Why Writers Need to Live a Healthy Lifestyle

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

Copy Space, Design Space, Diary, Feeling, Grayscale

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

Asparagus, Steak, Veal Steak, Veal, Meat, Barbecue

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

Crossfit, Sports, Fitness, Training, Exercise, Athlete

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.

AT Drafting & FDAD Revisions #1

Well! I’ve had a slow month for various reasons, but now I’m balancing drafting my next WIP with revising FDAD and…I really hope revising won’t take as long as drafting. Though the beginning has the most things I need to fix so maybe it’ll go faster later.

I actually do like revising. I know my MC so much better now than I did before and I know exactly where the story’s going, so I can bring to the surface all the foundations and hints that I need to. It’s pretty great. I definitely find it true that revising/editing is where the book really gets made.

Switching gears, though, what can I say about my new WIP? Well, its codename is AT and it’s a contemporary, new adult story that takes place during Holy Week and has a queer progressive Christianity aesthetic (literally no one is surprised by this fact). This is basically a brand new draft of the story, though it’s technically a second draft. Some things I like about it:

  • s y m b o l i s m
  • a good chunk of my church conference experience is relevant to the story
  • ghost
  • friendship was magic, but now it’s sad
  • referencing mewithoutYou without ever saying it explicitly

I’ve struggled with drafting this one, though, because the concept is more serious/sad than FDAD. FDAD feels like a fun shonen anime most of the time (with great amounts of drama) while AT feels like one of those 13-episode, bittersweet shows. So when bad things happen in the wolrd or I’m just not in the best place mentally, drafting AT isn’t cathartic or like an escape. Maybe that’ll change (I hope it does so I can get it done faster).

Until next time!

FDAD: A Multi-world Fantasy WIP update #2

Well, more than a month has passed since my last update about this project, but that’s because I’ve had so much else going on in my life, most of it good.

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March was a lighter month for me in terms of word count and the first half of April has been the same. It’s definitely a combination of the life stuff and the fact that I reached the big turning point for my main character. Now that that episode is finished, I’m in this reflection/passage of time arc that has a few important points, but I’m trying not to linger on it too long. I have to let myself tell a little bit to keep from getting stuck. Still, I’m close(ish) to the end.

Things have settled down, so now I’m just trying to focus on 500 words a day–just 500 words regardless of what my Scrivener word counter says or what I did or didn’t do the day before.

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I won’t end up having written 15,500 words in April, but I will get just shy of 100k. I had hoped this thing would wrap at around 120k, but it might be closer to 150k. That’s still an acceptable range for a first draft.

Thing I like about what I’ve written since the last update:

  • I think I presented one character’s betrayal with a good nuance and it came out on the page much better than I could’ve planned.
  • My MC had a great bonding moment with her two besties.
  • The stable OTP in my party is forever adorable.
  • One of my characters is a “man of culture” and is a lowkey disaster bi. I don’t know when or if romance will come up for him again since he’s so hyperfocused on everything else.
  • One of my chaotic/fun supporting characters is in love with her boy who has yet to be introduced, but if she were Andy from Parks & Rec, my MC would be her “if I had to pick a dude.”

Until next time!

Holy Week & Bethlehem, WV

Lent never fails to challenge me, even when my life is filled with blessings and I’m not in the mental place I’m usually in where I can truly sit in the solemnity of the season. I spent many years there, so perhaps my recent joys are God giving me a little break. For that, I’m grateful.

Even so, Holy Week this year has laid a heavy symbolism upon the world with the fire at Notre Dame. I have nuanced, conflicting feelings about the entire event that I could present as overly wordy paragraphs, but succinct points are probably better.

