In the Thick of Things
Travis Chi Wing Lau
Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1852-3) famously begins in the thick of things: London mired in the mud, obscured behind layers of fog and smog. The atmosphere mirrors the density of social relations in the industrial metropole and the knot of problems caused by the seemingly interminable Jarndyce v. Jarndyce legal case that leaves no character untouched by its miasmatic reach. Ever since I encountered Dickens’ novel during my undergraduate years, I’ve had recurring dreams of this scene in which I become part of the labyrinthine slurry that is imagined London.
While I’ve mostly written about the physical sensations of chronic pain that accompany my scoliosis-related disability, I’ve rarely talked about its manifestations as brain fog and how it has shaped so much of my writing experience. In the throes of my pain, my impression of the world is one of totalizing opacity much like Dickens’ portrait of London—a kind of primordial thickness that has a weighty effect on my ability to make sense of it. The worst days involve what feels like futile repetition: the same tasks, the same failures that leave me feeling like I haven’t done much at all. Clearings in the fog that close as soon as they are opened; relief foreclosed by the next set of gauzy, inescapable layers. What does it mean to feel at times entrapped by your own cognition, so much that it feels estranged?
To write then has always been an act of navigating the fog without direction. I used to resent this aspect of my writing process: always a fumbling in the dark, a grasping toward the contours of an idea that slips away as soon as it takes shape. How many sentences have I unwritten? How many editors have told me that my early drafts feel “inchoate” or “illogical” or “awkward”? In moments of self-doubt, I wonder why my bodymind subjects me to this wandering without a map—a sensation unique to brain fog that Mel Y. Chen ambivalently describes as “feeling stupid,” which they deliberately “do not use, for its palpable anti-disability sentiment, its violent rejection of a particular cognitive range of being. Yet what better phrase is there, sometimes, for my force of disappointment and self-repudiation in comparison to what I expected of myself…?” 1 I, too, bristle at the thought of days spent “feeling stupid,” where I have to confess to myself, my partner, and my students that I’m simply not able to process their thinking, their speech, let alone make thought into word. This feels like I’m simply not made for the work that I want to do as a writer and scholar, a failure before I even sit painfully at my desk.
The most unsettling aspect of inhabiting the thickness of my fog is the sense that time itself gives way when I am in the thick of things. There is only the suffocating closeness of the cognitive delay and recursivity that demands so much of me that when it lifts, I feel as though I have lost time and lost it to myself. I feel guilty about these lost hours, time being so precious in our publish-or-perish culture of neoliberal academia or the writerly “brands” that keep your work circulating and “relevant.”
But disability communities have taught me to respect the arrhythmia of my cognitive states that align with my pained bodymind’s crip time rather than with the forward march of the clock. The crip response to my guilt, of course, is that my bodymind should care less about deadlines that attempt to force it into “disciplined cognition.”2 On the other hand, the ableism of our writing cultures means our editors, our peers, our judges often do not care about honoring our bodyminds on their own terms. This impasse has resulted in not only fewer neurodivergent writers placing their work but also fewer disabled writers feeling safe enough to write honestly from their bodyminds in ways that do not conform to literary conventions or publication norms that expect “‘clean,’ ‘wholesome’ cognition.”3 Does foggy writing have its own place or do we need to acknowledge that no writing emerges fully-formed from consciousness? What happens when we make visible the layers of fog so many of us work through and the shared cognitive labor that comes with the layered activity of writing, rewriting, unwriting?
My poetic work, as I’ve come to understand it, is an invitation into the thick of my fog even as I continue to meander within it. Like the characters in Bleak House, I’ve slowly realized that struggling desperately to find my way out is an exhausting, even harmful process. The work now for me has been to relinquish my own attachments to clarity and control over what lies concealed behind the foggy layers. These days, I’m trying to remain in the thick of things because it is where the best of me has always been.
- Mel Y. Chen, “Brain Fog: The Race for Cripistemology.” Journal of Literary & Cultural Disability Studies. 8.2 (2014): 172.
- Chen 178.
- Chen 182.
About the Author
Travis Chi Wing Lau is Assistant Professor of English at Kenyon College. His research and teaching focuses on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature and culture, health humanities, and disability studies. Alongside his scholarship, Lau frequently writes for venues of public scholarship like Synapsis: A Journal of Health Humanities, Public Books, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. His poetry has appeared in Barren Magazine, Wordgathering, Glass, South Carolina Review, Foglifter, and The New Engagement, as well as in two chapbooks, The Bone Setter (Damaged Goods Press, 2019) and Paring (Finishing Line Press, forthcoming). Visit his website at: travisclau.com.