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.