  • Notre Dame is one symbol among many of old ways of doing church that simply do not resonate as much with the general population in the 21st century for a myriad of reasons: the church’s ties to colonialism, white supremacy, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry and exclusion being among the chief pillars that make my generation question whether the church really means what it says.
  • Sometimes, old ways of church must burn and die for the true message of the gospel to come through.
  • The season after Easter is Pentecost, where we remember how the Spirit came down and expanded the gospel beyond the social/cultural barriers that humans had placed upon it. Pentecost is fire. Notre Dame burning during Holy Week is steeped in this symbolism.
  • I love high church. High church is where my faith meets my intellect. I find all cathedrals and chapels cute and charming. I think chanting is hauntingly beautiful so when I heard a woman on the news describe the particular architecture of Notre Dame–how perfect it was for medieval chanting–I had to step away. The loss of that hit me deeply.
  • The gathering of people singing “Ave Maria” as the church burned is a poignant reminder of why we have the old hymns. There is something about their ability to capture despair and praise within the same song that is more opaque to me in contemporary Christian music (as much as I enjoy certain songs in that genre).
  • There was never any question that Notre Dame would be rebuilt or receive financial support. Meanwhile, churches in Louisiana targeted by racist and therefore anti-Christian ideology do not have that same support network.
  • The third most important mosque in Islam also burned on the same day.
  • Churches die all the time. New churches are born all the time. Some old ways cannot survive into the future of church.

When the seemingly immutable structures and ideas we grow up with and find comfort in falter under heat and pressure, there doubt comes in to compliment faith. There cannot be a mature spirituality without uncertainty. This is what hit me most a few months ago when I finally listened to mewithoutYou’s new EP and LP. “Bethlehem, WV” particularly hit me in the deepest core of this feeling.

For this and several other reasons, I ended up writing a tribute poem to the tune of this song. Fellow mewithoutYou fans will catch the references and hopefully appreciate them. The only commentary I’ll make on the piece is that I went to college in St. Davids, PA, where years before I attended that school, mewithoutYou played one of their first gigs.

St. Davids, PA

[to the tune of Bethlehem, WV by mewithoutYou]

How in this cosmic sphere can we faithfully insist
That joyful challenge line “I do not exist”?
It falls down from on high, in dryness and in rain
And we sing those coded songs with piousness, in vain

I heard you mumble something ‘bout intelligible lies,
Naming towns I’ve never heard of beneath endless skies.
And the winds came blowing through my sweater poorly knit
As I passed empty stands in a market dimly lit.

A yellow spider crawled out from a rotting plank
And asked what kind of God the insects stop to thank.
I searched my mind for something but found no quick relief
So much for certain answers from our deepest held beliefs.

And on the path ahead, a great fire in the night
To light our mangled torches, on the left and on the right
Together let’s approach this metaphor with grace
For every time we dressed our fragilities with lace.

A prophet left a note here on the coconut estate:
“Does ever Your great love grow weary of your saints?”
The smoke obscured a building ten thousand stories high
I craned my neck and bid my certainty goodbye.

The sea contained within the fish–makes little sense to me
But does not God still speak in clever mystery?
I passed an orange spider through mostly vacant streets.
It assured me that the crow had found something to eat.

In everyone I meet and everywhere I look
I find shadows of that train crash in each ancient book
You twist an old-time blessing in a garden overgrown
And I know it for its difference on this longish journey home

To think that what began in one nine seven nine
Would comfort me with songs of disappointment every time
While Jacob has his ladder with its well-worn grooves,
I’m still waiting for that day when you say “we’ll all improve.”

The horses’ hay now flattening beneath our savior’s head
We watch our teachers wander off to cows of red instead
And since all circles presuppose they’ll end where they begin
I think they might come back with heretics as friends

For now we simply wander, picking grapes from the vine
And waiting til it’s our turn to be crushed into wine
Is that saying still engraved on the mouth of the glass?
Are four word letters strong enough to make this unease pass?

