I’ve been involved in creative fields most of my life (actor, deejay, voice work, photography, graphic design, etc.), so I understand how much work goes into the product before the public gets to see it. Rehearsing for a play is often six to eight weeks of (sometimes mind-numbing) rehearsal to give a few performances. In most local theater productions, a play will only run for a few weekends. Often, much more time is spent in rehearsal than in performance. If rehearsals aren’t going well, it’s easy to let doubts creep in, thoughts of quitting appear. “It isn’t worth it. I could be home watching Game of Thrones or Masters of Sex.”
BTW – Masters of Sex, best opening credits sequence ever.
Writing can be like that too, especially if you’re a perfectionist like I am. Sometimes it’s easy to reach a point in the writing where I start to second guess plot choices, or the dialogue I’ve written, allowing me to think it isn’t good enough. Maybe it’s true. Maybe it isn’t good enough — yet. The real magic happens in the rewrite, but you have to have something to rewrite. Giving up before it’s done isn’t an option, and — just like in acting — much more time is spent in editing and polishing than in writing the first draft. Knowing how long it takes and how much effort is required to produce a finished work can be draining, so it’s important to find ways to stay focused on what’s really important, finishing (and getting it right).
Here are some things that work for me.
Write no matter what. Even if I think what I’m writing is utter garbage, getting words on the “page” (even if they’re crappy words) gives me material to work with (or throw away) later, and often, the very act of writing will shift me into a different level of consciousness that’s much better than what I started with. I have a major rule: Writing something (no matter how bad it is) is always better than not writing anything at all.
Move around. Even in the most comfortable chairs, if your writing schedule is anything like mine, the backs of your legs are probably pressing down on the seat for six to eight hours a day. I try to get up and move around at least once an hour (even if it’s only to go downstairs for another cup of coffee). Sometimes I’ll switch my work chair out for an exercise ball (and keep writing), but usually only for brief periods, fifteen or twenty minutes. While I’m in the chair, I slide a small, firm pillow behind my back to give my lumbar region better support, but getting up and moving around frequently is the most important thing you can do to keep from getting knots in your shoulders and neck. Good posture is important, because if you hunch forward while you write, your shoulders slump and your diaphragm becomes constrained (constrained diaphragm, less oxygen to the lungs, ergo less to the brain). An occasional short break to actually exercise is good for you too. Doing sit ups, or pushups, or a little shadow boxing (anything to get your blood pumping), is not only good for your health, it’s also good for your brain.
Hydrate. Coffee is great, but it dries you out. I still drink too much of it, but in order to drink more (just because I like the taste of it), I brew it very weak (one scoop of decaf to one scoop of high octane, and I use less scoops than recommended). Don’t drink sodas. They’re pretty bad for you to begin with, basically empty calories, and they’ll just give you a sugar rush that will crash your brain partway through the day. Along with my two or three twenty-ounce mugs of coffee with some cream each day, I keep a liter bottle of water within reach, and sip on it all day. I also drink water with my lunch and dinner. Also, alcohol or drugs are highly not recommended during the act of writing. Save them for downtime. Drugged writing is just too hard to make sense of, and too hard to edit. It’s a waste of your time (well, I shouldn’t judge – it’s a waste of my time, but I strongly recommend avoiding drugs and booze during writing hours).
Eat well. Get plenty of rest. In addition to the liquids, your body needs to be fueled properly to function at its best, and writing is tiring, difficult work. If you put too much junk in, your ability to function can be impaired. What works best for me is to limit the amount of meats I eat. I don’t eat any red meat, just fish and fowl (salmon, tuna, chicken, turkey, etc.), no shellfish, whole grain breads and cereals, and a variety of vegetables. I should eat more fruit than I do. I like it, I just forget about it. Don’t overeat. The more blood your body has to send to your stomach, the less it has available for your brain. That’s why we feel sleepy after a huge meal. Try to get a good night’s sleep. Your body works hard. It needs to recoup. If you find you have difficulty sleeping, take timed short naps during the day (not if you have a full-time job other than writing, of course).
There are a ton of other things I could say (and maybe I’ll add some more in another post), but let me just close this post by saying, your mind and your body are your instruments. You can’t write efficiently if one or both of them are out of whack. Take good care of them and your body will have the strength to sit in front of the monitor longer, your thoughts will flow better, and you’ll be less likely to get stuck.
Next post, Painting the Caves as Writers
Do you have any favorite ways to stay healthy? Are my thoughts above nonsense, or do you agree? I’d love to hear what you think either way.