Deb Brandon is the author of “But My Brain Had Other Ideas: A Memoir of Recovery from Brain Injury” and “Threads Around the World: From Arabian Weaving to Batik in Zimbabwe.” Here, she talks to us about her work and what inspires her.
Jessica : I’d love for you to start by telling us more about you and your story, who you are and what it is you do?
Deb : I was born in England and grew up in Israel. I came to the U.S. to pursue a Ph.D. in mathematics. I have been a professor in the Mathematical Sciences Department at Carnegie Mellon University since 1991.
I learned to knit from my mother when I was seven. Knitting was followed by needlepoint, crocheting, felting, and spinning, all fun and interesting. Learning to weave when I was 35 was different. It felt as if I'd come home, as if I'd been a weaver in a previous life. At the loom, I felt connected to weavers everywhere, through space and time. (I still do!)
With weaving, my love for textile arts soared. I wanted to see (and feel) it all: scrumptious raw cashmere, hand-spun silk, gorgeous hand-wovens, an amazing range of ethnic textiles—silk scarves from Laos, felted slippers from Turkey.
I am a member of WARP (Weave A Real Peace), a networking organisation whose mission is to foster a global network of enthusiasts who value the importance of textiles to grassroots economies.
More than a decade ago, I suffered a severe brain injury. In its wake, feeling lost, I started to write about my recovery to help me through it. As I wrote, I realised that I wanted to reach a broader audience. I am now the proud author of two books: an award-winning memoir, “But My Brain Had Other Ideas,” and the recently released, “Threads Around the World: From Arabian Weaving to Batik in Zimbabwe,” about textile techniques from around the world.
Jessica : Can you tell me about where you find your inspiration?
Deb : Writing about textiles is a natural extension of my lifelong interest in handmade textiles and, especially, ethnic textiles, enriched by the changes that resulted from my brain injury.
My brain injury damaged some of my filters. In particular, all outside data flows into my brain with equal value, causing traffic jams in my neural pathways. On the flip side, I now notice more details in the world around me, details that I was unaware of prior to the injury. For example, I can now enjoy the gradual changes in the colours of sunset and the many shades of blue in the water.
My newfound ability to note such details influenced my work as a textile artist. Shortly after I returned home from hospital, I wove a piece of yardage I entitled “The Reflection of Sunset on the Water.” I painted warp in varying shades of blue and orange. I also painted the weft to produce the effect of waves rolling down the yardage. The yarn I used was a shimmering silk to give the effect of reflections of light on the ripples. I chose to weave in a variety of twills to give the fabric drape. I also supplemented the warp with sewing thread to add a wavy texture. I could not have produced such a piece prior to the injury.
Other influences stem from traditional textiles. I’ve used patterns reminiscent of motifs from batik from Zimbabwe, I’ve woven in colours similar to those prevalent in Palestinian embroidery, and I’ve embellished textiles with a variation of Japanese fish printing.
Jessica : I am also interested in knowing more about how you view creativity; is it something you can now rely on every day? How do you balance your varied interests?
Deb : I have become much more creative since the brain injury. I attribute that partly to my increased awareness of and attention to detail, but I also believe that it has something to do with the rewiring of my brain as it healed.
Pre-injury, I was primarily a linear thinker, and my thought process usually took me directly from point A to point B. My brain injury damaged my ability to think sequentially, in this linear fashion. As my brain learned to work around the damage, I found myself thinking more visually and using more intuition, so I now have access to a broader range of thinking styles.
Between the different thinking styles I now employ, my brain injury-induced short attention span, and my need to live at a slower pace, I often find myself straying off the path, leading me in interesting directions, guiding me towards new ideas.
Whenever I sit down to create, whether it is to write, knit, spin, or weave, I frequently find myself changing directions, changing the story line, manipulating colours, playing with patterns.
