Mind, Body and Writing

A friend of mine who has endured cancer treatment and chronic pain issues for the last several years recently announced that she was taking a break from writing. Cognitive issues related to chemotherapy have made story structure and continuity, even word recall, a huge challenge for her. But even more than that, I think she is tired of the struggle to cope, to be productive and meet deadlines. And maybe she’s just tired, period.

Because writing does take a certain physical stamina. It doesn’t seem like it should. After all, you sit while you’re doing it. Some people even recline in bed as they write on a laptop. I’m pretty sure most non-writers look at writing as very non-demanding physically. I’ll never forget when Stephen King was injured in that freak car accident and one of the patrons at the library where I work said something to the effect of “Well, maybe now he’ll be forced to do nothing but write and will get his books finished faster.”

Not only did the remark seem incredibly callous, as if King being injured was a positive thing, but it also seemed very stupid. Someone injured and in pain is not going to be a productive writer. And indeed, that experience took a terrible toll on King and his creativity for a number of years, as he has documented in various autobiographical pieces.

Writing can be an escape and a rejuvenating experience. But it takes energy, and energy comes from a healthy body. Many successful writers when interviewed will talk about the importance of physical exercise in their daily routine. They know that keeping the body in shape and moving helps keep the words and story ideas flowing. And recent studies have shown that physical exercise helps stave off dementia and cognitive decline as we age.

My friend needs time to heal, to learn ways of coping with the damage that chemotherapy and chronic pain have wrought on her body and her spirit. We speak of “filling the well”—through life experiences, travel, contact with other people, through living a full and interesting life. But sometimes “filling the well” involves resting. Simply being, rather than always doing.

I tend to be rather driven, especially in regards to writing. I set goals for myself and get frustrated when I don’t meet them. I was very productive the first part of this year, but then life intervened. Both good and bad things have sucked up my time and reduced my writing pace to a crawl. My lack of productivity has gnawed at me and increased my stress. And then I met with my friend and she discussed her decision, and I realized that I need to remember to nurture and care for myself physically if I want to have the energy and spark to be a productive writer.

When I started out, I saw writing as an escape from stress and a source of positive energy. But as I’ve gotten older I realize that writing requires physical energy even as it produces positive mental energy. Which means it’s important to do things that help me increase my physical vitality. Exercise is one of those. But more subtly, taking it easy can also help. There are activities I used to see as wasting time or taking me away from writing: Puttering in my garden, reading the newspaper or a magazine. Having sociological discussions with my daughter. Hanging out on the patio and listening to music with my husband.

I used to feel guilty for doing those things, but I’ve begun to understand that they help “fill the well” in an important way. Those activities relax me and reduce my stress, which rejuvenates me physically so I have the energy to write.

Mary Gillgannon
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Mary Gillgannon writes romance novels set in the dark ages, medieval and English Regency time periods and fantasy and historical novels with Celtic influences. Her books have been published in Russia, China, the Netherlands and Germany. Raised in the Midwest, she now lives in Wyoming and works at public library.

She is married and has two grown children. When not working or writing she enjoys gardening, traveling and reading, of course! More about Mary on her website.

26 thoughts on “Mind, Body and Writing

  1. Thank you. Great stuff! Breathe . . . Breathe in the air . . . enjoy all that life has to offer. Rock ‘n’ Roll!!!

  2. What you say is so very true, Mary. Writing is hard work! Many things can interfere with the ability to think, to remember, to focus – all of which are critical to a well-written piece. I’m keeping your friend in my thoughts and prayers.

  3. A very good post and so true. That Stephen King person was clueless. When Handsome was diagnosed with throat cancer, my whole world stopped, including writing. I gave myself a date to begin again once he’d finished treatment and we had a green light. In the meantime, I did writing related things like took classes, read, read, read, and word search, no vowels. And needlepoint which let me relax and let things pop in my head. I took those notes, saved them and on my day, began to work again, eventually incorporating the pops.

  4. Excellent post, Mary! Having survived cancer and dealt with severe hypothyroidism (nasty after-effect of radiation treatments), I took time to fill my well before going back to work. One of my mantras…Take the time or the time will take you. 🙂

  5. I tend to binge write. I’ve been known to sit at my desk for as long as twelve hours straight. Now, I set a timer to tell me to get up and move around every two hours. That’s turned out to be the time I come up with my best ideas. I also make sure I have a full glass of water when I come back to my desk. Great post, Mary.

  6. I so agree, Mary. A friend of mine was seriously injured when her car was hit by a semi some years ago. She was unable to write for months and still worries about the inability to recall words as quickly as she once did. On the other hand, we must have physical activity to keep our mental activity sharp. But it’s also true that we need ‘decompression’ time. I’ve had great insight on my stories while doing something else. Working out plot knots often is best accomplished while busy elsewhere, where our mind, or at least our subconscious, is freed up. Terrific post!

  7. Great post, Mary!! A lot of times, I’ll trying to walk on a jogging board while I’m proofing a manuscript. But I also am landscaping my new home, do lots of photography, have two puppies that keep me busy and entertained, and make bears. I’m also extremely driven to finish books on time. I find doing all of the other things helps me to enjoy life while I’m at it. Being inside my books is fun stuff, but I love capturing shots of the birds and butterflies and storms and flowers. It’s helpful to my well-being.

    And I love sharing it all with my friends and fans.

  8. Excellent post. We’ve been taught that busy-ness is important, but not contemplation. If children were taught meditation or another method of being comfortable in silence, we’d see many more “heads on straight” adults.

    • My friend I mentioned in this post has started doing meditation, and it has helped her in so many ways. I really need to try it, I think. Thanks for stopping by.

  9. Amen to all that. I have been angry with myself for months because I just wasn’t getting enough writing done. And now with summer and gardening and outdoors…. Then I sat down and wrote a little, and realized my whole mind-set had been recharged. I wasn’t “fighting” through scenes, I was flying through them. I needed time away for my mind to reset and be interested in what I was writing, instead of being forced to come up with the next words. Thanks for a great post.

    • Happy to share anything I’ve learned. One of the good things about getting older is we start to learn these important things about ourselves and our creativity.

  10. Enjoyed your post. For several years, I couldn’t write. “Someone injured and in pain is not going to be a productive writer.” This sentence resonated with me. I was trying to force myself to write when I was in pain due to grief. Thank you so much.

    • I’m glad my thoughts were meaningful to you. I think our society is so driven by external (and virtual) reality that we forget that our bodies and our spirits are what are truly crucial to productivity, success and happiness.

  11. Exactly what I needed to read, Mary! Thank you for reminding us writers to take some “down” time–nourish our bodies, which will in turn, replenish our writing souls.

    • I’m sure you do need it, Mary. You are so busy and do so much. I’m in awe of your energy and know you must nurture it some way.

  12. Mary, thank you for this wonderful, wonderful, wonderful post! It’s encouraging, inspiring…. Writing from the heart always reveals itself as such. Thank you for doing so. I’ve also been soaking up the comments. It’s all just great. i wish your friend a true recovery and I wish you the best always.

    • I’ve been amazed how many people have responded to this post. But as I commented above, our fast-paced, digital world ignores the importance of physical and spiritual health and its effect on every aspect of our lives. We have to learn to nurture ourselves and remember how important it is.

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