E.K. Johnston: Your Brain Is A Forest

E.K. Johnston is a stunning talent, a huge Star Wars nerd, and also really, really nice? Which is honestly too good, and I have long suspected she is some kind of robot sent here to make us all feel unworthy, but with this post, she reminds us that she, and we, are all human. 

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On Thursday January 24, my boyfriend broke up with me. It was kind of a shock. He’d just been promoted at work and I was very proud of him. He never acted like my career was detrimental to his. But this promotion included a HUGE life-change, and he just didn’t see how we were going to make it work. I was devastated, to say the least. I cried. I begged. I was so upset that I almost phoned Emma so that I wouldn’t have to cry alone. And then I remembered two things: it was almost midnight and my boyfriend was fictional.

This might take some explaining.

One of the first things my doctor told me when we started to get into the nitty-gritty of mental health and depression was that your brain is like a forest. The more often you travel a path, from thought to result, the easier it gets. This is why intrusive thoughts and negatives are so damaging: they use napalm to clear the way instead of a machete, and they’re really hard to shake. If you wake up and read something bad, it becomes easy to hate waking up. But if you start each morning reading the text message where your nephew tells his mum he’s decided to be an author because he loves you, eventually you start to like waking up. You have to cut a new path, and keep walking it.

Your brain is like a forest. Dark and full of weird stuff growing on top of dead things you used to love.

Every part of my life got better when I started taking antidepressants. There was the first week where I was one The Wrong Pill and slept for 20 hours a day, but even THAT was better than where I’d been. Then my doctor put me on Prozac (“it’s what space mom would want”), and I settled in. It was like I didn’t realize how far into the cave I’d been. To Do Lists that used to take a week to do half of were suddenly finished by Monday afternoon. Evenings that used to end at 6pm while I stared at the wall until midnight suddenly had six hours in which to do things. I hung up art. I bought an Xbox (and a TV. And a table for the TV). I baked Christmas cookies. I didn’t write a book.

Your brain is like a forest. There are scary things there, but there are great things, too.

I did get a phenomenal amount of work done. I did copy edits and line edits and first pass pages, all of which were usually HIGHLY stressful, but this time were fine. My house looked like an adult human lived in it. I cleared out my stuff from storage and actually dealt with it instead of just shoving it into my own basement. Emma and I finished Mass Effect at the end of October, and I felt true fannish love for the first time in a while. Everything was glorious as NaNoWriMo dawned.

Your brain is like a forest. It’s dangerous to go alone.

The first time I did NaNo was in 2008, and I wrote 14 words. The second time, in 2009, I wrote The Story of Owen, which became my debut novel four years later. Now I was forging new paths in my brain and enjoying the ability to focus on multiple things at the same time without feeling guilty about any of it. And NaNo was where I’d started, so NaNo was where I went. The first week wasn’t so bad. I went to a pretty café in my pretty town and wrote 10,000 pretty awful words. But they were, you know, WORDS. Except then I couldn’t keep going. I was lost, and I had to start again. I went to the cottage, a place where between 2010 and 2018, I’d drafted approximately a million words. I asked my editor for a phone call, forgetting about American Thanksgiving, and we talked it out. But I still couldn’t START.

Your brain is like a forest. You’ve read enough of those stories to know how this goes.

I decided not to worry about it. I was going to enjoy Christmas and keep plugging along at all the other things I’d let slide over the years, and the book would come when it came. Or at least, that’s what I kept telling people. On the inside, I was panicking. Everyone always says bullshit like “Would Van Gogh have been a painter if he wasn’t so unstable?” and my answer was always “WHO CARES MAYBE HE WOULD HAVE LIVED”, but now, presented with my own creative slump, I was worried. My brain didn’t work the same way anymore, and even though literally everything else was better, I didn’t know how to write.

Your brain is like a forest. You find help under the strangest rocks.

I went to the game store and bought Dragon Age: Origins. (I also bought the rest of the series and all of Mass Effect. I am a completionist.) When I got home, I didn’t know what to do. Like, what if I was really bad at it? On Christmas Eve, I decided to make my character, just to see how that went. Four hours later, I was in love. I was really bad at it. But, oh, it was great. I had a couple of weeks away from home (read: my Xbox), and one glitch that necessitated re-starting the whole thing, but as January wound down, I was almost finished the game, and I having the time of my life. And then I made Alistair, my perfect, kind, noble boyfriend, the King of Fereldon, and he immediately took all the reasons I thought he made a good king, and broke up with me.

Your brain is like a forest. There are familiar paths in places where you forgot you used to look.

I did something then that I haven’t done in years: I wrote fanfic. I took the weekend off from playing and wallowed in my feelings, every sharp edge of them. I had made Alistair, for the purposes of the game. I had brought this on myself in every way. I could, it was repeatedly pointed out to me, go back and fix it. But I didn’t. I chose to live with my choices, and what they had brought about…but I also chose to keep writing the story. And the words came. They came while I was falling asleep, snippets of dialogue that I still remembered in the morning. They came while I was dozing on the sofa, blocking out scenes and remembering which threads I wanted to tease out the next time I was at my computer. It was like how it had been when my brain was full of fog all the time, when all I had was the rush of my next chapter. Only now my brain was clear, and my world still shone in full colour.

Your brain is like a forest. Sometimes you find the breadcrumbs that lead you back home.

I still have to write a book. Actually, I have to write more than one. But I remember how. I went all the way back to the beginning and dove into the world that has always welcomed me home, regardless of the fandom I’m currently writing. I have always been intense—anyone who has ever watched a movie trailer with me can tel you that—but now I can pick where I direct my intensity and sustain the feelings long enough to get something done. I lost nothing. I only stopped for a moment to catch my breath and sharpen my knife.

Your brain is like a forest. Keep cutting through until you make your path.

(Obviously this is my experience, but I hope you can find something in it that is helpful, if you need it. I realize that being Canadian makes going to the doctor a heck of a lot easier, but if you think you need help, please, please, please try to get it.)

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EK Johnston is the New York Times Best Selling author of Star Wars: Ahsoka, and a wide variety of other critically acclaimed YA novels. Her latest book, The Afterward— a romantic epic fantasy about an apprentice knight and a not-quite-reformed thief trying to find each other again after their quest to save the world — is out on February 19, 2019.

EK Johnston: Website | Twitter

The Afterward: Print | eBook