Migraine Memoirs

Writing Well When You’re Not Feeling Well

By Dave Fox

A student in my online humor writing class prefaced her story this week with a disclaimer: “I am in a great deal of pain, having somehow injured my shoulder, so nothing seems very funny today.”

In spite of her pain, she pushed through and turned in the week’s assignment. She got it that, as I wrote a couple of months ago, sometimes you have to “go with what you’ve got,” and submit something mediocre. Perfectionism and deadlines rarely mix.

With her disclaimer before the story, I lowered my expectations. But as I started reading, I found myself laughing hard at what was actually solid, very funny column. And I wasn’t the only one. The rest of the class chimed in on our message boards about what a great article it was.

I wondered why my student was berating herself and blaming her shoulder. Then I remembered a personal experience from around 20 years ago.

For a couple of years after college, I worked part-time as an entertainment stringer for the Wisconsin State Journal, the morning newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. It was fun side job writing concert reviews. My deadline was usually the same night as the show. At 10:45 p.m., whether the concert was finished or not, I’d drive to the newspaper office. I’d get there around 11, type like crazy, and turn in my story by midnight. Five hours later, the paper hit the streets.

One night, about 30 minutes into a Zydeco concert, I got whacked with a pounding migraine. I moved from my fourth row seat to the back of the theater. I popped Tylenols and kept scribbling notes, massaging my temples between thoughts as a rollicking accordion blared from the stage.

My pain worsened, I pondered calling my editor and telling him I couldn’t write the story that night. I had no idea how that would fly. He was saving space for 600 words. Did he have another feature story ready to go for last-minute emergencies? I was sufficiently new that I didn’t want to ask, and look like an amateur.

Over the next hour, my headache abated enough that I felt safe to drive. I headed to the newspaper and stared at a blank computer screen for 25 minutes before I started writing.

I turned in my story 15 minutes late, apologized to my editor for the lousy job I’d done, and went home to sleep. When I woke up in the morning, I didn’t read the published article. I was too embarrassed.

Months later, when I finally looked at it, I was surprised. It was one of my best written concert reviews to date – and it became a clip I would submit to other editors as a writing sample for several years afterward.

Sometimes when we’re not feeling well, we think our writing is horrible. We feel horrible physically, and we let that horrible feeling spill into our perceptions of our creativity. But in reality, we’re just in a bad mood, spawned by a migraine, an injured shoulder, a sore throat, or some other woe. If we can push through our discomfort, prop ourselves up and write anyway, we sometimes discover our writing is far better than the way we are feeling.


Curious about the not-feeling-funny humor column? Lynne Paris-Purtle will be our guest blogger two days from now. Check back to for her tale of her birthday-present-impaired husband.

[Photo: Luis Argerich / flickr]

Published on Tuesday, October 23, 2012

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