Miranda Kenneally

Mexican Food Cures Writer's Block

Uncle Charlie’s Broken Arm Syndrome, Sailing, and Writing

My husband’s aunt and uncle just returned from a ten-month sailing trip, which spanned from Washington, D.C., down the Atlantic Coast to the Florida Keys and throughout the Caribbean.  Yesterday, we saw them for the first time, and boy, had they changed. First of all, they have more muscles than the Hulk.  Second, they seemed kind of shocked to re-enter the “regular” world, which is to be expected. Not that I’ve ever done it, but I know sailing is incredibly tough. It can be lonely, downright exhausting, and when you’re out on the water for months at a time, you live in “island time,” which basically means you don’t follow a schedule at all.

Before we even saw his aunt and uncle, I said to my husband, “They are going to be suffering from mad Uncle Charlie’s Broken Arm Syndrome.”

I learned about this “syndrome” in international relations classes in college – basically it means that when you go away someplace for a long time, you are likely to come back a VERY different person, (e.g. what people are like when they come back from Iraq and Afghanistan), and while you are a VERY different person, no one else has changed at all, because they haven’t experienced anything new.

Here’s an extreme example:

John Doe: “I’ve been living in Iraq for a year. Every day I worried I’d be killed by celebratory gunfire, and it was a bazillion degrees and I had to wear body armor everywhere I went.”

John Doe’s mom: “That’s horrible, dear. (Insert awkward pause here) Did you hear that Uncle Charlie broke his arm?”

As you can see, John Doe’s mom couldn’t relate at all.

While I in no way equate going to Iraq with writing, sometimes I feel like I suffer from Uncle Charlie’s Broken Arm Syndrome after writing. I can spend hours in an imaginary world, only to emerge and realize that no one can possibly understand where I’ve been (until they read the book, of course).  Coming out of a book is a very lonely experience – I’ve left behind characters who’ve become my best friends. Characters who are part of ME.

And to top it all off, a lot of non-writers don’t (and won’t) ever understand why writing is so hard, or why I enjoy it so much. I’m sure all writers feel pretty lonely – that’s why it’s so important to join writing communities and critique groups and have great writerly friends.

After you’ve finished a story, how do you deal with Uncle Charlie’s Broken Arm Syndrome?

Read about Bob and Pam Beggan’s sailing trip here.

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Comments (3)

3 Responses to “Uncle Charlie’s Broken Arm Syndrome, Sailing, and Writing”

  1. I know exactly what you mean. I think I broke up with my boyfriend because focusing on my writing meant I could no longer give him my full attention. Sometimes I think writers could learn more from monks than from anyone. No one gets how your brain changes when you’re working on a book, how you cease to be able to think like a normal person. My uncle told me last weekend that he had a great idea for a book I should write. Saying that to a writer is like saying, ‘I have this kid–want to raise him for me?’

  2. alyslinn says:

    Agreed. I’d also guess that most people don’t spend very much time in their own heads, preferring to avoid contemplation in favour of Doing Stuff.

    (When I am writing, it is impossible for me to give anyone my full attention. There are very few people I can stand to see more than a couple times a month (parents, brother being the exceptions) and I guard my ‘free time’ zealously because it is writing time. )

  3. Krysta says:

    It’s less lonely if you are journeying with someone else.

    I try to keep my best friend in the loop in my novel during the writing component to keep away the Broken Arm Syndrome. (She is my biggest supporter and has been with me from the beginning of a particular story.) I gush about how much I love this character, a long description of what has happened, and what might happen next. Since I’m enthusiastic about the story and the story is actually interesting, she gets interested too. It’s feels like she is journeying along with me, and it feels less lonely.

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