Let’s be honest: writing is not particularly good for you, physically. It involves a lot of mental work, but a limited range of physical motions: you can end up sitting in front of a computer for five hours at a stretch. At some point during those five hours, you will get incredibly hungry, and you will eat something, anything, because you need the energy to keep going. Writing is energy-intensive work. So there you are in front of the computer with a bowl of . . . something (in my case, Trader Joe’s raw trail mix, but that’s because I’m trying very hard, and very consciously, to stay healthy). At the end of those five hours, you come to, almost as though you were waking up or coming out of a coma. And you’re not entirely sure what year it is, much less what day. That’s how deeply you can disappear into a story. At that point, you may realize that it’s long past midnight, and you’ve just pushed yourself, and pushed yourself, because the writing was so compelling that you didn’t want to stop. And guess what? You’re going to be a wreck the next day.
I thought I would write a post on saying healthy for writers, because it’s something I’m working on myself. I mean this very seriously: in order to write well, you must stay healthy. I’ve seen writers develop terrible back and shoulder problems that prevented them from writing. I’m in physical therapy myself: I go once a week. I have a foam roller. (For my back. I roll on it. Not joking.) I’ve gotten into periods where I haven’t taken very good care of myself, staying up until all hours, not exercising, which inevitably leads to eating badly. And my writing has suffered. I write best, and most efficiently, when I’m healthy. So now I have a sticky over my desk. It’s actually a drawing of a pyramid, and it looks like this:
(I know, I’m not an artist. Someone should make a graphic of this, I think.)
It reminds me of the four things that are essential to staying healthy. I’ll talk about them a bit below.
Sleep is the absolute essential, the base of the pyramid on which everything else rests. When I don’t get enough sleep, I don’t have the energy to exercise and I end up eating more than usual, and differently than usual — as in, a lot more chocolate. You see, chocolate has sugar and caffeine, and both of those things keep me going. When I haven’t had enough sleep, my body says, “Lady, I need energy from somewhere. And you’re going to give it to me, or I’m going to collapse right here, in the middle of the street or classroom.” If you don’t get enough sleep and you end up eating badly, that’s not you eating badly — that’s you giving your body what it needs, which is energy. You just happen to be giving it to your body in the wrong way, a way that is ultimately inefficient.
I used to think that sleep was a waste of time, and that’s why I didn’t get enough — I had a lot to do, and no time to waste. Then I read a scientific study that said the brain is just as active while sleep as it is while awake. So what is it doing? Scientists aren’t entirely sure, but the brain seems to sort through and consolidate knowledge while sleep. Whatever it’s doing, it’s important stuff, and you’re going to be a better writer when your brain is working well. To work well, it needs enough sleep. So now sleep is on my to-do list. It’s one more of those things, like brushing my teeth, that I know I need to do in a day. Whatever it’s doing to my brain, I think it makes me a better writer.
I’ve written about exercise before, in a blog post on forming habits. So you may know that I exercise every day, for about twenty minutes, in a routine that includes pilates, yoga, and stretching. It doesn’t require any special clothes or equipment. I do it barefoot, in pajamas, in my living room. First thing. For me, it’s a necessity because if I don’t, my back problems get worse. But I think if you’re writing for any length of time, intensely, you have to exercise regularly or you’ll develop serious physical problems. We know, now, that sedentary jobs and lifestyles are dangerous to your health, and writing is the ultimate sedentary job. I’m lucky that my non-writing life involves a lot of movement: I live in a city, so I walk or take public transportation everywhere. I teach, which means that at least while I’m teaching, I’m always on my feet — although meeting with students and grading papers both involve sitting. But I try to be as active as I can, and to take breaks when I write — stretch, change my position, walk around for a bit.
For me, twenty minutes a day, every day, is a minimum. And I know that if I don’t, I’ll start having physical problems . . . Back pain is a pretty good motivator, for exercise!
By diet, I mean the food you eat every day — your ordinary, everyday diet. I find that diet affects my health as much as exercise — specifically in terms of energy. If I eat badly, I don’t have the energy to do the things I want to do — the teaching, the writing, even the staying in touch with people. I need to eat frequently enough (every couple of hours, for me), and I need to eat the right things: whole grains (whole wheat bread and pasta, brown rice, oatmeal), lean protein (meat, cheese and other dairy products), vegetables (lots of these!), and fruit. Usually I try to get whole grains and lean protein at every meal, and then as many veggies as often as I can. And some treats: nuts and dried fruit, dark chocolate, Whole Foods fudge bars. And sometimes, total blow-out treats, like chocolate cake! But not that often . . . (You need the blow-out treats. See “self-care” below.) And I do watch my calories, but the most important thing is to eat real, healthy foods often enough that you’re never really hungry. Because if you are, you’ll head straight for the chocolate.
