I’m frugal with my exclamation marks. Nevertheless, before approaching the lectern to present argument before any court over the last thirty years, I’ve always written “SLOW DOWN!!!” at the top of my notes. Nowadays it’s tattooed on the inside of my eyelids.
As I recently wrote in “Snap,” this fall I had a series of epiphanies about my relationship with “Executive Function.” According to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, “Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.”
The presenter at a recent legal education webinar explained that many new attorneys struggle “with some type of executive function challenge: focusing, staying on task, organizing, managing time effectively, starting and finishing tasks, keeping a schedule, communicating with others, and more.” The recently evolved neural networks in our prefrontal cortex are particularly vulnerable to physical and psychological assaults. As I listened to the presentation, I realized how easily both ordinary stressors and specific PTSD triggers impair my own Executive Functioning.
During World War I and World War II, the Royal Navy had a slogan: “A convoy travels at the speed of its slowest ship.”
Last August I obtained major victories in two longstanding legal cases. I thought that meant we would soon begin exciting new phases in the litigation. Instead, none of our reboots occurred until January 2022. While the other side’s lawyers stonewalled, I spent a frustrating fall trying in vain to speed things up.
Looking back, I’m grateful for the breathing space provided by our glacial litigation pace during autumn’s blessed post-vaccination window. The kids went back to school, where they wore masks and thrived while doing normal-ish things like choir and theatre. The Canadian border finally opened after eighteen bleak months. Because of room capacity limitations, Vancouver Men’s Chorus divided itself in half for rehearsals before joyously reuniting in December for a successful and revitalizing concert run.
Then anti-vaxers gave us the Omicron surge. Real life slowed down again. Nevertheless, hope has returned with the new year. Tomorrow I’m crossing the border to see my brother and to attend VMC’s first in-person rehearsal of the year.
Meanwhile, I finally accepted that the pace of litigation pace will always be set by the courts’ judicious and deliberate speed, not the parties and lawyers. More importantly, I realized I need to slow myself way down to compensate for all the stress placed on my Executive Function. I’ve learned to work on one task at a time, avoid toxic encounters, and regularly take healthy breaks with my children or walking the dogs. It turns out the courts’ speed works for me, too.
Like every good Canadian gay boy, all I really need to know I learned from Anne of Green Gables.
Lucy Maud Montgomery’s novel, published in 1908, is the national epic of Prince Edward Island. It tells the story of spunky 11-year old orphan Anne Shirley, who is mistakenly sent to live with Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert, a bachelor farmer and his spinster sister. The Cuthberts asked the Victorian social workers to send a boy to help work the farm. Instead, Anne’s enchanting chatter and vivid imagination quickly brighten the lives of everyone around her.
A few years later in the story, when Anne was the same age my daughters are now, Marilla was startled to see Anne had grown taller than her. Marilla noticed “there were other changes in Anne no less real than the physical change”:
For one thing, she became much quieter. Perhaps she thought all the more and dreamed as much as ever, but she certainly talked less. Marilla noticed and commented on this also.
“You don’t chatter half as much as you used to, Anne, nor use half as many big words. What has come over you?”
Anne colored and laughed a little, as she dropped her book and looked dreamily out of the window, where big fat red buds were bursting out on the creeper in response to the lure of the spring sunshine.
“I don’t know—I don’t want to talk as much,” she said, denting her chin thoughtfully with her forefinger. “It’s nicer to think dear, pretty thoughts and keep them in one’s heart, like treasures. I don’t like to have them laughed at or wondered over. And somehow I don’t want to use big words any more. It’s almost a pity, isn’t it, now that I’m really growing big enough to say them if I did want to. It’s fun to be almost grown up in some ways, but it’s not the kind of fun I expected, Marilla. There’s so much to learn and do and think that there isn’t time for big words. Besides, Miss Stacy says the short ones are much stronger and better. She makes us write all our essays as simply as possible. It was hard at first. I was so used to crowding in all the fine big words I could think of—and I thought of any number of them. But I’ve got used to it now and I see it’s so much better.”
Alice Flaherty is a neurologist and a professor at Harvard Medical School. Two difficult pregnancies left her with post-partum manic-depression so severe she eventually admitted herself into a mental hospital. In her memoir The Midnight Disease: The Drive to Write, Writer’s Block, and the Creative Brain, Flaherty wrote about her struggle with excruciating writer’s block, followed by intense hypergraphia (the overwhelming compulsion to write).
My own youthful traumas caused three decades of increasing writer’s block. It took a PTSD diagnosis before the fog began to lift. Writing these blog essays, as well as working on my book manuscripts and even countless legal briefs, became both a creative joy and effective Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Like Anne Shirley and Alice Flaherty, my manic early writing was overwhelmingly prolific. The output slowed down as I gained the skills and courage to confront increasingly challenging topics: exile from my Canadian home, my repressed Mormon youth, finding my gay tribe at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and my recent betrayals by an unjust legal profession.
In 2020, I had the privilege of participating in an extraordinary cohort of writers and coaches working together as part of The Narrative Project. Last weekend I was one of the writers reading from our recent work at the launch of True Stories, a new anthology. The writers in our small group – Jennifer, Kimberly, Patty, and I – would exchange new work and support each other. The larger cohort would gather for sessions about the craft and business of writing, and the elements of a writer’s life. Cami Ostman, founder of The Narrative Project, is an experienced writer, editor, educator, and therapist. In addition to growing through the collaborative writing process, I learned how to write through trauma.
Nowadays I recognize the warning signs of Executive Function overload – including when my work requires me to produce legal writing about triggering issues. Looking back at my court filings over the last five years, I wish I had figured out how to slow down a long time ago. I owe an apology to a few judges for some longwinded briefs, particularly those slightly ranting conclusions. Fortunately, my new slower gear and improved self-editing skills arrived just in time for new briefing before the Washington Supreme Court.
Our group’s coach from The Narrative Project, Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor, is currently working on a science fiction novel. We bonded over The Mandalorian. And over the fundamental patterns and rhythms of the writing process. As Rebecca would say, This is the Way.