spacey. I’d had the weirdest migraine of my life earlier that day in the parking lot of a South Lake Tahoe shopping center; the world tilted 90 degrees and every object doubled. If I were to write an imagist poem about that moment, I’d write about the twinned red snow blowers lined up in the snow outside a hardware store.

My husband says I complained of an enormous migraine-level headache, but I don’t remember pain. I remember disorientation and wonder and sudden exhaustion. What was happening? I should say something, but what is it I could say? What were words? What was language? I felt like my Self was buried under a thousand layers of cotton blankets.

It wasn’t until we got back down from the mountains a day later that we realized that something was seriously wrong. I couldn’t remember my way home from the neighborhood grocery store and I couldn’t process the labels on the shelves of the store and I couldn’t remember my husband’s phone number when I decided that perhaps I needed to go to the hospital. I wondered what the phone number for 911 might be.

At the hospital lying in bed my neurologist told me that I had had a stroke.

My stroke didn’t affect my body—I didn’t limp and my face didn’t slide like melted wax. I looked completely normal. My stroke had occurred in the left thalamus, the mysterious “hub” of the brain, and it among other things, the stroke affected my short-term memory, my coping mechanisms, and it affected my ability to retrieve memories, spin language, and weave stories.

In short, I was Dory the Fish in Finding Nemo.

My doctors told me to keep a journal as my memory bank—to write every happening inside the journal and to timestamp each entry. It was my physical short-term memory repository (and it worked a lot better than tattooing things on my body a la “Memento Mori”).

That Moleskine journal saved my life.

I was determined to “come back like Lance (Armstrong)” and I wrote my feelings and happenings in my Moleskine every single day. I often slept 20 hours a day. My waking hours felt like what healthy people feel like in the first few minutes after waking up in the morning; hazy and not quite present. In the first months, it took me two of my four waking hours to compose three paragraphs. But I wrote them.

I was convinced that if I kept writing, my brain would heal and make me a stronger writer. That I’d come out of this better than before. That somehow the synapses in my brain would synthesize a new and better writer. (Cue Six Million Dollar Man theme music).

Several months into my recovery, I was well enough to comprehend my situation. And yes, I cried. Yes, I got depressed. I would pick up books, and find myself reading the same paragraph over and over and over because by the end of the paragraph, I’d forgotten what had happened, so I’d keep reading and forgetting.

At around the year mark, my doctors told me “I was cured.” I was not cured, I told them. I couldn’t write fiction. How was this cured? Most of my doctors and therapists shrugged with a shadow of pity behind their eyes. My neurologist said I would keep improving, but this was, he said, as far as most doctors would go.

I was functional. I could hold a conversation. I couldn’t balance a checkbook, but I could get money out of the ATM and I could pay for my purchases. I could read People magazine, and I could even read a short story by then. I could go on drives and remember where I’d parked my car and find my way back home, but I couldn’t yet read a novel.

My stroke helped me to realize that the one thing I wanted to do more than anything else, was to write. My marker for “being cured,” was not what the doctors designated. It was not being able to function in life. It was not what my friends designated, which was to appear normal and be able to participate in discussions. My marker for being alive was to be able to write fiction again. To write my novel.

It took two years before I could look at my novel, and imagine worlds again. Two years before I stopped flipping homonyms in my writing. Two years before my prose became more than pedestrian.

I’m not sure if my brain, as I’d hoped, formed new synapses such that they made me a better writer—but I’m most certainly a more determined writer. And that has made all the difference. There is a black spot in my brain now, and it will always be there, near the center of my brain. And I consider that my writing birthmark.

Christine, about to read an excerpt from her novel at the Sunday Salon reading series this past November. (I was there! She was fantastic!)

It took years before I could remember this experience as a cohesive narrative. And while most writers don’t have strokes at the age of 33, I don’t think my experience is all too unique, because many of us have been kept from our writing in one way or another in our crazy writing lives. It could be a year away from writing as you raise a new baby, or a year away from writing as you immerse yourself in financially-necessary work, or a year away from writing because your writing just breaks your heart and you just can’t look at it anymore. Maybe you were really sick and couldn’t write. But sometimes, it is that very time away that forms the negative space around your identity and determination and your writing. When you come back, you know who you are, more than ever. And who you are is a writer to the core.

—Christine Lee Zilka

Christine Lee ZilkaChristine Lee Zilka is the Editor-at-Large at Kartika Review. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies such as ZYZZYVAVerbsapYomimono, and Men Undressed: Women Authors Write About Male Sexual Experience. She was awarded a residency at Hedgebrook in 2006, placed as a finalist in Poets and Writers Magazine’s Writers Exchange Contest in 2007, and received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open in 2009. She has a novel-in-progress.

Read Christine’s blog 80,000 Words at czilka.wordpress.com.

Follow @czilka on Twitter. 


Men Undressed

Thank you to everyone who entered the giveaway via the entry form—and thank you to Christine for donating the anthology for a prize! I’m happy to announce the winner:

Alexa O. won a copy of the anthology Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience, edited by Gina Frangello, Stacy Bierlein, Cris Mazza and Kat Meads, with a foreword by Steve Almond, and featuring writers Aimee Bender, Jennifer Egan, Susan Minot, A.M. Homes, Christine Lee Zilka, and more! Congrats! I’ll email the winner to ask for a mailing address. Thank you again to everyone who entered!

Want more in this blog series?

The Turning Points series will continue with new guest posts three times a week. Subscribe to distraction no. 99 to keep up with the series, or read all the posts with this tag.