A brownish spider came to me, its legs stuck in a leaf
And said “You know they’ve killed that cow and turned it into beef”
I can’t say I’m in anguish or even that surprised
For I’ve seen wordless truths in apparition eyes

Which knocked so gently on my door–I should’ve opened wide
My Lord can you connect the circles, points, and dotted lines?
This light here in the evening comes alone to the alone
So we can someday say “In darkness, the light shone.”

The foxes now are captured; both worlds converge as one
And David shrugs and says “I guess my reign here is done.”
These alphabetic points scream life’s meandering walk
We fill the air with crazy, false, and dreamy alright talk

A pale horse trots ahead of us, our gaits in slow decline
I took the nature of your songs
And tried to fasten it with mine
(I hope you don’t mind)

On a Pennsylvania road
On a Pennsylvania road
On a Pennsylvania road

I did just as I was told

FDAD: A Multi-world Fantasy WIP update 1

If you follow me on Twitter, you might’ve seen me answering writing questions about my WIP and attempting to find gifs that summarize my characters for those get-to-know-you threads that people create.

Well, this WIP’s codename FDAD. I will not tell you what it stands for. It’s a multiverse and, in many ways, my love letter to anime. It’s full of queer women and while there are plenty of intense moments, I do lean into the silliness of the concept from time to time. Because a portal fantasy is silly.

This story has been with me for 10 years now and for many of those years it simmered on the back burner. It began as a silly concept that I just wrote on the fly based on vague writing prompts (write a fantasy story; write a mystery story, etc.) and it definitely became that huge project that you throw every cool idea ever into. The thing was massive and had no clear ending.

Over time, I figured out main plot points, had dozens of starts and stops, and a few long drafts where I got far (kinda) only to realize that there was too much wrong that I had to fix. And according to the original scope I had, I’d barely made a dent in the entire epic story I wanted to tell.

Listen, every SFF writer has one of these concepts. Your epic baby. Your personal Wheel of Time or Song of Ice and Fire. That’s what FDAD became for me and in many ways, it still is. But I had to put it down for a few years because I knew I just wasn’t a good enough writer at the time to pull it off in the way I felt it deserved.

Then, around fall of 2017, I suddenly started thinking about this project again. Next thing I knew, I’d made myself a Google doc where I streamlined the story into three books and sketched out clear plot/character arcs. I had other projects I wanted to focus on at the time, so I kept it at this word vomit planning stage.

At the start of 2018, I wasn’t in the best place mentally and the projects I’d been working on were pretty sad. I needed something lighter–something that, as Marie Kondo has taught us–sparked joy. That was FDAD. Among all the big projects in my head and on my computer, FDAD has the most playfulness to it and that’s what I needed.

Since then, book 1 of this story has been my WIP. Narratively, I’ve just hit a major turning point–I’m thinking of it as the true half-way mark, but I have only about two major arcs until the end, so I might be beyond half-way.

As of the end of February, this is my word count:

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86k isn’t my final word count, but I set the word count calculator up on Scrivener so that I have a daily target of 500 words a day for each month. In theory, that’s 15,500 words per month, but of course there are days I miss completely and days where my word count is lower, just as there are days when my word count well exceeds 500.

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This is my log for January. It’s sparser because I had a lot going on that month like prepping for Lest I Know Your Weakness to launch. However, at this rate, I will definitely have a completed draft in 2019 and that excites me. After all this time, I finally feel like I’m executing this story the way I see it in my head. Yes, there are SO MANY things I’ve discovery written and will have to retcon in revisions, but I have a good balance between following the big plan and letting the smaller stuff come as it will.

It definitely helps that I have a book/series guide as a living Google doc that I update as things come to me. It has organized sections for worlds, characters, magic systems, histories, outlines, etc. I even have a running list of potential comp titles. I also am much better at giving myself permission to keep moving forward when I discover something about a character or piece of history that I hadn’t accounted for previously. I write from that point on as if that piece of information were true the whole time, knowing that I’ll get the chance to build it in correctly during revisions.

Anyway, I’ll probably post an update at least once a month. Hopefully, you find them interesting and insightful.

