H is for Health
H is for health.
Writers are prone to a variety of health challenges, both physical and mental. It’s important to develop strategies to combat these problems—ideally, before they reach career-stopping levels.
As an initial matter, writers must create a working environment that avoids physical pain. Ergonomics—the study of efficiency in the workplace—addresses many of these issues. Volumes have been written about specially designed chairs, about the proper height of desks, about the ideal distance of a computer monitor from a user’s eyes and the best angle for that monitor. By definition, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Each author will need to experiment with equipment to find a system that avoids (or, at least, limits) strain in the eyes, neck, wrists, and other body parts.
Some authors avoid traditional desks altogether. Treadmill desks (allowing a user to walk while typing on a keyboard) enjoyed great popularity a short while back. Earlier trends have included standing desks, inflated exercise balls used as chairs, and kneeling chairs. Some authors work in bed, using lap desks, and others have created successful work spaces in recliner chairs.
No matter which work environment is chosen, a healthy writer takes regular breaks from that setting. Of course, the secret to writing success is in balancing the number (and length) of breaks against the amount of time spent working. Some resources suggest taking a five-minute break every fifteen minutes, standing and stretching and walking during the time away from work. Many writers, though, would never finish their work if they spent twenty-five percent of their available writing time in non-writing activities (likely more, in fact, because there’s always a transition period back to writing after taking a break.) Other guides suggest taking a break every twenty minutes, half hour, or forty-five minutes. One doctor of my acquaintance says it’s unnecessary to schedule breaks if a writer regularly consumes a gallon of water an hour—visits to the bathroom will guarantee sufficient breaks. He’s only partially kidding.
As you develop your own healthful workspace, determine a break schedule that works for you. Consider investing in a timer (or use the one on your watch, or any number of free apps.) Develop a set of exercises to complete during your breaks, including stretches for your hamstrings, quads, hip flexors, biceps, triceps, and pecs. You’ll know you’ve found the right set of exercises and the correct frequency of breaks when you have more energy and efficiency in your writing, compared with working straight through for hours.
Physical health is not just a matter of ergonomics and breaks. Nutrition counts too. Most writers give themselves treats for accomplishing difficult tasks—an allowance of chocolate after writing a particularly challenging fight scene, a bowl of chips after polishing off a difficult flashback. Completing a manuscript is likely celebrated with alcohol, a dinner out, and an elaborate dessert.
Some writers engage in “extreme writing”, offering themselves extreme rewards. One New York Times bestselling mystery author used to complete his annual physical, get a clean bill of health, and check into a hotel room with his portable typewriter (!), a ream of paper, and a case of Scotch. He emerged one week later with a completed novel and his writing quota complete for another 358 days.
Less intense writers go on writing retreats where they may consume higher-than-usual amounts of alcohol, sweets, and comfort foods. Similarly, multiple pots of black coffee have pushed many an author through a seemingly-impossible deadline.
If you’re trying to build a regular writing career, though, you should determine a nutrition regimen that works for you long-term. Figure out how much food and drink of what types you can consume and remain at your most alert and productive. Abide by those limits more often than not.
Of course, there’s another component to health: mental health. Writers experience greater incidences of mental illness than the population in general. We’re more likely to have depression and anxiety. Female writers are also more likely than the general population to suffer from drug abuse, panic attacks, and eating disorders. (Similar relationships may exist for male writers, but they have not been studied to the same extent.) Psychiatrists have theorized that there is a direct relationship between creativity and psychopathology.
In light of these connections, the rational writer develops systems to encourage mental health. These may include seeking professional medical attention including, in some cases, pharmaceutical intervention. Support groups (either in person or online) assist other writers. Good mental hygiene can be bolstered with appropriate diet and exercise (bringing us back to the physical health points above.)
Poor health—either physical or mental—results in a loss of writing productivity. Therefore, the rational writer develops strategies to improve health as part of a general career plan.
What concrete steps have you taken to preserve and improve your physical health? Your mental health? Have you seen a change in your writing career?