"A word after a word after a word is power." -Margaret Atwood
The first MRI was run by two dudes, let’s call them Frick and Frack. They were friendly enough, told me it wouldn’t take too long. And I’d never had trouble with small spaces before. Ten seconds into the tube though, I said, “Um, I think I’m having trouble in here.” I’d spoken with deliberate calm, but when they pulled me out, they said the scan was off. “If you have trouble the first time,” said Frick, “You’re gonna have trouble the next time too,” finished Frack. “Ask the doc to give you some meds to make it easier,” he suggested, as he walked me back to the locker room.
The second MRI was run by a woman I’ll call Grace. She’d read my file. She watched my face as I explained how surprised I’d been by my first try with the MRI. “Don’t worry,” she said. “Lots of people have that reaction.” Then she described each step of the procedure. She told me how long each step would take, and what I would feel and hear. She gave me headphones to dampen the noise. She offered me an eye pillow, saying it would help if I took slow, deep breaths, kept my eyes closed, and visualized a calm, open space. Then as I went through each step, she told me where we were in the process; how much longer that step would take; and what was coming next. In between, she’d ask, “You still doing alright?” By the time the scan was over, I was ready to promise that woman my first-born child. And anything else she asked for.
The reason the MRI worked the second time around is that Grace helped me see and control what was happening to me. She did this in two ways: First, she explained the structure of an MRI before I had to go through it. She named all its parts. She described its alarming features. She shared common reactions that people have to those parts. Then she gave me tools I could use to manage each one. She did all this before I went into the machine. So when we got to each part, I was like, ok, here’s that one part Grace was talking about. In other words, I knew what was coming. So rather than focus on the fact that I was trapped in a large, loud, metal coffin, I focused on that picture in my head. The one of me at the beach, crashing surf in the background, and my long brown legs basking in the sun.
The second thing Grace did was walk me through the structure as I went through the MRI. Yes, she’d already explained its structure. Yes, I already knew what was coming. But I wasn’t ready to go through it alone, and she knew it. So she reminded me of where we were, at each point in the process. She checked in to make sure I was OK. So I knew that if things got bad, all I had to do is tell her, and the scan would end.
If you’ve heard me talk about the importance of structuring your writing session before, this is what I mean. Writing can be intimidating. Sometimes, when I’m writing, my heart beats just as hard and as fast as it did the first time I slid down the barrel of that MRI scanner. But it’s much easier to handle those feelings when we can name the parts of a writing session; when we understand its features; when we know we’re not the only ones who are afraid of it; and when we have tools that help us manage each part that scares us. It’s why we spend all our time at Composed laboring over these moments—what they are and what to do about them. It doesn’t mean writing’s not hard. It means we know how to handle the hard.
It’s also the reason that we teach these tools at a retreat, rather than in a course or a single workshop. Because it’s one thing to learn the structure of a writing session. It’s another thing entirely to write through that session with your heart pounding in your throat and your fears whispering in your ears. It’s easier to write with your comrades and your coach; to have someone to process it with you after you’ve done it; to get your questions answered just a few hours after the session ends. So you can dive back in the next day, ready to tackle that tough part again.
If you want to think through the structure of your writing session, pay attention next time you sit down to write. Which parts are smooth like butter? And which parts make you suddenly feel like it’s important to stop writing and empty the dishwasher? I bet that if you thought about it, you could come up with an alternative strategy for those dishwasher moments. Something else to try, now that you’re clear on what the hard parts are. Something that’s like your personal eye pillow, steering your gaze from the scary bits, and focusing you, instead, on whatever keeps you calm enough to keep writing.
The point isn’t that you become a writing superhero overnight, able to sail through every session like all you’re doing is writing up a grocery list. The point is that when you know what’s coming, you can gather your tools about you, plan your strategies ahead of time. In other words, Frick and Frack are wrong: If your writing has troubled you in the past, it doesn’t mean it will trouble you forever. You can learn to structure your writing sessions. So you can learn to head into a tunnel of writing with more confidence, knowing what you need and how to get it.
That’s what happened with my third MRI, which was several years later. That one was run by me. There was a tech there, of course—but she was no Grace. That was OK. Cause I brought my eye pillow with me. I asked for headphones. I told the nameless tech, “These things make me nervous, so I’m gonna need you to walk me through it.” When she finished explaining what would happen, I confirmed that she’d be on that microphone. I asked her to cue me at each phase of the scan, and to check in with me in between each cue, to make sure I wasn’t losing it.
I thought I’d feel silly, asking for all that help. Instead, I was so focused on giving myself what I needed that I forgot to feel silly. All I noticed as I slid into the tunnel was my breath going in and out. That vision of my legs in the sun. And beyond them, the blue on blue of sea and sky.
Want to learn more about how to structure your writing sessions?
We’d love to see you at Composed.