Adapting and Believing in New Ideas
On August 19, 2008, at a Wexner institute in Stowe, Vermont, an aneurysm ruptured in my brain. I was 28 years old. Instead of dying, I had some brain surgeries, lost vision in one eye, my sense of smell and a portion of my skull, and went home. I had just finished the third year of a PhD program in Jewish literature when I got sick. It would take months to recover from the initial hemorrhage and the complications that followed, and there was still one more surgery to come, so I went on medical leave for the academic year.
For a few months, recovering from a brain injury and devastating infection was a full-time job. Then, as the nausea lifted and my strength and stamina increased, the emptiness of my days hit me hard. As I write in my forthcoming memoir:
For the first time in my life, there was not a single thing that I was “supposed” to be doing. There were no paper deadlines or readings to finish for class. There were zero expectations. All I had to do was keep breathing, and people practically cheered. I’m sure there’s something very Zen that one could say about this, about slowing down, stepping back, “just being.” But doing things is important. Creating things matters. It’s not that we live, but how, that makes us who we are.
I needed a project. So in January 2009, at the suggestion of a friend who knows me well, I started a food blog. I missed my studies, I had told her, but even more, I missed my everyday – especially in the kitchen. I’d always loved to cook and bake, and I was just beginning to be strong enough to do it again. The blog would be a place where I could gather the bits of normal life that were slowly sprouting up around me and make something of them. Writing about toast, and soup, and Sunday breakfast was my way of registering these things, really seeing them, and believing in them once again.
Nine months into writing my blog, the summer before I was to re-enroll in graduate school, I received several inquiries from literary agents about whether I’d like to write a book. I told them no. The only way back to myself, I thought, was to pick up where I had left off. That meant returning to my studies as soon as I possibly could.
So I studied for and passed the last of my general exams, taught a couple of classes, and wrote a prospectus for my dissertation. I wanted to prove to myself that nothing had changed, that I hadn’t changed. But of course I had. Life didn’t freeze when that aneurysm ruptured in my brain, and neither did I. There was no going back, and I was slowly realizing that I didn’t want to. I had discovered through my blog that I loved writing more than I knew, and I wanted to see how it would feel to write full-time. I decided to try and write that book, after all.
I started working with an agent on a book proposal, and set up a meeting with my advisor to share my plans. I was nervous. This wasn’t what she had signed up for when she had accepted me into the program. Wasn’t this irresponsible of me, taking this massive detour? Shouldn’t I first finish what I’d started? Her response surprised me. “Jessica,” she said, “You have to write what you want to write when you want to write it.” It’s a simple enough statement, but internalizing it was transformative. Leadership means trusting in inspiration when it strikes. It means believing in an idea even when it seems to be pulling you away from what you think you “should” be doing, and giving it a chance to take you someplace new; believing that you don’t have to close one door to open another, and that you can be more than one thing.
There is incredible creative power, I’ve learned, in doing the work that you feel called in that moment to do. My book comes out next week.
Jessica Fechtor is an alum of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship (Class 18). Her book Stir: My Broken Brain and the Meals That Brought Me Home comes out next week. She has recorded a short video about her book and her experience which you can view by clicking here. She blogs at www.sweetamandine.com and you can follow her on Twitter @sweetamandine. Jessica can be reached via email at Jessica.firstname.lastname@example.org.