Writers will do just about anything to improve a story, but we rarely give ourselves the same effort. I think this is because of something Edison (or someone of his importance said) about the body being simply a vehicle for the brain. While there will always be a few writers out there who are more in love with themselves than the work, the majority of us often neglect our spiritual and physical health.
I can’t say I’m an expert in writer fitness, but I’ve had to wrestle with a number of problems that have forced me to pay more attention to the state of my mind and body. Contrary to popular myth, a writer who is substance-dependent, locked away in a garden shed or otherwise writing in an unhealthy situation is not the ideal. To have a long and productive writing life, an intelligent writer needs to develop habits to keep body & mind active and healthy.
Here are ten ways I think you can improve your writing fitness (and please note that you should always check with your family doctor before making any changes in your diet or exercise regime):
1. Break blocks – plain and simple, if something is getting between you and the work you’re not going to be a happy writer. My method has always been to ignore anything that blocks me and write straight through it, at the same time giving myself permission to write complete garbage. I’ve learned that eventually the block shrivels up and dies and the sheer act of writing even nonsense eventually gets me back on track so that I do produce quality material.
2. Boost nutrition – as a writer you really are what you eat; if you’re snacking on sugary junk or chugging energy drinks while you’re working you’re probably not doing your brain any favors. I am a potato chip fiend, but I traded in my Lays and Ruffles for rice cakes and multi-grain crackers, and to be honest I don’t miss them anymore. If you wean yourself off energy or high-calorie drinks and try alternatives like flavored water or a low-calorie non-carbonated drink you can avoid the sugar crashes. I only drink water or tea, but a few years ago I tried Crystal Light drink mix and fell in love with it. It adds almost no calories to my water, and the variety of flavors keeps me from getting bored.
3. Eliminate Distraction – there are some writers who claim they can work fine in the midst of noise and chaos; I am not one of them. I don’t need absolute silence to write, but I prefer a quiet corner where I can concentrate. Removing all the phones, televisions, radios and other noise-makers from my writing space gave me the distraction-free zone I needed. I’ve also taught my family to respect my writing time and, unless there’s a emergency, not to interrupt me when I’m working. On my part, I’ve arranged my work hours so that I am usually writing when they’re at work or school or otherwise occupied.
4. Equip yourself – my first two published novels were printed out on a dot-matrix printer that took twelve hours to produce a full manuscript. Needless to say one of the first purchases I made after I turned pro was to buy a better printer. I’ve also made sure to set aside enough of my income every year since then to update or replace my equipment as needed. I think one of the biggest heartbreaks for a writer is losing work to equipment failure, so when you can afford to, invest in the hardware you need to get the job done.
5. Fight fatigue – it seems that there just aren’t enough hours in the day anymore to get everything done, and if you’re working a day job and taking care of a family and trying to write, you’re probably also fighting constant fatigue. After spending too many years trying to do everything and not getting anything done, and barely sleeping a few hours a night, I began planning and working according to a weekly schedule. This helped me to stop overloading myself and set a reasonable amount of work to do each day that I knew I could accomplish. This actually helped me become more productive and gave me a lot more free time than I’d ever had when I was trying to do everything without a schedule.
6. Idealize space – I was raised in a cluttered household (my mom is a pack rat of the first order) and I grew up hating it. Since I had never been taught to unclutter my spaces, I might have ended up becoming a pack rat, too. Fortunately military service taught me the value of keeping work and living spaces uncluttered and organized. While I might have to resist the urge now and then to alphabetize the canned goods, I appreciate the pleasure of having a home and home office that is clean, organized and provides plenty of room to do whatever I like. One habit I have to keep clutter at bay is to focus on a different room every day versus trying to clean up my entire house all at once. Anyone can tidy one room at a time, and by doing so on a regular rotating basis you can always have a clean house.
7. Lighten up – I never knew how much effect lighting had on me and my writing until my optometrist told me the headaches I was suffering were produced by eyestrain from working in inadequate lighting. I still didn’t believe him until I changed the lighting in my office and the headaches went away. Lately the reverse has been happening; I’ve been suffering eyestrain from the glare of my computer monitor, which I had to adjust a few times before I found the right setting. You really need to experiment with the lighting in your work space before you’ll find the right way to illuminate it, but once you get it to optimum work levels you’ll be surprised how much difference it makes.
8. Manage stress – another major threat to writer fitness, stress comes from all directions and in innumerable forms. I don’t think we can ever eliminate stress entirely from our lives, but we can manage it better. I’ve learned to cut off stress at the source, such as unplugging from the internet for a few days, skipping a chapter I’m having problems writing, or taking an hour to do some sewing (art and hobbies are great all purpose stress-relievers.) When the stress is emotional, I spend time working in the garden, taking walks, or doing other things that combine exercise with enjoyment. Even a long bubble bath can soak up a lot of stress.
9. Prevent injury – because writers are sedentary creatures, we run the risk of acquiring a variety of job-related injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome and muscle strain. Not a week goes by that I don’t aggravate a sensitive nerve in my neck by sitting too long in one position. Taking breaks from the keyboard to get up and stretch, walk around, and doing some simple exercises can be helpful in avoiding injury and also giving your mind a brief mental break.
10. Reward effort – payment for the work most writers do is rarely regular or constant, and because we can’t pick up a check at the end of week like other workers it can often make us feel depressed. Effort needs to be rewarded, so if there isn’t a paycheck waiting for you at the end of the week of writing, you might try giving yourself one in the form of a reward. This doesn’t have to be money or even anything that costs it; you simply plan to make the time to do something nice for yourself. I often let myself watch a movie or listen to a CD as a reward for getting all my work done for the week; tonight I have the movie Push waiting by the DVD player for when I finish up.
If your writing fitness needs some attention, don’t try to make too many changes at once. Pick one area in your writing life that you’d like to improve and focus on that until you find the right solution, and then move on to the next problem area. I recommend starting a writing fitness journal where you can record what you’re doing, how it’s working, and come up with new ideas on how you can get your writing life in shape.
Do you have a habit or method that’s helped you with your writing life? Let us know in comments.