I have been struggling for weeks to write a couple of papers for my non-fiction writing class. One of the topics that I thought I would write about is Executive Functions. However, it is the damaged executive functions themselves that make writing so difficult.
Planning and organization require mental categories for filing information, as well as the ability to divide tasks into steps in the proper sequence. When the mental C.E.O. [Executive Functions] is defective, the person is easily overwhelmed by details while missing the big picture.
A task like writing a term paper places heavy demands on executive functions. Coming up with a subject and doing the research can be daunting. The actual writing — in fact, any writing — may be even harder.1
I didn’t make that up! That is a direct quote from Lack Direction? Evaluate Your Brain’s C.E.O., a New York Times’ article about damaged executive functions.
I get so far along in writing the paper (or even developing an outline) and then I am lost. I can’t figure out where I want to go or what point I am even trying to make. I mean I REALLY can’t figure it out.
I confuse people or they think I am faking my difficulties. I appear intelligent and talented. Why did I write down the due date wrong? Why can’t I just sit down and write a 700 or 800 word paper?
How can I explain that my brain feels like alphabet soup? That I can’t gather the letters together to build a logical path through the peas and the carrots?
And even if I use the paper as a platform to try to explain that, I am still unclear about the point I am ultimately trying to make about Executive Functions.
In journalism “the point” is called the “Nut Graph” which is a contraction of the term Nutshell Paragraph. The nut graph is usually the third paragraph in an article and essentially tells you why you should bother reading the piece. According to Wikipedia, there are journalists whose sole job it is to write nut graphs. They are called “Nutshellers”. (Not true but a cute idea!)
I could use a good Nutsheller right now.
Yet, I write blog posts. It is interesting to note how that differs from writing essay assignments. In writing this blog I have unconsciously developed many techniques to circumvent the brain holes in my executive functions.
First off, I never have a clear goal, nut graph, or entire concept of where a post will lead. They do end up getting somewhere but it is more like the writing evolves as I do it.
I almost always start a post visually. I look for artwork that illustrates the feeling I have or the thought I want to get across – like the overcooked mishmash of alphabet soup above. By doing this I circumvent some of the broken verbal pathways. Sometimes I even look through photos to get an idea of what to write about. I locate photos that speak to me and try to understand what they are saying.
Idea generation, the ability to form concepts is one of the executive functions where I am challenged. People may laugh at me saying that because my ability to make connections between pieces of information is still exceptionally strong. But that is different from idea generation. Therefore, I include many quotes in my posts. I find pieces that convey the information that I want to convey. I quote them and then use that material as a springboard or to illustrate a point.
I cannot research a subject and then sit down to write about it. The truth is, I have tried. I have tried very hard to do that for this course and I have failed miserably. Instead, as I work on a blog post, I bounce all over the web researching the topic and writing as I go. Of course I also edit and rewrite too.
Somehow I end up with a coherent discourse. I get the job done and usually end up with a decent post.
Writing an essay is different. It requires research and keeping track of the material and the ability to then organize the information into some kind of structure. It involves being able to generate coherent thoughts from the data, to sequence the information and plan a logical march of paragraphs to build a storyline. All of those skills are part of executive functions.
Therefore this course I am taking at the UW is very challenging for me, but it is also what I need. It gives me the opportunity to come up against the blocks that my brain damage erects and, with the help of the rehab team, to figure out ways around them.
- Richard C. Saltus, “Lack Direction? Evaluate Your Brain’s CEO,” New York Times, August 26, 2003
- Debbie Ridpath Ohi, Inkygirl.com. Used with permission.