Here are the posts in the series so far:

You can keep up with all the open giveaways on the giveaways page!

Series images by Robert Roxby.

Guest Post: What Inspires Christine Lee Zilka

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

I first connected with Christine Lee Zilka because her blog inspired me—this was years and years ago, before I ever published any books and was facing quite a few rejections. We’ve since become friends in real life and now we write together in the same inspiring location. No way could I host a blog series on inspiration without asking her to contribute! Here’s her beautiful post:

Dark moody sky

What inspires me?

I’m inspired by Autumn and Winter, the seasons I define as my “writing prime time.” By quiet mornings. I’m inspired by music; Jónsi, Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, Journey. By running. By sunrises and sunsets. By long drives through the countryside. By shores. By bodies of water. By bridges. By snow. By mountains. By quiet landscapes. By people. By my parents. By taking photographs. By Rothko. By words. By amazing books and writers. The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. The Great Gatsby. Middlesex. Great Expectations. Brilliant characters. Jay Gatsby. Don Draper. Miss Havisham. Incredible opening paragraphs. Going to bookstores and just opening up books and reading random first paragraphs at will. And buying the books with lines that knock the wind out of me and leave me with bliss resembling falling in love at first sight (isn’t that why we all read?). I’m inspired by old encouraging notes from incredible writing mentors. By good jokes. By overcoming hardships. By watching gold medal ceremonies. By watching underdogs make comebacks. By watching South Korean and North Korean family reunions. By tasting honey; that a bee could gather pollen and make something so sweet.

But when I am in the act of writing, I am inspired by darkness.[1]

When I am writing, I am at the bottom of a deep dark hole; I am nowhere near my aforementioned objects of inspiration. This darkness is not a bad place, although sometimes it gets very uncomfortable and lonely. And it can be intimidating. The darkness is unending and unknowable. There are no seasons. No sunsets. No long drives. Not even any books. Just myself. My thoughts. Memories. Questions I ask myself.

It took me a while to devote myself to fiction writing—I didn’t find my way to creative writing until I was over 30. I avoided writing because I had a fear of this very act of sitting with myself in silence in my early adulthood. Of sitting still. By myself. In
silence. It made me feel like I could break. Like I was glass in a room full of swinging hammers.

It was frightening, because I’d built a life in which I ignored my dreams and desires. I did this, in part, because I was afraid to fail at my dream, which is to write. It was, I thought, better not to dream and fail, than it was to dream and struggle at all; boy was I wrong. And it took a lot to leave that life, and specifically that business career, even though in hindsight, I don’t know why it took me so long. And it wasn’t just the leaving, it was giving myself permission. To play. To dream. To take risks. To be brave. To embrace the dark.

I can now sit in the dark with myself and my writing. I’m glass in a room full of swinging hammers and I make a beautiful sound as I shatter each time. I am as many glasses as there are hammers.

The darkness gives me a lot of freedom to do things that I would not be able to do in the light. In this darkness (which you have permission to call my subconscious if you so desire), I can play without humiliation or judgment, naked or costumed. It is a pure kind of play, the unashamed kind that defines childhood, and I have to lower myself into this darkness to achieve this level of freedom.

It is not like being blind, that darkness; it is a level in which I can imagine rooms and worlds that never end. I can walk inside this darkness without stubbing my toe or hitting my shins against a coffee table. Eventually, I become lost in a way that I find blissful and fulfilling. Eventually, I create a world in which it is possible for me to become lost.

This place is where I can examine the underbelly of things, and ask the questions I dare not ask in my conscious world like, “Did Grandma really die of a stroke? I thought Dad’s first scream when he discovered her in the backyard was, ‘She hung herself!'” Who knows? In the darkness, I can discuss that question, and search for the truth in safety. Or imagine truths.

I deal with my pain and happiness and all the notes and chords of my life, some of which I don’t realize exist when I am aboveground, down there. There were so many instances in childhood when I lay crying or worse, even numb, that my mother would whisper as my only comfort, “Someday, this will become a good story.” And they do.

I wonder, without worry, about finding my way out. Each time the way out is different. And each time, it involves telling a story filled with all the things I’ve distilled from all the things that energize my conscious aboveground.

When the words are right, when they fall into place, I feel like I am lifted out of the darkness. When I’ve told a very good story, or written a very good scene, I emerge with a deep satisfaction that can’t be rivaled by any other achievement in my life.

It is not unlike Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter, who spend decades in Narnia, only to have to return to England, back into their school-aged bodies. And how Narnia is only accessible in childhood. I can only imagine that C.S. Lewis felt the same about his writing and imagination and inspiration.

[1] Yes, I know this sounds a little like Allison Harvard of America’s Next Top Model bleating her love of “blood”—i.e., it sounds weird and twisted and gross. But the reality is that I’m weird and twisty and gross inside. And so is writing.

—Christine Lee Zilka

Christine Lee Zilka is the Editor-at-Large at Kartika Review. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies such as ZYZZYVA, VerbsapYomimono, and Men Undressed: Women Authors Write About Male Sexual Experience. She was awarded a residency at Hedgebrook in 2006, placed as a finalist in Poets and Writers Magazine’s Writers Exchange Contest in 2007, and received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open in 2009. She has a novel-in-progress.

Read Christine’s blog 80,000 Words at czilka.wordpress.com.

Follow @czilka on Twitter. 

Christine has sought inspiration before, and it has evolved from different forms in previous years… Read her own blog posts for more:

Want more in this blog series?