5 Reasons Why I Do What I Do

Filed in The Healthy Writer by on September 23, 2014 • views: 1791

The Romantic Notion of the Self-Destructive Writer

We’ve all heard the romantic stories of writers who lived on alcohol and drugs and still wrote masterpieces:

  • Truman Capote experienced frequent breakdowns, was in and out of rehab clinics, and died at the age of 59 of liver failure caused by phlebitis and frequent drug intoxication. He was working on, but never finished, a tell-all book. In fact, he never finished another novel after In Cold Blood.
  • Jack Kerouac died at age 47 of cirrhosis, caused by a lifetime of heavy drinking. He was in the middle of a book about his father’s print shop in Lowell, Massachusetts, at the time.
  • Sylvia Plath suffered from severe depression and died at the age of 30 from suicide. What is considered her best collection of poetry was published posthumously.

What strikes me as tragic from these stories (and there are so many more) is how health problems cut short the careers of these great writers. Yes, what we have of their work is wonderful, but what might we have had if they had stayed well and kept working?

On the other side of the spectrum, we have great writers who published their best works in their senior years—works we would never have seen had they not stayed well enough to live that long!

  • Laura Ingalls Wilder published Little House in the Big Woods when she was 64 years old.
  • Frank McCourt published the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Angela’s Ashes when he was 66 years old.
  • Bram Stoker published Dracula when he was 50 years old.
  • Richard Adams didn’t publish Watership Down until his early 50s.

It’s About Living Well

In today’s world, it’s more important than ever that writers do everything they can to stay well. We have more demands than ever on our time. We must not only write, edit, and submit, but build a platform, blog, market, speak, teach, and perform a day job, often while managing a family and a household and raising kids, and perhaps taking care of elderly parents, too.

Our health is also more at risk than ever before. We spend more time than any previous generation sitting on our backsides. We stare at screens of all sizes for hours. We grab food on the go with little thought as to whether it will really nourish us or not (often not).

And we suffer from unprecedented amounts of stress and anxiety as we struggle to carve out a creative career in a world where finding success in that endeavor seems more difficult than ever.

Why I Do What I Do

Why do I continue to invest time and energy into this project? Here are a few thoughts that come to mind:

  1. It hurts me to see what’s happening: We all hear words like “the obesity epidemic” and “sedentary lifestyle” and don’t think much about it. Everybody’s overweight these days, right? Everybody sits too much, especially writers. What can you do? What we often don’t realize is just how serious these things are. Our modern-day lifestyle is making us sick and shortening our lives—and that affects our work. We are less healthy than our parents were at our age! (See this study.) I see writers who are fatigued, suffering from headaches, stressed out to the edges of their ropes, suffering from a number of health problems, and it hurts. I want to help.
  2. Not many people are talking about it. Sure, we see health information all over the place these days, but most of it is very general—recommendations for everyone. It’s hard to find good information tailored to writers, creatives, and those stuck at desk jobs. I have found some wonderful posts and podcasts on the subject, but I’ve had to scour the net to do so. I’m hoping to create here one location where writers and other creatives can go to find tips on physical and emotional wellness, as well as to hear how others are managing the challenges. Which brings me to…
  3. I want to hear how other writers manage it. I love the “writers on wellness” features on this site, I have to say! (Thank you to all generous contributing writers!) Hearing how other writers manage things like too many hours in the chair, the urge to snack on unhealthy junk, lack of sleep, finding time to exercise, stress over book launches and deadlines, rejections, self-doubt, bad reviews, and more has been one of the highlights of doing this project. At least we know we’re not alone in facing these struggles!
  4. The body and brain affect the work. Studies have shown it—our physical and mental condition affects our work. Exercise makes us more creative. Good food gives us more endurance. Meditation helps us focus. All things we need to produce great writing. On the other side of the spectrum, fatty, sugary foods slow us down and make us tired. A steady diet of them leads to disease—just try to write your bestseller in the hospital. Lack of exercise does the same. Stress destroys our ability to think clearly. Depression saps us of energy. Our wellness (or lack of it) is reflected in our writing.
  5. Writing demands our best. Others may believe that as long as you get words on the page, it doesn’t matter much if you’re sick, tired, or struggling with depression. Some may believe these conditions actually fuel good writing. But I’ve rarely found that to be so. I write much better when I’m awake, vibrant, focused, and capable of facing the challenge of the blank page (or the horrible chapter that needs serious editing). When I’m tired, in pain, or feeling blue, not much gets done in the way of writing. I think this is because at the end of the day, writing is work, and it requires the best of us. Would we imagine we could drag ourselves to a job, half-sleep through the day while popping pain pills and downing caffeine, and beg off early, but still get that coveted promotion (and accompanying raise) at the end of the year? Of course not. So why do we believe we can drag ourselves to the computer when we’re tired, out of shape, and depressed, and produce a bestseller? It’s probably possible for the occasional genius, but I don’t believe it’s probable for most of us. We have to be at our best to produce our best. If we give our writing any less than that and expect it’s going to stand out, we’re just fooling ourselves.

Do you think it’s important to be a well writer?

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Comments (6)

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  1. Great post, and of course, I’m reading this one only moments after eating a very decadent chocolate cupcake…lol. I am always trying to get healthier, but of course, it’s not easy. Temptation is everywhere.

    My weakness is chocolate, and I’m trying to get used to eating dark chocolate instead, which is actually good for you–as long as you don’t consume the whole bar in one sitting!

    But I try to do my yoga on a regular basis, and consider myself pretty active. The yoga helps keep my muscles from stiffening up and helps to relax my mind. I also try to stay away from fast food as much as possible, and drink lots of water. It really does make a difference.

    I think it’s important to instil small changes, slowly, too, otherwise, it’s way too easy to fall back into old habits.

    And, Watership Down!!!! It’s my favourite childhood book. I still have the same copy–which if I remember correctly, belonged to one of my aunts. 🙂

    • Colleen says:

      Gisele! Chocolate cupcakes. Yum! (ha) So true on the small changes. Just getting up more often, dancing to some good music, stopping work in time to exercise—small things, but like you say, so easy to fall back into bad habits. Thanks for writing in!

  2. Chere says:

    I guess I have often thought that creative people tend to be depressive, but maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. You’re certainly right that a bout of depression doesn’t always produce the best writing! It works a little better to mix poetry and depression than fiction, I’m sure.

    I have not managed to find a healthy balance in life yet, but I’m working on it! I really appreciate all of the good information you provide.

    • Colleen says:

      Hey, Chere! I think that tendency to depression is definitely there, but if it gets too serious it can interfere with overall wellness, which interferes with getting anything done. Like Gisele said, I think the magic is in finding balance, which is a constant challenge, but worth it in the end if we can get close, at least. Thanks so much for sharing!