My full time job as a mathematician takes up a lot of my time. In the past it was one of my top priorities. After a day of teaching, I’d come home to work on other aspects of mathematics. Now, prone to fatigue, I spend less time at the office and play catch-up at home. However, I spend much of my time at home on creating. Writing is very much a priority, and textile arts are next on the list. I try to write every day, in the morning before I go to work and in the afternoon after I come home. When it comes to the textile arts, I go in phases, spending more time on them when I have met math- and writing-related deadlines.
Jessica : Where do you work? What’s important about your work space?
Deb : When my son left home, I transformed his room into an office, which is where I write. The first piece of furniture I lugged there (with my son’s help) was a wooden desk I bought more than two decades ago. Much cherished, it has accompanied me through four moves. Until it found a home in my office, I had to share it with my now ex-husband and my kids. Finally, it is all mine, everything on it arranged the way I like.
The entire space is arranged to be aesthetically pleasing and to serve my needs as a writer: my laptop perched on a pile of books so the screen is at eye level, a separate keyboard positioned such that I can type with elbows bent at a good angle, a bookcase filled with books that aid me in my writing (sources of information about ethnic textiles and about writing techniques), a printer to the right of my desk, and a bed for my dog to lie on beside me when I write.
The floor loom I weave on most frequently sits in a living room corner, angled to give me the feeling of space around me. To the right of it I have a bookcase filled with books about practicing fiber arts, knitting, crochet, spinning yarn, felting, and surface design. To the left of the loom, I have a comfortable seat I can sink into when I knit or spin yarn. It faces the interior of room so I can be part of the activities around me, watching TV or chatting with family and friends—I can knit and spin by feel, so I can divide my attention.
Jessica : What impact would you like to create with your work?
Deb : I give most of the textile pieces I create as gifts, to family and friends. To me, the most important part of fibre arts is the process. I also enjoy the design side of the projects, but I love the rhythm and meditative nature of the making. The end result often plays a more peripheral role—I take pride in my work, but once the project is completed, I’m already thinking about the next.
In addition to getting a lot of satisfaction from giving textile pieces as gifts, I hope that by doing so, I am helping to educate the public about the value of handmade products, and to appreciate the effort, beauty, and stories so inherent to them. When I write about ethnic textiles, I hope to pass on that same appreciation. I believe that by doing so, I am sending an important message: Textiles help us create ties with each other. We are a part of a whole; there is no us and them, there is only us. Textiles prevent us from losing our humanity.
On the other hand, my original intention when I started writing my memoir was personal. I hoped it would help me understand my new world as a brain injury survivor, and to cope with the enormity of it all. I also wanted my loved ones to understand the effect of this invisible disability.
Shortly after I started writing about my recovery, I realised that other brain injury survivors might benefit from my experience. In time, as I began to reclaim my place in the world, I realised that I wanted to raise awareness among the general public about the struggles I and other brain injury survivors face every day. In order to reach such a broad audience, I knew I needed to improve my writing skills, so I hired a writing coach, who transformed me from a mediocre (at best) writer to an award winning author.
In the process, I became passionate about my writing—writing daily became the norm. Not only was I now writing to convey a universal message, but also for the love of writing itself.
Jessica : And lastly, if someone reading your story were inspired to follow their own creative dream, what advice would you give them?
Deb : I would tell them to make time to follow their dream. Life is too short not to. At the very least it’ll bring them joy and a sense of fulfilment, something we all need to help us through the rough stuff in life.
They should try to ignore that inner voice that tells them to stay within their comfort zone. It’ll play on fears of change, coming up with excuses—“You don’t have time,” “The wash can’t wait,” “It’s not productive,” “I’m too tired,” “I’m not good enough.” Everyone needs to take time for themselves, and that goes double for creative endeavours.
The end result shouldn't be the primary goal. Take the time to enjoy the process, even if that glass paperweight is wonky, you can’t afford a top-of-the-line bicycle, your embroidery stitches aren’t even, or your first (or fiftieth) draft doesn't work the way you want it to. Slow down and enjoy the scenery—the process of creating.
If possible, find kindred spirits who share your dream—it’ll open up your world in wonderful ways.