Being a Better Writer: Health

It occurs to me, as I sit down to write today’s post, that it is quite often that I start these posts with some phrase similar to “Today’s topic might seem strange …” or the like. Not that it’s an incorrect thought, after all. I do tend to say that a lot here. But I always say it with purpose. It’s a way of saying “Hang on, don’t go away just because the title isn’t about how to string words together in the proper sequence up front. Stick around for a bit. This will all make sense. I promise.”

Today’s post is another one of those days, and once again I am going to repeat myself: Stick around and humor me for a moment, please. As odd as it may seem, today’s topic is one that’s actually quite important, not just to your life in general, but to your writing specifically. Yes, you read that correctly. This topic is more important than you’d guess.

I want to talk about your health.

Why? Well, it’s one of those topics that seems to take a backseat whenever we’re talking about writing. Go to writing cons and writing classes and you’ll hear all about prosaic styles, show versus tell, hooks, prologues, and many, many other important bits of writing. But one thing you almost never hear about is the author taking good care of themselves.

And personally, I think that’s a bit of an oversight.

So, where to start? Given the nature of the topic, I think the best place to begin might be to answer the question that’s most likely on a number of minds, especially the younger ones: Why? Well, because simply put, an unhealthy writer isn’t a very good writer.

Now I know what some of you are thinking at the moment. You’re wondering how that can be the case. “Sure,” some of you might be saying. “I might not be able to do a sit-up, but I can move my fingers just fine.”

Well, sure, you can. And I can paint. But just because I can paint doesn’t mean I’m actually any good at it (and I am most definitely not). So you can move your fingers over a keyboard … but are you doing so at any sort of peak performance? Or are you just pushing your brain along like a boulder through a river of molasses, hoping for the best?

See, skilled or not at writing, not taking care of your body turns your “river” of thought from a swift-flowing current of ideas and prose to a slow-moving sludge that creeps along at a snail’s pace and carries far more detritus than useful concepts.

This isn’t hearsay. It’s actually science. A lot of it. But the basics of it are pretty simple. A mind is an incredibly complex collection of pieces, each one working in harmony with another. Something as simple as the foods you eat can adjust the chemical composition of your brain very slightly, to say nothing of the amount of blood, oxygen, or sleep your brain gets, along with other factors.

Simply put, then, you’re feeding your brain the same lifestyle and foods that you’re feeding your body. If your body gets short of breath quickly, well guess what? So does your brain. If your arms feel a little out of sorts, tired and lethargic, so do your mental muscles.

Just as there are changes you can make to the way you live your physical life that will make your body more or less healthy, there are changes you can make to your physical life that will make your mind more or less healthy.

Now look, I’m not advocating that you go join a center and become a gym rat … though the first step there might not be a bad idea. I’m not saying you need to look like one of the adventurers from your stories. All I’m saying is that if you want to write at your best, then you need to be at your best … or at least close to it. You need to take care of yourself and keep your mind in good condition.

And to that end, here are a few things that in my own experience (and from science), have been a boon for keeping the mind as sharp as possible.

We’ll start with the hardest one (at least for me): Sleep. You need to get more of it.

Actually, maybe you need less sleep. It kind of depends on what type of person you are and exactly how much free time you have you’re choosing to spend on resting.

Point is, science has done a lot of research on sleep, and they’ve narrowed down the optimum amount the average person needs in order to be at their best: Eight hours. Some need a little more, some need a little less. But if you want to be at your peak, your going to want to be somewhere around there. Experiment a little.

Now, note that I said peak, and not “functional.” This is because while there are people who can survive quite well off of six, five, or even four hours of sleep a night—and I know, as I’m one of them—trust me when I say it doesn’t quite make for optimal mental conditions. Less than optimal would be more accurate.

Get the amount of sleep you need. Too little sleep can leave you feeling drained and gritty-eyed, with your brain missing obvious connections or ideas, and too much sleep can make you lethargic and slow.

I know sleep is one of those things that a lot of people cut. I do it too, though I know I shouldn’t. But the quality of my writing when I’m alert and well rested is so obviously superior to what I write when I’m tied but pushing myself onward anyway that I always know in the back of my head that I should be striving for a regular, full sleep cycle.

You need sleep to be healthy. You need to be healthy to write at your best. Simple as that.

Now on the the easier but less-popular thing: Exercise.

