I’ve been sitting on making this post for a long time because there are a million ways to approach it and a million more things I want to say about it, but now I’ve finally got some coherent, focused thoughts. Although the finite details of a healthy lifestyle may look different for everyone, I think as writers we should think more seriously about how these lifestyle choices affect our work.
The Harm of the “Stereotypical Writer” Narrative
As writers, we know the power stories have. So, what are the stories we often tell ourselves about life as a writer? With a massive bout of exaggeration (because of course jokes are fun), we writers tell ourselves that “being a writer” is something like this:
- never sleeping
- drinking an entire pot of coffee every day
- eating junk food all the time to stay awake and meet deadlines
- writing while drunk
- editing while drunk
- never leaving our desks because we’re writing so much
These make funny Twitter jokes, but if they are truly part of how we live our lives, then we are setting ourselves up for burnout and, sooner or later, our bodies giving up on us. What happens then? We can’t write because our health has declined.
Actually living like this is simply not sustainable. Although these are exaggerated cliches of life as a writer, they still are narratives I’ve heard for years and they are influential. When I was a bit younger, I’d say to myself “Oh I must be a real writer now because of how late I’ve stayed up or because of this wine I’ve got or because I drink a Starbucks latte every day.”
In other words, I’d absorbed the silly narratives about a writer’s life and incorporated them into my own habits because they were so normalized.
Sure, you can criticize me for having a weak mind back then and not having the fortitude to know that no, you can’t actually sustainably live like that, but we writers don’t live in a vacuum. Those of us in developed Western societies live in an entire food ecosystem that is determined to feed us cheap, nutritionally void food products for profit. These food products will only give us a temporary high as our energy spikes and do not give us complete sets of macro or micronutrients for truly balanced health.
Moreover, we often receive and perpetuate similar jokey messages that exercise is boring, torture, or punishment. I rarely see writers talking about exercise habits, likely because our online brands focus mostly on being an engaging person and selling our books or talking about writing. Yet we will share those coffee and alcohol jokes about “the writer’s life.”
I’m not saying you can’t ever have a drink or you can’t ever have coffee. I’m just asking us to look more closely at the narratives we tell ourselves when we talk about what being a writer is like. After all, if we believe that words matter, we will recognize the influence these narratives can have.
Real Food Sustains Us and Our Careers
If we eat and drink ourselves into immobility and chronic illness, we will not live long enough to tell all the stories we want to tell. We will develop health problems that will take us away from our work. There are a zillion factors in this world that we can’t control ranging from who we are to our particular circumstances, but we do have a great deal of control over how we eat and how/whether we exercise.
The companies that make the vast majority of the processed foods we eat do not care one iota about our health. These manufactured products need marketing and advertising behind them because they have nothing else to offer but a temporary pick-me-up. Whole foods, on the other hand, give us full nutrients in a much more natural context. Whereas processing isolates nutrients and reconfigures them in a highly concentrated form, whole foods present those nutrients to us in a way our bodies have adapted to absorb them over thousands of years.
Eating real food can help prevent us from getting sick, meaning we won’t miss days of writing. It’s a way of loving ourselves and taking care of ourselves so we can keep writing books.
Exercise Can Help Us Mentally
Just about every writer I know, myself included, has some form of mental illness. Although my anxiety is rather mild and manageable with the lifestyle changes I’ve made over the past 18 months, it’s still there and it still gets the best of me sometimes. But regular exercise at the right intensity often feels like releasing a medicine in my head that untangles all the mental knots. I’ve had many workout days where I’m all twisted up inside, but then the workout resets everything.
I know I will likely always be prone to anxious thoughts. I think it’s my nature as a writer because coming up with the most dramatic scenarios is often the stuff of good fiction, but I often apply that dramatic flair to imagining things in my own life and that’s where the problems arise. Exercise helps to release that tension so I can more easily apply that dramatic thinking just to fiction.
Sometimes, our art comes from our heads being a little (or a lot) messed up, but sometimes that messiness can get in the way of our work. Exercising can release the valve. While it is no replacement for medications, it will certainly help.
Nutrition and fitness are huge topics, but I rarely see them intersect with writing life. However, maybe we should be talking about this more. Maybe we should think more critically about what we say a writer’s lifestyle is, what lifestyles we give to our characters, and how those decisions could influence our readers. This isn’t to say we need a moral puritanism about who and what to portray, just some deeper thought like we would give to any other aspect of writing.