The Woman Behind Struck By Genius

Water ripple by Jason Padgett
Water ripple by Jason Padgett

Today we’re excited to welcome author Maureen Seaberg to Writer Unboxed! Maureen’s book Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel, co-written by Jason Padgett, is the Spring’s lead title for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It also received a Kirkus Star and is one of Apple’s 20 Best Books for April.

Maureen is an expert synesthesia blogger for Psychology Today—and she herself has several forms of synesthesia. Maureen also recently tested DNA positive for another curious trait—she is a tetrachromat—someone, always a woman, with an extra cone for color perception. She has written for the New York TimesThe Daily BeastThe Huffington Post; O, The Oprah Magazine; and ESPN: The Magazine; and she has appeared on MSNBC, PBS, and The Lisa Oz Show on Oprah Radio.

I’m an optimist. I believe some of the greatest stories in our world may be the ones which have not yet been told. Even in our information-rich age, things can fall through the cracks in the deluge. Nothing is “too small” when casting about for stories.

Maureen discovered Jason through a Google synesthesia alert, became his friend and collaborator, and got him the medical testing that confirmed his gifts. Here’s what Kirkus had to say about this remarkable book:

 When Padgett suffered a traumatic brain injury after a violent mugging, his sense of perception was profoundly altered. Overnight, his life as a fun-loving salesman changed into one dominated by unprompted geometric visualizations and the unexpected insights of newfound mathematical brilliance…In addition to seeing crystalline and fractal patterns as part of the properties of objects and spaces around him, he developed a paralyzing fear of being among people and germs…Padgett spent years in isolation, spending all his time investigating the concepts that suddenly held his mind hostage: math and science but also medical theories that might explain his neurological transformation. Based on his research, he suspected he had developed a form of synesthesia—a condition in which sensations are perceived in unusual ways, such as seeing letters or numbers as inseparable from specific colors—as a result of his injury. He was right.

…To put his remarkable story in writing, he partnered with Seaberg, a fellow synesthete who writes about synesthesia for Psychology Today. The result is a beautiful, inspiring and intimate account of Padgett’s struggles and breakthroughs.

An exquisite insider’s look into the mysteries of consciousness.”

You can connect with Maureen on her blog, on Facebook, and on Twitter; to view a trailer for Struck by Genius, visit this site.

The Woman Behind Struck By Genius

Hi everyone! It’s really great to be among fellow writers. I hope you all have a fresh mug of something within reach and a comfy desk chair to sit a little while with me. Thank you, Writer Unboxed, for the chance to be here.

My new nonfiction book, Struck by Genius: How a Brain Injury Made Me a Mathematical Marvel, co-authored with the incredible acquired savant Jason Padgett, debuted this month. It’s about Jason’s journey to embrace becoming a completely different person after suffering a brain injury in a mugging in Tacoma in 2002. Before the beating, he was a mullet-sporting party dude. Now he has more in common with Einstein. He understands complex math and physics he was never previously exposed to as a college dropout. Brain injuries often produce personality
changes, but Jason also acquired savant syndrome and synesthesia. His changes are some of the most profound ever documented. And consider this: he doesn’t have amnesia. He remembers his previous self, yet is a new person. I often reflect on how much grace that requires and wow, is he ever graceful about it.

This project has taught me so much. One of its chief lessons (which may be useful to all of you in terms of craft) is that it owes its genesis to the Internet, and to my belief that no stone is too small to be turned over in search of the next big idea.

The book is also about how these latent genius potentials may reside in all of us, but are seldom unleashed except in cases of injury or disease. Top doctors like Dr. Darold Treffert, who treated the real “Rain Man,” Kim Peek, have advanced this theory and say Jason seems living proof of it. Don’t go wishing for that kick in the head just yet, though! Dr. Allan Snyder of Australia has developed a “Creativity Cap” which stimulates the brain to savant-like levels when worn and these abilities may be pain-free and in all our futures as a result.

This project has taught me so much. One of its chief lessons (which may be useful to all of you in terms of craft) is that it owes its genesis to the Internet, and to my belief that no stone is too small to be turned over in search of the next big idea. I had set up a Google alert on the topic of synesthesia some time ago as a writer on the topic. It’s really easy to do if you have a Gmail account (and I really hope you do because of the unlimited storage of messages that is so useful for people like uSTRUCKBYGENIUSCOVERs).

