At the Stonecoast MFA Program residency this summer, I led a seminar that I called Health and Happiness for Writers. The seminar was in the form of a panel, with five of us on it — five writers who were trying to maintain their health and happiness, which can be difficult when you’re writing intensively. I know, because I’ve been writing that way all week: I have a novel to finish by the end of the summer, and three weeks before things get busy again, so I’m trying to do as much as I can now. I get up in the morning and write, and then I just keep writing. When I do that, when I’m so completely in the narrative, the rest of the world seems to fade away. I’ve come out of an intensive period of writing to realize that I don’t remember the date, or even the year . . .
And writing comes with so many other issues that aren’t directly related to the writing itself: financial problems, the stress of trying to do something intensely difficult in the face of the world’s indifference to it, continual rejection . . . I’ve been lucky, I write and get published, I even make money at it. But it’s taken a long time to get here, and I could not support myself financially if I did not teach. And yes, I too get rejections. I always will. We all do.
For the seminar, I put together a handout of quotations from the four books I’d assigned (students were supposed to read any one of them): Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Stephen King’s On Writing, Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I really wanted students to think about not just the craft, for once, but also the life: how to create a good writing life, how to keep it going. Because you know, a writing career isn’t a sprint, and it isn’t a marathon. It’s just running. You start running and you keep on going, as hard, as far, as well as you are able. For a lot of people, it’s just too hard: I think it’s fair to say that most people who want to be writers stop once they realize there’s no ribbon at the end, and in fact no end. The people who stick with it are the people who love to run . . . I mean write.
So, let’s look at a few of those quotations (there were a lot more on the handout, of course):
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.” –Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
I think this is so true! What I’ve found, with other things (eating heathy meals, exercising daily, even making my bed in the morning) is that once you create a routine, and once that routine becomes ingrained, you tend to stick to it. We are such creatures of habit. We tend to follow a routine because it’s easier than not. So find your writing routine, stick to it until it becomes ingrained, and then keep going.
“If I waited to be in the mood to write, I’d barely have a chapbook of material to my name. Who would ever be in the mood to write? Do marathon runners get in the mood to run? Do teachers wake up with the urge to lecture? I don’t know, but I doubt it. My guess is that it’s the very act that is generative.” –Dani Shapiro, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
I could have put this quotation up with the last one, because writing when you’re in the mood or inspired is the opposite of having a routine. But I wanted to point to something here specifically: the act is generative. It’s the sitting down to write that makes you come up with ideas. And if you create a routine, you’re telling your brain that when you sit down to write, it’s expected to come up with ideas. What I’ve found is that it does, inevitably. There is no idea bag with a limited number of ideas in it. The more I write, the more ideas I have. It’s like one of those magical bags in fairy tales: the more you pull out of it, the more you find inside.
“Appealing workplaces are to be avoided. One wants a room with no view, so imagination can meet memory in the dark. When I furnished this study seven years ago, I pushed the long desk against a blank wall, so I could not see from either window.” –Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
“You should have a bulletin board above your desk, if at all possible. Some place where you can tack images, quotes, postcards, scraps of thoughts and ideas that will help remind you of who you are and what you’re doing.” –Dani Shapiro, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
I actually disagree with the Dillard quote above, but then I’m one of those people who can hyperfocus. Once I start on something, I’m actually quite hard to distract. In fact, you’ll talk to me and I won’t hear you — I’ll be completely unaware of your existence. I would not be bothered by a lovely view; in fact, it would inspire me and make me happy. On the other hand, I do agree with Shapiro that a bulletin board is a good idea, and I have one over my desk. I have all sorts of things tacked to it, mostly inspiring quotations. I rarely actually look at it, but it’s there, just in case I need a little push . . .
“The idea that creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time. . . . Any claims that the drugs and alcohol are necessary to dull the finer sensibility are just the usual self-serving bullshit. I’ve heard alcoholic snowplow drivers make the same claim, that they drink to still the demons.” –Stephen King, On Writing
This was kind of the whole point of the seminar: that writers do their work best when they’re healthy and happy. So they need to actually take the time to make themselves healthy and happy. Whatever your addictions, get help, get clean. Create your best non-writing life to create your best writing life.
“Those writers will get the place on the best-seller list, the movie sales, the huge advances, and the nice big glossy pictures in the national magazines where the photo editors have airbrushed out the excessively long eyeteeth, the wrinkles, and the horns. The writer you most admire in the world will give them rave reviews in the Times or blurbs for the paperback edition. They will buy houses, big houses, or second houses that are actually as nice, or nicer, than the first ones. And you are going to want to throw yourself down the back stairs, especially if the person is a friend.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
Ah yes, jealously! It’s so easy to be jealous of another person’s success! I told the students that I have two things I do, to deal with jealousy and also those times when your work is criticized or reviewed badly. (a) I tell myself that I’m only allowed to be jealous of someone if I’m willing to take the bad with the good. There are writers I know who became successful, but only after going through serious financial crises. There are writers I know who have won prizes, but are also dealing with difficult medical conditions. Would I be wiling to be them? If not, then I’m not allowed to be jealous of them. I have to take my own bad, with my own good. (b) I read famous writers’ bad reviews. The one-star reviews, the ones that are critical or just plain mean. Especially when they are writers I admire! And I think, if he or she can take such criticism, well, so can I . . .
“Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavor, because it is about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong. It is no wonder if we sometimes tend to take ourselves perhaps a bit too seriously.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
This is the hardest part, isn’t it? We tend to pour our hearts and souls into writing, perhaps to be met with criticism . . . or what may be worse, indifference. The world will not stop spinning if you don’t write. But I do believe that if you are compelled to write, or to create any other kind of art, and if that art isn’t created, the great human tapestry is less rich for that one missing thread. Imagine our great tapestry, the tapestry of human life. Woven into it are the music we make, the dances we dance, the paintings we paint. The poems we write. The gardens we plant, the children we raise, anything that involves creativity, love, joy. When we write, we add to that tapestry.
I believe, fervently, that it matters. Even if no one else reads what you’re writing, it matters.
“I think I was forty before I realized that almost every writer of fiction and poetry who has ever published a line has been accused of wasting his or her God-given talent. If you write (or paint or dance or sculpt or sing, I suppose), someone will try to make you feel lousy about it, that’s all.” –Stephen King, On Writing
Don’t listen to those people. Just don’t. Or write despite them, even to spite them . . .
“Learning what you need to do your best work is a big step forward in the life of any writer. We all have different requirements, different ways of working.” –Dani Shapiro, Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
In the end, all of this advice is just for you to consider, to think about. What in it applies to you? What helps you? You need to create your own writing life, a life that enables your writing. You need to make it as healthy and happy as possible. One of the last things we did in the seminar was create a list. I said to the students, write down five things you can do to create a good writing life for yourself (some of them you may be doing already). If you, reader, want to do that? This is as good a time as any . . .
I’ll send with four photos of beautiful Casco Bay, at the final dinner we all have together at the residency.
The bay . . .
And rocks, covered with seaweed.
And me on the rocks, at the edge of the land, which is one of my favorite places to be.