Cheers!

Bullet Journaling: My Lazy Solution to Task Management

Around Christmas, my bubble of writer Twitter started buzzing with people talking about making 2019 bullet journals. I saw threads full of beautifully decorated notebooks, sticky notes, colors, and all sorts of other organizational tools.

All of which I viscerally hate.

Okay, hate is a strong word, but organizing with tabs, highlighters, labels–all that stuff has just never stuck with me. I’d tried in school, beginning the year strong with notebooks and binders neatly organized, but it only took a few weeks for those to be haphazardly stuffed with papers in any random order. With binders in particular, I chalk that up to a combination between my left-handedness and laziness.

Now as an adult, I do at least have folders for my most important papers. They’re not very organized and a few are quite overstuffed, but they exist. Note charts, idea webs, and basically any graphic organizer ever? No, thank you. I was forced to use them in school, but now? Tables and lists are about as far as I go.

So, the little I saw of bullet journaling did two things: First, it convinced me that it was an artistic organizing thing that those really crafty girls with bubble handwriting do. Second, it confused me.

Yet in 2018, I did start writing things down more: daily tasks, grocery lists, thoughts about books I’d read, writing ideas/scenes, seminar/panel notes, and, most frequently, workout logs.

All of these I kept in separate notebooks. I also keep a daily word count calendar in Google docs along with other brainstorming documents. So, you can see that I had a lot of moving pieces in a lot of places. This didn’t bother me much at all.

Then, over the holidays, I watched a megsquats video where she mentioned keeping food logs and workout logs in a bullet journal. What? But all the writers were using the same thing for writing. How could that same thing work for logging and writing stuff?

Now thoroughly intrigued, I read up on bullet journaling and…became more confused. It sounded like, if I figured it out the right way, I could use a bullet journal to keep track of everything I wanted to in one place: word counts, household tasks, events, appointments, workout logs, groceries–anything.

But the setup seemed complicated until I grabbed a blank journal I’ve had for years and walked myself through it.

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Reader, I married bullet journaling.

Kidding. The change in my life is not exactly earth-shattering, but it sure is helping me get things done. No, my bullet journal is not full of pretty colors or stickers. Right now, it’s strictly rapid logging with daily tasks and other regular lists I keep. Sprinkled here and there are a few writing notes, writing sketches, and thoughts on movies. I’ve made collections in my index for different writing projects, health tracking, and seminar notes. I’ve got my events for the next six months marked as well as events/appointments for this month. My daily pages are just large enough to list that day’s tasks, events, word count, and other short notes while my workout logs and grocery lists take up a page each.

Sounds confusing without looking at it, right? But that’s what bullet journaling is. It makes tons more sense once you set one up yourself and figure out not only what you want to keep track of, but how. Aside from the basic setup of an index, a future log, a monthly log, and daily pages, you can make a bullet journal be whatever you need it to be.

Personally, I don’t use mine for a lot of writing planning, but I have jotted down quick notes which I then transfer to my massive Google doc where I keep all my world building, character notes, and plot notes. The best part about bullet journaling is that I can keep all these different types of things I write down in one place, which actually makes me better at writing down daily tasks, appointments, and events. Because all of it is in a single book, that book is important for me to have around and to keep track of, unlike a separate reading thoughts notebook or a separate to-do list notepad. All of this stuff that seems unrelated can just exist together and it’s organized in a way that makes sense for me.

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I am too lazy to keep track of a notepad for grocery lists/tasks and three different notebooks for everything else. Bullet journaling, thankfully, isn’t asking me to color code or make tabs or any of that stuff unless I want to (and I don’t).

With a new book coming out soon, another book I’m trying to finish, workout routines to keep up with, household tasks and projects to complete, and social and church events, I have so much more to track than I thought until I started bullet journaling. I used to keep most of it in my head or occasionally use the calendar app on my phone, but now I’ve got an organic method for keeping it all together.