And I have a trick for the writing munchies. I’ve made a rule for myself, which is that I don’t eat in front of the computer. This is ostensibly because it’s not good for the computer, but really it’s not good for me. I trick myself by drinking flavored fizzy water while writing. This feels to my body as though it’s getting something, but really it’s getting water — which is good, because it means I’m also drinking water, which is another thing I forget to do. Unfortunately, I haven’t managed to convince my body that it’s getting anything with plain old tap water, I suppose because it has no flavor — it would be so much cheaper! But if I have a long writing day ahead of me, I stock up on fizzy water, usually raspberry and lime flavored. I know, it’s silly, but there it is . . .
The thing is, we’re all different, with different bodies, and we need different things: you need to find out for yourself how much sleep you need, how much and what type of exercise, how much and what type of food. Experiment. Figure out what makes you feel healthy, what gives you energy. What makes you feel your absolute best. What works for me may not work for you. But I can guarantee that you’ll need to pay attention to sleep, exercise, and diet. And that if you do, the writing will go better and easier.
The last item on the list is self-care. I’ve tried all sorts of different words for this category, and can’t find one that really encompasses what I mean. What I really mean is “Being Nice to Yourself,” but that’s cumbersome, isn’t it? I mean taking care of yourself, however you like to be taken care of. My favorites are taking bubble baths, buying myself flowers, meditating. Going to see beautiful things, like art museum exhibits or ballets. And making sure that each week, I get in a blow-out treat, with lots of fats and sugars. Usually cake. But it has to be absolutely delicious, and I have to enjoy every bit of it — that’s the rule.
I tend to forget things if I’m not reminded of them, especially things like taking care of myself. So it’s useful to have the Staying Healthy pyramid up on my wall, where I can see it. And then I can ask myself what I’ve done for myself that day, whether I’ve remembered to treat myself well. Because, obviously, there’s one person I’m going to have to live with for the rest of my life, and that’s me. If I don’t treat myself well, I’m going to suffer the consequences. And honestly, it’s going to be harder for me to treat anyone else well either, because I’ll be moody, and vaguely angry, and just generally out of sorts with the world. I need to be physically healthy to be psychologically healthy, too.
But really what I’m focusing on here is the writing. I need to be healthy to write well and efficiently. Which is why, since it’s almost 11 p.m., I’m going to sleep . . .
(This is me being thoroughly urban, running around the city on an ordinary day. And feeling very healthy . . .)
Theodora, this is excellent and very useful. I’ve worked out most of this on my own, but it’s good to have it in one place. I like the pyramid.
Self Care. A good reminder that you are you before anything else.
I really needed this post. As a writer, I spend a lot of time in front of the computer, and I have started to develop back problems. Not only am I going to take that pyramid and put it to good use -I think I’m going to try out physical therapy to help me with my back! Thanks so much!
Love this stick. Absolutely perfect! Thanks a million, i’m going to use it.
So true, thanks for the sticky.
Theo, you’ve just reminded me of the reason why I began following the blog. Practical lessons such as those elaborated above are important not to mention crucial to maintaining sanity which in turn improves writing as well as the content of the writing.
I am recently working on developing self discipline with regards to sleep as I tend to push myself beyond proper working times thereby reducing sleep hours ans and yes, I end up feeling a wreck the next day thereby needing lots of pick-up (coffee or sugary drinks).
One of my peeves is that so many people believe poets and fantasy writers are too
dreamy to be sensible. It is my experience that when you need some practical
assistant, call a poet. This particular blog is priceless. Self management and being
a writer is an odd job. You’re so clear and wise about it. For me, I had a knee
replacement, long overdue, last January and I am a new person, going to a yoga class and walking walking walking.
You should write a post on relationships and sex. Perhaps for a younger audience (college kids, young adults). It would be fitting since you are a professor and have a lot of experience with relationships. Stuff like do’s and don’ts, pre-marital sex, etc. It would be insightful.