Look, as I said before, you don’t need to look like one of the adventurers you write about. But you should be healthy. Studies have shown that regular exercise, especially cardio, is conducive to a healthier mind. The blood flow to the brain is increased, resulting in more oxygen for those starved brain cells. It’s been shown to stimulate memory and reasoning as well as improve the speed of thought.

All of these are good things, especially if you’re sitting down and trying to puzzle out a character or a plot point.

And it takes as little as twenty minutes for there to be a positive effect on your mind as well. Twenty-minutes of a heart-rate at low or high cardio levels.

That’s a pretty good time trade off, even if you factor in showering or the like afterwards.

And the best part is? It’s easy to do if you just find something you enjoy. Running. Biking. Hiking. Rowing. Swimming. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it makes your body move and it gets your heart pounding.

If it helps, think of it like a “flush” for your system. You get the blood moving, and that blood cleans out all the crud that’s settled to the bottom of your brain. You do that a couple of times a week (at least three, but more is better) to clean everything out, and when you sit down at a keyboard, you’ll find that post-workout, your mind is sharper, clearer, and ready to write.

Of course, that’s not all you need to think about. And before you panic, I’m not about to offload some crazy, meatless abomination of a diet plan upon you. All I’m going to say is that in conjunction with your cardio … watch what you eat.

Look, to go with the old, simple principle your parents may have been taught … Garbage in, garbage out. That blood that pumps through your veins that your brain depends on? Well it’s full of nutrients and chemicals, a good chunk of which come from your food. Your body works pretty well to filter out the ones that it needs … but it can only do so much with what you give it. And what you do give it can actually have an interesting number of effects on your mood, emotions, and mental state. Given that you want to keep your brain at peak condition to be writing at your best, paying attention to what you eat is both a simple and easy way to give yourself a little extra edge.

Now I’m not advocating giving up pizza or donuts. You don’t need to adopt an all-green diet, a glutenless diet, or anything else extreme. Just keep an eye on what you eat and aim for being a bit healthy. Consider the fats, oils, proteins, and the like, and work from there.

It’s a little thing, but it matters, especially when combined with everything else.

Oh, and stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water. Not Gatorade, booze, or soda. Water. Urine should be, on average, clear. Not yellow.

Posture and Carpal Tunnel
Right, now one that most of you probably expected (and is what’s most frequently brought up when health does come up at a writing convention): posture and the ever-present threat of carpal tunnel injury.

This one can be devastating. You can fix being out of shape. You can get more sleep. But if you ruin your wrists so that you can’t move your hands without feeling pain? You’re going to need surgery. Expensive surgery. And it still might never be the same.

Thankfully, all of this is preventable if you take care of yourself.

First of all, keep an eye on your posture. Not just your wrists, mind you, though remember that carpal tunnel is a form of aggravated repetitive motion injury (wherein you repeat the same motion over and over again until you’ve worn out something that needed a break). But your back, shoulders, stomach, and the like. Make sure you’re sitting at a proper height that doesn’t leave your arms and shoulders in twisted positions that are going to lock your muscles up. Check your chair to make sure it’s not contributing to the problem, but helping. Height matters, as does distance.

You probably won’t end up looking exactly like those terrible “correct posture” cliparts you used to see in high-school, but you should find a position that’s both comfortable to hold for some time and easy to write in.

Second, make sure you’re keeping your hands from being locked into a position for a long period of time, even a comfortable one. Keep your fingers limber, and do something else every so often. Look up anti-carpal tunnel stretches and try them every so often. Consider where your fingers want to be with where your keyboard forces them to be; you might want a new one that’s easier on your hands (you get what you pay for; a $10 keyboard will work, but a $70 one can be a dream to type on).

Also, even though you’re going to be sitting for hours at a time … don’t. Get up every half hour or so to get a sip of water and take a short walk around. Stretch your legs out and keep the blood moving. Even if you don’t feel like you need it. Just a quick walk around the room will keep your body in a more active state and keep the blood flowing.

Staying Healthy
Now, maybe taken all together these constitute some significant lifestyle changes for you. Then again, maybe they don’t. But whichever it is, I’d still encourage writers everywhere to adopt them in some spectra. If you’re at all serious about your writing being the best it can possibly be, then keeping your body in good straights will help keep your mind in good straights. Which will in turn keep your writing at its peak.

Granted, it’s a lot to keep track of. Sleep is hard to come by for some. As is exercise, or a healthy diet.

So don’t try to change all at once. Start small, work your way up (the best place may be posture and the like, plus sleep). But do start.

Live healthy, keep your mind sharp, and keep writing.

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