Organizing like this will become more vital as my writing career develops. All the launch prep and promotion I’m doing for Lest I Know Your Weakness came together from small, daily tasks. One day, I might find myself needing to manage drafting one project, editing another, promoting a third, and plotting a fourth, each with their own deadlines. That on top of my other life stuff would just be too much to keep in my head.

I’m only a few weeks into bullet journaling, but so far I’m loving the simplicity and the flexibility. One notebook for everything I want to write down? Perfect.


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3 Writing Lesson from Martial Arts Training

One of the several activities that has kept me busy over the last few months is the kung fu and tai chi classes I’ve been taking. Martial arts is currently my only form of exercise; I train hard and feel physically healthier than I have been my whole life.

I had many reasons for deciding to study martial arts, but one of the subtler ones was to improve my writing. Fight scenes and training montages are some of my weak points. I’d get to these sections in my stories and simply not have the language to describe the action I saw in my head nor the experience to write how my characters felt during these encounters. Although I’m still a beginning student, here are three writing lessons I’ve taken away from my training so far.

1. A character with little to no athletic background, training, or prowess will likely not have the endurance or technique to last through a long fight.

This one’s pretty obvious, but I really came to appreciate it and experience it for myself during my first couple months of training when merely doing our warm-up exercises left me exhausted and heaving for air. Adrenaline may give your completely untrained character a temporary boost of power, but that doesn’t mean they’ll suddenly know where to aim on their opponent’s body.

I’m in much better shape now than I was when I first started training and even though my endurance has improved, sparring is the one thing that zaps me of all my energy and leaves me just as winded as warm-ups used to. If your character goes on a journey from untrained everywoman to awesome warrior, do understand that they will probably pass out or come close to it if they train super hard and it really would take constant, daily training for them to get in shape and be proficient with their fists or weapons in a plot with a time crunch.

2. A character going from novice to expert fighter in a relatively short amount of time is pretty unrealistic.

Yeah, it’s a common plot device: such and such magic/fighting technique takes years to master, but there are only six months until The Bad Guy Does Things™. So, the unlikely hero spends their free time training between other plot problems as the big confrontation gets closer and by the time the battle comes, they’re a total badass. Sure, it sounds cool, but it’s pretty hard to believe.

The easiest solution, aside from some insane in-world magic that gives your characters quick power-ups, is to have your characters partially or fully trained from the start. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang only has about a year (maybe less) before Sozin’s comet arrives and the Fire Nation completes their conquest. In that time, he has to learn waterbending, earthbending, and firebending, plus master his other Avatar abilities. What makes Aang’s journey believable, and what makes him able to gain enough proficiency with the other three elements to face Fire Lord Ozai is that he’s already a master airbender. That gives him enough basic fitness, agility, and stances to work with as he learns the nuances of each style.

3. Just because a character can spin a staff doesn’t mean they understand how to apply techniques against a live opponent.

At my kung fu school, we learn empty-handed and weapon forms as well as sparring. As a beginning student, there’s a huge disconnect for me between what I learn in form and what I have to do in sparring. Part of that is because forms might exaggerate a few things to look nice, but another part is that it’s not yet second nature to get the practical application of the techniques I practice in form. The practical applications are there; they’re just not as apparent to me as a beginner (and that’s totally okay).

So if a lot of your character’s training involves them practicing forms or techniques solo, consider that a potential hangup for them would be this disconnect between form and practical application.

Studying martial arts is not only fun, but it’s also given me a lot of personal experience with how my characters might feel as they go through training. I can now think about what my body goes through on a typical day of training and recall details that I don’t think I would’ve considered otherwise like how the outside of my hand feels sore after spinning my wooden short staff a bunch of times or the 900 little things I need to pay attention to as I’m doing tai chi.

Just because we’re writers doesn’t mean we have to do everything our characters do or master everything they’re interested in, but I think gaining some personal experience can certainly help us improve.