One day, a then-unknown Jason Padgett uploaded a videotape of himself drawing the complex geometric shapes he sees synesthetically onto YouTube. I was soon on the receiving end of a Google synesthesia alert linking to the video, and because I believe in the value of almost every shred of incoming information, I didn’t ignore it. I clicked. I was having a busy day, but I believed in the value of those little alerts. Not long after that, I found myself in email conversation with this fascinating man. We hit it off (owing in part to the fact that I have synesthesia myself) and decided to team up to tell his story.

It seems random, I suppose, on one level, but really it’s not. When casting about for stories, nothing is “too small” to consider. A link in an email from Google could, and did, lead to a major book deal. In 25 years as a journalist I have seen the smallest things turn out to be the largest things over and over again. It’s that business card you left with someone’s secretary on the way out the door, or the conversation you had with a colleague about your interests that makes him call you one day with a tip, or yes, that conference you signed up for when you were already swamped, that time and again pays off.

My advice is to cast about in oceans, yes, but also in rivers and even in tidal pools. Part of the joy of this business is in not knowing what you’ll hook and where it will ultimately take you.

What are some stories that have come out of ideas that at first may have appeared “too small” to consider? How do you open yourself up to unexpected story sources?

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Comments

  1. says

    That book sounds fascinating–I might just have to pick it up when it’s available! The lesson of considering even the smallest stories that come one’s way could apply to fiction too, since I have written some short stories after coming up with a sentence and thinking it couldn’t possibly be enough to write a story out of it. Some stories are just meant to be.

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  2. says

    I’m fascinated by near death experiences (NDE). As a Christian, I’m especially drawn toward visions of both heaven and hell. They’ve sparked several story ideas. My interest has also pushed me to look at death in a different light. That it is not necessarily a tragic end. Death serves a purpose that we don’t understand from a normal perspective. I’m working on a few ideas that involved NDEs or visitations. Hopefully the fictionanlized versions will offer as much comfort to the living as the true stories.

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  3. says

    A wonderful story. My way of describing it is, don’t marginalize or ignore the small signals from our inner and outer world. Those little ‘flirts’, as we call them in Process Oriented Psychology are just the start of unfolding what can be big processes that can change our life. That can be a book that gets written, or a new relationship or job or spiritual path etc.
    Let your inner and outer world flirt with you!
    I totally agree. You may catch a big fish if you cast your net wide.

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  4. says

    I’ve already bought your book — and can’t wait to start reading! It’s absolutely fascinating how the brain works in such inexplicable ways. The only thing that is hard for me is that I’ll never know… what synesthesia is really like. It’s impossible to imagine. I definitely agree that no idea is too small; my current WIP is based on one very small but memorable event that happened to me as a child. (Thank you also for the idea to set a google alert! I’ve set one up and I don’t know what I ever did without it… such a great idea.)

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  5. says

    There’s a reason some of us are driven to write certain ideas – it’s called ‘personal demons.’

    It is clear that you and Jason learned an enormous amount from the process of catching those ideas and writing them down – and now you have opened that box for all the people who won’t have that experience, but can read about it and live it vicariously. Your book is in the same category as Oliver Sacks’ – and maps another region of the human psyche. For the rest of us.

    I’m looking forward to reading it. Thanks in advance for the ride.

    Alicia

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  6. says

    Your book sounds fascinating and I’m looking forward to picking it up. I no longer believe in coincidences, rather in God-cidences. And you are right about paying attention to the small things … my writing life started with sharing just the small incidences of our life at home.

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  7. says

    A writer friend of mine recently embarked on a new project, writing historical fantasy similar to my work. She asked me about my research and my world-building. In looking back at my notes (many of which are ten years old), I was struck by the diversity of sources that brought about the selection of the varied ingredients that led to my story-stew. Some tiny bits of information became prominent story elements, and other major avenues that I had presumed would profoundly inform my story were utter dead-ends.

    I am also struck by how little my notes were actually needed in the writing process. I was meticulous in my documentation, but I rarely referred back to those documents. It seems my brain knew better than my conscious self what bits to grasp and gather and take back to the pot. And once I started cooking, it seems like I forgot I was attempting a recipe. Sure there’s been plenty of refinement since, but those original ingredients still form the basis of my creation. Hopefully my seemingly scattered process produced a unique dish.

