By Trai Cartwright
How does exhaustion help writing?
It doesn’t. Of course it doesn’t.
Writing through mental and physical exhaustion has always been a struggle of mine, and it seems in the past year or two, I’ve heard much the same from many of my writer friends. Whether it’s acute over-programming or serious health ailments, managing their lives drains away their precious creative time and energy.
It’s gotten to the degree that they don’t get any writing done.
Does being a writer attract a heightened level of affliction? Is that how we know we’re writers—not because we’re sicker than everyone else but because we feel the terrible intensity of our failings all the more for their negative impact on our art?
Are we as a tribe, too tired to do our jobs? Did the writers who came before us suffer these same maladies to the same extent, and if so, how did they manage to get their work done?
How do we, as an afflicted body of scribes, manage to get it done regardless? Or do we?
I read “Z” not too long ago, a book from Zelda Fitzgerald’s point of view (genius, by the way), and not only was her own mental health eroding, but she had to rely on a husband who’s proximity to drink determined his own daily output.
Scott wrote dozens of short stories because it was all he could manage around his alcoholism.
Stephen King, on the other hand, used his prolific drug habit as a production tool for his writing. Now, I don’t know about you, but I can tell when King’s addiction began impacting his writing negatively—there are a couple dozen books that, well, suck. But his habit never impeded his output.
The tales of mental illness among writers and artists in general is prodigious. Their careers seem to go in two directions: one, they waited for bouts of sanity to work; or two, their affliction seemed to drive them to produce.
Myself, I was a chronic insomniac. The longer a person goes without the required sleep (seven hours uninterrupted), the worse their brain, organ, and nervous system function. A fugue state takes over and soon cognizant thinking becomes impossible, much less creative thinking. There’s a reason why sleep deprivation is a torture technique.
We all have our afflictions, don’t we?
But does the human condition make writing impossible? And what a terrible joke that would be, with so many of us with something to say.
And now that our lives are so overly complex with 24/7 jobs, family schedules that require herculean efforts to maintain, and increasing health issues across all ages, is there any way our artistic pursuits won’t suffer?
How do we compensate?
Or do we give in?
A friend of mine, Amy Kathleen Ryan, had triplets a few years ago. She still wrote two books around their tyrannical infant demands. You might have read them.
Another friend of mine has been diagnosed with MS, making it impossible to type some days. Many days. He still finished his most recent mystery novel.
Another woman I know has worked full time, pursued two advanced degrees, and raised her kid for the past five years, and is inches from finishing an epic fantasy we all know will publish the second she finishes.
Another has taken over the care of both her invalid parents while raising her own family. She’s learned to write in doctor’s offices.
A man who attends most of my library creative writing classes tells me he’s on the road three out of four weeks a month, but he’s taught himself to write on airplanes and in hotels.
A woman in my MFA program walks with two canes and is in constant, chronic pain from a back injury. She still got her degree and recently published her first short story.
There are lots of examples of life becoming what really ought to be written off as unmanageable, crushing our creative selves, making writing laughably impossible. But even these people find ways to write.
They all tell me the same thing: writing is their life’s blood. They’ve learned to stop making attachments to the outcomes and just be glad for the days they get some words on the page.
Is that enough?
As more and more novels are written under the pressures of our modern, debilitating lives, the answer seems to be a resounding yes.
Exhaustion may not help our writing, but it doesn’t have to stop it entirely.
Trai Cartwright, MFA, is a 20-year entertainment industry veteran and creative writing specialist. While in Los Angeles, she was a development executive for HBO, Paramount Pictures, and 20th Century Fox. A new Denver arrival, Trai currently teaches creative writing, film studies and screenwriting for Colorado universities, MFA residencies, writers groups, conferences, and one-on-one as an editor for fiction and screenplays. Learn more about Trai and her work at her website.