Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Healthy Writer

We sit at our desks for long periods of time. We drink lots of coffee, maybe smoke, when we take a break (or even as we write). We eat chocolate or chips, or get fast food for dinner because we've got no time to shop and cook. We stay up late, night after night, or drag ourselves out of bed at dawn to write, because that's the only time we have in a busy family/work life.

The result of all of this is obvious. We are overweight, unfit and tired. Just like most of the population. We make resolutions to go to the gym, walk regularly, eat more fruit and veges, but it doesn't happen. Oh well, we sigh, just like everyone else.

Except we aren't like everyone else. When everyone else collapses on the weekend, or after dinner, and watches TV or naps, or goes out and parties, the serious writer is writing. Other people's R&R time is usually our writing time, especially if we have to work in a regular job to pay the bills. A writer who wants to write, and complete projects like novels and short story collections and film scripts, is writing when everyone else is chilling out.

The problem that arises from this is simply a physical and mental tiredness that stops you from writing at your best, and may often stop you from writing at all. I've blogged here before about how that tiredness influences everything about our writing, not just getting the words down on the page but also how you feel about them. If you are feeling bright and healthy and energetic, revision is a pleasure, not a pain. Rejections sting for a few minutes then you can shrug them off and move on. Words zing onto the page because you feel zingy!

What is the solution? Unfortunately, there is no magic wand for this stuff, but here are my thoughts on what makes me write better:

1. Sleep. I am an 8-9 hour a night person, and if I don't get good sleep, I fall in a heap very quickly. So I watch very little TV and go to bed early. Boring, huh? It works for me. I know there are people who insist they can survive well on 5 hours a night, but all the sleep studies now (and there are lots of them because scientists have realised what lack of sleep can do to us) show that it affects alertness, ability to process thoughts, ability to respond, moodiness, irritation, concentration, etc etc. It's actually quite scary what the effects are. Maybe they could add writer's block to the list.

2. Walking, or some form of exercise. It gets me off the chair, it lets my brain think more freely as I walk, it wakes me up, it gets me out in the world. I actually like walking in the rain (with an umbrella) better than anything. But I do have to force myself to do it some days, even though I know it will make me feel good.

3. Less coffee and alcohol. I limit coffee to one a day now, but it has to be a decent one. Not instant. And if I have it in a cafe while I'm writing or thinking about writing, even better. Alcohol - I'm always trying to do better there!

4. Where I write - making sure my computer use is not going to make my neck and shoulder condition worse, which was caused by that in the first place. So the chair and the desk and the keyboard and the monitor all need to be working for me, not against me.

5. Eating better. Skipping breakfast is silly. I've come to believe that breakfast sets you up for the whole morning. I hate lunch - it's the most boring meal of the day to me, but I try to have something with protein in it because of my iron and energy levels. Dinner is up to you! I hate sitting around after dinner feeling like a lump of lead is lying in my stomach, so if we've eaten something heavy, I'll go for a walk afterwards. That helps me sleep.

If I feel good physically, I feel great mentally. I want to write, my brain is full of ideas and words, I can tackle anything with energy and concentration. My biggest struggle is work - it exhausts me mentally and physically - but I can cope if I stay healthy. It's one of my big goals for this year, and I hope it feeds into my writing every day.


Tracey said...

As a five-hour a day sleeper, I wish I could turn it around, but it's not easy. If I go to bed earlier, I lie in bed awake for hours, or else I go to sleep earlier and wake up at 4 am, and once I'm awake that's it. I've been a poor sleeper ever since I was a child, and one of my children is the same. Doesn't mean I'm not agreeing with you -- just that it's difficult to change. I used to be a six-hour a nighter, but the push for writing time when I was at Clarion took that extra hour from me. Too many late nights writing. But you're right, and I do need to address this.

The thing is that we lead such busy lives, and the writing time gets squeezed. Often I'm left with an hour where I could go for a walk or write, and being a lazy person (yes, I admit it), I'd prefer to write. Every time. I'm trying now to find time to do both, to make myself go on that walk, because I know you're right. It's just a matter of organisation (something I suck at) and being disciplined not to fall into time-wasting traps.

Sherryl said...

I know what you're saying about fitting things in. Some days a walk is just one thing too many, and then I stop and think - hang on, how much time did I spend on the internet this morning? Twenty minutes less, and I could've gone for a brisk walk around the block.
The key to sleeping better seems to be routine. Training yourself how to sleep longer and get to sleep easier. My routine is reading for half an hour first, and trying to go to bed at the same time every night (within an hour or so). I've got myself to the point where I'll drop off straight away as soon as the light goes out. But when it doesn't work, I do the relaxation exercises.
Unfortunately, sharing a bed with someone who tosses and turns throws all of that out the window!

Kristi Holl said...

Boy, you're wise to deal with the health issue and make it a priority. I once had someone ask me how writing could possibly be tiring. "You're just typing, after all, not digging ditches," he said. I think there's a real misconception about how much strain writing can put on the body--and how much better the words flow from a rested mind. Keep on keepin' on!

Sherryl said...

That's very funny - just typing, not digging ditches - considering I've spent my last two Saturdays digging a big ditch!!
The ditch was so much easier. No thought required, just my puny muscles. But it did require a lot of determination to get it done, especially when we hit compacted rock. It was just one swing of the mattock or shovel after another.
Some days after writing, my body is zonked (that's where the walk comes in and helps a lot) but it's my brain that gets the biggest workout. And it simply needs the rest of me to feel good so it can keep working the way I need it to.