    Oh, the mysteries of the brain. Very interesting stuff! Thanks for sharing and good luck with the book!

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  8. says

    I’m so buoyed by your comments everyone and can’t wait to read more of all your work, too. Thank you sincerely, Writer Unboxed!

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  9. Denise Willson says

    Fascinating stuff, Maureen. Gifted walking among us…sounds almost fictional. :)

    My latest novel, GOT, was inspired by a road trip through small towns and undeveloped land, where we’ve put roads, leaving a sickening trail of dead animals. This so effected me, I started apologizing to every casualty I saw. It left me wondering what the world would be like if we moved about using something other than vehicles, if we didn’t blow up the earth to get around.

    Most important, this thought process made my adrenaline spike and heart flutter. Passion is a wonderful feeling.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

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    • Denise Willson says

      Hadn’t seen these before, Maureen! Awesome, thank you for sharing!

      Denise Willson
      Author of A Keeper’s Truth and GOT

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  10. says

    Thanks for this post, and your excellent point.

    I’ve noticed this effect: When writers undertake to write a story, the insights and information they need to write it well tend to arrive unasked for. Those things arrive at the right moments, perfectly timed gifts from the story god.

    Or, is it rather that an author’s brain, working on a story, begins to grab available information and synthesize it, which is to say bend, blend and meld it to the purposes of the story?

    Is it magic, serendipity or synthesis? Whatever it is, I don’t think it’s accidental. I think authors make it happen. It’s the brain assisting the heart.

    Thanks for reminding us to click on links even on busy days. I do that, and am always glad when I do.

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    • says

      Don,

      I can’t figure art as accidental, particularly skill in creating it. Years ago, a mentor explained art this way: an artist’s journey (sought or instinctive) begins with deconstructing existence/consciousness, which is an inner process, and then reconstructing it (the action of art) to generate a particular result or form of communication. So synthesis.

      Brain and heart working together, definitely, both waking and sleeping… and choosing from the stream of ideas those that fit “just right” for the work. As we gain confidence and the stream becomes rich and focused, that selection process happens so quickly it seems magical, like magnetism or gravity.

      Serendipity? Maybe, unless you concede you can’t kick a ball into a net if you haven’t procured a ball and a net.

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  11. says

    Your book sounds fascinating, particularly since I studied a lot about brain injuries when drafting my debut novel, which explores the powerful changes that brain damage brings to people’s lives at so many levels. I wish I’d had your book as one of my resources!

    With me, it’s not whether the idea is “big” or “small,” but whether it keeps nagging at me, ringing my mental doorbell in the middle of the night before running off into the darkness. I try to stay open to “signs” that I’m supposed to explore an idea, and if I see enough of those signs, I usually surrender and try to write the damned thing.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences and processes – good luck with Struck by Genius!

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  12. says

    Just want to mention that it’s not necessary to have a gmail account to set up a Google alert; alerts can be sent to any email address. Every published writer should set one up with his or her name and book titles, as a way to track mentions of your book that you might otherwise miss. And of course, love Maureen’s illustration of how an alert can bring you a great contact and a book topic!

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  13. says

    Thank you Donald! I’m honored to see your post and good luck with your many great titles. I’ll keep clicking, too!

    Maureen

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  14. says

    Jason’s story, and yours, is very interesting to me, someone who was born with synesthesia. The most common kind. Letters and numbers (days of the week, months of the year, hours in the day) all have their colors that have never changed over my lifetime. I was in my twenties before I realized I wasn’t just “odd that way,” but that a name exists for this way of seeing the world. Years ago a friend of mine wrote a novel, gave her main character synesthesia, and used my colors: Kaliedoscope Eyes, by Karen Ball (writer, agent, editor, good friend).

    Thanks for sharing Jason’s story, and encouraging us not to leave those small stones unturned. There might be whole story worlds hiding beneath.

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  15. says

    Lori — so great to meet another synnie! I was in my 20s when I learned what was going on, too. Hopefully future generations will have the information they need from the start…
    I love your “story worlds” — yes!

    Maureen

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  16. says

    Fascinating information, Maureen. There is so much of a human brain that is untapped in normal daily living, it is no wonder there is so much more we can discover about it. I was not aware of synesthesia, and I am so glad I decided to visit Writer Unboxed today and learn a bit about it. Now to do some more learning. (smile)

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