Writing Reality: Balancing Act

29/08/2013 at 12:05 (Anorexia, Personal, Reviews, Writing, Writing Reality articles) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , )

As writers, we are obliged to sacrifice parts of our lives in order to fulfill the promise of well-nuanced writing. How often have you begun a day in the lightest spirits, only to find yourself stuck in the deep blues of nightfall, because a character has had some calamity befall them? Sometimes, I’m not entirely sure whether what I’m feeling is my own irritation, cheerful spirits or doldrums.

Try explaining this to someone not of a creative bent, and the inevitability of crossed-wires generally sets in. I’ve been asked more than once, why I bother to put myself through such experiences as field research in dodgy areas, for the sake of a story. My response is always, “Why not? I’m curious. I want to know, the better to write.”

That being said, I’m already aware of my somewhat obsessive personality when it comes to creative detail. I don’t know about you, but the serotonin rush of brandishing a new article to the breaking light of dawn, generally kills the red-eye pain of no sleep … for about half an hour. Then I have to go to work, in the regular day job that keeps my income flowing. Living the dream, huh?

So I’ve recently begun to take note of certain aspects of my welfare, which might need fine-tuning in accordance with energy levels x writing output. Let’s face it, there’s only so long the average human can subsist on Red Bull shots at 3am, and snatched sleep on lunch breaks. I’m as guilty of these health faux pas as the next. The trouble is, after years of sustained low weight due to anorexia – now thankfully more a shadow of the mind – my body is already something of a chipped plate, liable to fracture if I’m not careful. Pushing a grueling writing schedule, alongside the day job, will catch me up all too soon. As a chronic insomniac, I’ve already felt the twinges of production-guilt if I’m not at least utilizing those wakeful hours in some writing format or another.

Having trained as a fitness instructor in 2009, and with a keen interest in general health, I’m always on the search for ways of setting that all-too-necessary balance between body, mind and soul. Kooky it might sound, but I wholly believe in the need for such things, in order to benefit fully from any one aspect of our lives. I thought I’d share a few ideas with you; not so much rules, as guidelines.

1) By day, in part due to my job, I am very active. High energy levels, dating from childhood, can be also accredited. I’m never truly happy to sit down to writing, until they’ve been somewhat blunted with exercise of any kind. Whatever your own physical state, energy levels or views about exercise, do bear in mind that writing is essentially a static state of productivity. We can spend hours at a time in one spot, and though this is great in terms of output, it’s not such good news for the muscles and bones, which over time may become depleted from lack of use.

Take time to move about during your writing day, especially if this is your dominant career. A break every two hours or so, to move about and breathe, think over what has already been written and what is to come, is beneficial both for physical and mental well-being. It segments the long block of being sedentary, keeps blood flowing and your appetite regular.

2) In this context, I wholly recommend resistance training as a means of both staving off excess weight, and for building up lean muscle mass. The latter is nifty, in that it’ll chew up calories even while you’re sitting still, and will keep your metabolism revved for hours after a workout. The weight-resistance requires the body to lay down new bone minerals – a real plus, particularly for women, whose calcium / estrogen levels drop dramatically as we age. Osteoporosis is an ever-present fear for me, after years of depleted nutrition in my youth. I use resistance training now to keep my skeleton as strong as possible, against the chance of porous bones later in life. I find that the controlled movements are also a great way of releasing a build-up of mind pressure. Writing, post-exercise, is far more free-flowing.

3) Walking / running for cardiovascular health, is the simplest and most inexpensive means of keeping your heart and lungs healthy. This can be coincided with field research. If you’ve some location that is hazy on the details, take yourself to it on foot wherever possible. The rhythm of pace is another great way of promoting freeflow-thought.

I don’t know about you, but the completion of a written piece charges me with an endorphin rush similar to that released post-workout. I always feel the need to move. Use this to your advantage where fitness is concerned; if you’re riding the crest of a writer’s wave, turn it into a jog, a weights session, an impromptu dance. Heck, people generally think writers are weird anyway. Give them more ammunition. Best of all, prolong that fantastic feeling for as long as possible.

4) We may be stuck behind a screen for hours at a time, or poised over a writing medium that requires our eyes to be constantly alert. I use eye-drops every two hours to keep them fresh, and always have a bottle of water nearby (and if you’re of the same mindset as me, in that a little alcohol helps unpin inhibitions and settle the mood, then the water is doubly essential.)
An hour before bed, I’ll turn the computer off, and try to avoid overuse of my phone. According to research, those bright screens have a habit of messing with our sleep patterns and mine’s botched enough.

There’s also the content of your writing to consider. If your last piece was particularly emotive or dark, chances are it might hangnail in your mind. Try reading something light before sleep.

5) If, like me, you have an internal deadline-demon that kicks your butt each time a piece isn’t finished by such-and-such day, you’re probably experiencing some kind of productivity-powerplay. Once the computer is on, my mind switches to Work mode and sleep is a sure impossibility. Likewise, pushing back the boundaries of bedtime in an effort to keep on top of an ever-increasing workload, isn’t exactly conducive to relaxation. Unless you’re actually employed for writing to a set deadline – in which case, a regular routine should be adhered to, more stringently than those of us who set our own lines – it’s You playing the taskmaster, here. That’s fine, in terms of keeping up a regime. But allow yourself breaks, too. Athletes certainly don’t train to peak performance each time, and neither should we expect this perfection of ourselves. It can become very addictive, with each new achievement of output meaning another push against boundaries, and less downtime considered.

Only you know how much sleep is required to keep yourself functioning. Bearing in mind that cognition rapidly depletes with each hour lost, it’s not great news whether you’re in freeflow writing or editing form. Along with these side effects, emotional stability as a writer is thinned. I know I’ve reacted badly to criticism before, taking its objectivity personally, after too little sleep.

Listen to your body; learn from your activity levels. If you’re alert enough to juggle daily life and its pressures, have enough mental input to form creative output, and can engage in physical activity with the required cognition, then chances are you’ve got the balance right. A few missed nights sleep here and there won’t make too much deficit. But prolonged bouts of insomnia can have bad effects on your well-being. Don’t give your writing demons the chance to use more-than-average wakeful hours to press an advantage, which might ultimately undermine your health.

6) Eat to suit your lifestyle. It sounds simple, right? The concept of intuitive eating is nothing new; it’s something we practised as kids, relying on appetite levels rather than social trends and advertising campaigns. By all means, give yourself the food that you’ve a taste for – so long as you’re aware of when it’s time to stop, to realize when you’re putting food inside as more than just a means to an end; when it becomes about finishing the plate out of manners, or a loathing to see food go to waste.

Become familiar with what your body’s telling you. If you’re feeling real hunger pangs, don’t drown them in coffee etc. Don’t be afraid to break the writing flow to grab something to eat, and if – like me – you happen to forget a meal due to writing, compensate by eating more calorie-dense health foods (oats, bananas rather than apples, pasta/rice as opposed to bread, etc) to make up the difference. Likewise, if writing about a particular food stuff triggers a craving, more often than not this is all it is – an evocation of the senses, a memory of an enjoyable experience. Don’t let these become a substitute for feeding your body as and when required.

As a recovering anorexic, I’ve learned over time to tap back into my body’s basic needs. From having to set alarms to remind myself to eat, I can now differentiate between real hunger and thought/emotion-appetite. It’s a newfound sense of freedom, one I nurture; along with the knowledge that my productivity will only ever be constant, when the most important aspects of my life – those I can control – are well set.

In short, it’s about looking after ourselves, as individuals and writers.

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