Friday, 2 April 2010

how to be a writer - part 2

Does writing make you sick?
(Do not answer this question if you suffer from high blood pressure, low self-esteem, or  moderate existential dread)

Some people say that writers are notorious hypochondriacs. But writers have always been genuinely prone to poor health. Think of Proust, Keats, or Emily Dickinson. And I'm not feeling too well myself. If you don't believe me, come and listen to my cough, look at my rash, feel my glands, check out my tongue and tell me what you make of this weird lump behind my knee. It's also a myth that writers tend to destroy their health by drinking too much and taking drugs. Most of us can't afford it. Have you seen the price of absinthe? 

But it's true that writers need to take care of themselves. In many ways, a writer is like an athlete. Except that a writer sits around all day and doesn't get much exercise. Also, athletes tend to be better looking. But writing is essentially a sedentary occupation, unless you do it standing up. Which is how Anthony Trollope produced around seventy novels, putting in a couple of hours every morning at a lectern before going off to work in his job at the Post Office. Maybe that's what my postman is doing - writing a novel. He's certainly got something better to do in the morning than deliver my mail, which arrives around lunchtime. But if you're a writer who spends a lot of time sitting down, how can you stay fit? Try the following simple tips. 

A writer can turn routine domestic activities into useful physical exercise. For example, when you're watching daytime TV (for research purposes) get up and walk to the TV to change channels instead of using the remote. And even when you're having a cup of coffee at your desk, you can exercise your muscles by lifting the full mug up and down with one hand while typing with the other. But be careful not to spill coffee on your keyboagx5>jkq%nnggg. 

Okay, maybe forget about the coffee mug. Ideally, what we're looking for is a way to keep fit by harnessing and transforming creative mental energy. Unfortunately there isn't one. mental activity trains the brain, not the body. So, while your brain develops a six-pack, you're still sitting there in those sweatpants you bought from a mail-order ad in a magazine you saw in the doctor's waiting room, modeled by creepily spry elderly types who look like they'd sprint out of the house, put you in an armlock, and make a citizen's arrest just because you threw an empty wine bottle into their front garden. 

Another option is to actually do your writing while going for a walk. The problem with this, I've found, is that you tend to spill your drink and bump into people. In  the old days a major author could solve the problem by having an amanuensis. But for the modern writer the idea of an amanuensis raises questions like "What is it?" "Can I plug it into the USB port of my laptop?" and "Is it tax-deductible?" However, once you find out what one is, you'll see how unlikely it is that you'll ever get a good one. Boswell may have clambered around the Hebrides behind Dr Johnson, diligently noting down his every thought, but nowadays if you find that there's someone who is prepared to follow you around day and night, recording every word you say, then it's probable that the secret service has identified you as a dangerous subversive, especially if you're foreign, black, Muslim, interested in civil rights, or have at any time expressed mild reservations about the ethics of US foreign policy.

A different approach is to take pills. The chances are that you already take at least one supplement to replenish the vitamins, minerals, and things with funny names that get depleted by your active, stressful lifestyle. Maybe you take lots of different supplements. You obviously need them because you never quite feel one hundred percent these days, do you? There's always something wrong. Feels like a magnesium deficiency. Or calcium. Or something to do with ginko. But now, a report from the Association of Costly Health Product Retailers suggests that whatever you’re taking for it, it’s not nearly enough. The shock findings show that you’re almost certainly deficient in things you never even knew you were meant to have in the first place. And the report reveals that even when you are aware of a deficiency, the supplements you take to make up for it inevitably deplete other vital resources that can only be replenished by taking further supplements. But if it makes you feel better, go ahead. Just be careful with the more exotic complementary remedies. I had a problem with 'healing crystals' once. I probably just ate too many of them. However, I know people who are completely committed to using crystals, particularly crystal meth.

Not only is it difficult for a writer to stay physically fit, there's also the issue of mental health. Writers are crazy. This is partly because writing is a lonely craft full of anguish and frustration. Unless you do it with someone else, which is even worse. If you write with a partner you run the risk of them suddenly becoming independently successful with another project they're working on, in which case you may go insane and try to kill them. But let's face it, you have to be unbalanced to want to be a writer in the first place. All the best ones have something wrong with them. At the very least they're obsessive. Look at Hemingway: he was obsessed with boxing, bullfighting and shooting things. When he couldn't think of anything else to shoot, he shot himself. But obsession is part of the job description, and we may as well accept that we're nuts, forget about ever getting fit, stop beating ourselves up, make another cup of coffee and this time have some of that cheesecake you've sworn not to eat in the daytime with it. Or have a drink, or tune up with pharmaceuticals, or do whatever it takes to get the job done the way you want to do it. Stop worrying about your health. The truth is that writing itself is a sickness, and none of us really want to be cured. 

Some of this article first appeared in Scriptwriter magazine, now


  1. You're right. I need coffee.

  2. I think someone should invent a giant bouncy keyboard, operated by the user leaping onto its oversized keys.* Imagine how many calories you would burn off!

    *Really only suitable for one-finger typists like myself. Anyone else would probably do themselves a mischief.

  3. Yes, but not writing also makes you ill. You need to produce little daily dollops of prose just as you need to produce little daily turds. Or maybe big ones.
    You have been warned...