The Virus that Ate my Brain

Virus ate my brainEvery writer should be so lucky as to have an idea virus eat their brain.

Here’s how it happens:

  1. First you catch it.
  2. Then you get it.
  3. Once you’ve got it, you can kiss your old self goodbye.

This is the story of how existence conspired to throw the book at me—literally—and infect me with an ideavirus that set me free.

A book called Positive Disintegration

I caught it with two hands. Yes, there really was a book. I was living in Africa at the time. After all these years I still remember my roommate tossing it to me. He didn’t hand it to me, nor is tossing accurate, no, he chucked it at me. He’d run out of sympathy for me and my “Dear John” letter.

“She’s engaged to someone else already,” I said. “I’ve only been gone two months.”

“Go, girl,” he said

“Yeah, go to hell.”

Anyway, it was a book called Positive Disintegration. Written by someone whose name I couldn’t pronounce. Kazimierz Dabrowski.

The English was stiff and the syntax was Polish but I quickly got the gist of it—something about our mental development from infancy to full maturity (whatever that might look like) occurring through five hierarchical stages. Between each level lies an existential hellhole.


“Hey, Gary, thanks for this.” My roommate was an industrial psychologist.

Nothing is broken, we don’t need fixing

According to the book, each pothole on the road of life serves as an alchemical crucible. Our negative emotions start the process. So, please, we don’t need drugs. My suffering would propel me to the next level of integration.

The author prescribed creative expression—music, art, writing, whatever. The most imaginative thing I was doing in Zambia at that time was learning to fly, but my instructor had grounded me until further notice.

I started writing poetry. Who was I kidding? Next up, painting. Gary was not amused with my floor-to-ceiling murals in the living room. Movie making was next. I acquired film stock from the president of the local Cine Club, cheap black & white 8 mm film from Russia.

My friends dropped everything to help out. They heard I was shooting a movie called The End. The protagonist smokes himself to death. My script called for atmosphere, so we lit a fire in the living room. I could barely see the actors through the viewfinder. Now we all had tears in our eyes. It was great.

That night, sleepless, I processed the footage in the kitchen sink. To my horror, my developer kit was short the fixer. The silver halide would continue to expose. The film would turn black. I needed fixer!

It was gone midnight but I jumped on my motorcycle and raced across town through the dangerously dark and muggy streets of Lusaka, Zambia, risking potholes, speed bumps, bicycle thieves and black dogs.

I was speeding faster than I dared—for my film—for art! I was beginning to forget myself.

I dipped into a pocket of deliciously cool air and for a second I felt so alive that I even forgot my film. I had almost forgotten her! Dabrowski was right, I was growing out of myself.

I must have forgotten about gravity because I lifted off the face of the earth. From up there, here’s what I saw:

My despair wasn’t bogus, and yet it was lost in the greater scheme of things. There was this project known as Me, all about self-improvement, which is okay, I guess, except it looked so puny.

I was making myself my life’s work—my happiness—and, well, it’s just too small a work.

I never came back to earth

When I became a writer, Dabrowski’s hypothesis helped me to understand:

  • The human condition
  • Why we are so compelled by stories
  • And how fiction really works

Without catching Dabrowski’s positive virus, I could never have written Story Structure to Die For, or Story Structure Expedition: Journey to the Heart of a Story.

You won’t believe this, but upon my return to Canada I discovered that Dabrowski lived for six months of the year in my home town of Edmonton. Six blocks from where I lived! We became good friends. He would serve me strong coffee and dark chocolate while I told him the stories of my serial disintegrations. I can still see his eyes sparkle.

Dabrowski medalI made a film of Dabrowski

I made a documentary film of Dr. Dabrowski’s clinical practice.

To my great surprise I was honoured with a medal for my support of the Polish Mental Health Movement.

But getting back to the film in the kitchen sink. I made it home with the fixer, all right. When projected, the scenes appeared all woozy and wavy, as if viewed through a fishbowl.

As if some virus had infected the developer.

It took the film to a whole new level.


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  1. says

    “As if viewed through a fishbowl?” You took the biblical “through a glass darkly” to a new level with that one description. Great. I love your climb up the ladder as the ladder disintegrates rung by rung. Write On!

  2. says

    SusanC… Don’t tell me you want more! Okay, so there was this trip up Lake Victoria on a steamer and we docked at Kisumu for a few hours and told not to wander too far, but I met this woman with a defect in her left eye, like a sun spot, by which it is said you can expect storms on earth, and she convinced me to take a taxi out of town…

  3. yvettecarol says

    Hi, PJ, the latest story from your amazingly epic travels in Africa had me riding along with you, hair flying, breathless. Great slice of life! Love it.
    p.s. I tried to send you the link to my latest post (as I mention you and our conversations), however I must have the wrong email address for you.

    PJ note: Here’s the link:

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