Getting Started: Building the Emergent Writer
When I was in high school, I went through a radical transformation in my Junior year. Until then, I'd been a starting player on the varsity basketball team and football team, and I loved spending time in the weight room and running on the track that wrapped around our perpetually muddy football field. But at some point that year I fell in love with Nirvana (not to age myself, but it was the nineties), Hunter S. Thompson, and marijuana, and on one cold November day I decided to quit sports, grow my hair, and focus on being an artist.
I don't regret anything about that, really, although I no longer have long hair, I don't smoke marijuana, and I'm not that into people who kill themselves. But there was a long period of time where I was not doing anything to further myself as an artist or to take care of my body, and as a result, I reached the age of thirty-seven with a big pot belly, skinny arms, and the inability to climb a flight of stairs without getting winded. On top of that, I was stuck in a dead end job in a brutal restaurant industry that only just provided me with the bare minimum income for survival. I had fallen victim to a poisonous belief that I now intend to shed light on, which is the tragically wrong idea that the worlds of art and of physical fitness are inherently at odds with each other and mutually exclusive, and as a result, I had found myself cast far outside of both worlds.
What I've learned, and what this article and many more to come will be about, is that being a writer (or any type of artist) is not just not diametrically opposed to being physically fit, but can in fact be materially aided by it. Our brains are our primary instruments, and whether we like it or not, they are linked to a whole system of nutrients, hormones, endogenous chemicals and processes that operate as an emergent system. You can't have a healthy, optimized brain and also have a run-down, toxic body. You might be able to squeeze some pretty decent work out of such a mind/body (and many great artists have), but I'd like to encourage you to imagine what would happen if you were operating with a clockwork system that ran like an Italian sports car.
At thirty-seven, I quit smoking cigarettes and marijuana, I quit drinking alcohol and syrupy soft drinks, and I started taking care of every aspect of my physical health. I took on a regular schedule of running, weight training (which has been hampered by COVID-19, and later I'll have some posts dealing with that exact topic), rock climbing (I don't think everyone should climb specifically, but a good exercise that engages your whole body and forces you to think spatially and focus for brief, intense periods is pretty important), and also started a regimen of intermittent fasting, eating a targeted ketogenic diet, utilizing saunas and cryotherapy, and supplementing with things like Ashwaganda root and acetylcholine. In addition, I also developed a regular practice of mediation and a kind of practical spirituality that does not rely on ancient texts or imaginary deities, but on an actionable plan of living based on principles and scientific theory.
I didn't do all of this at once, of course, and as this blog develops, I will attempt to demonstrate how to ease into this kind of dynamic lifestyle. Certainly one of the best ways to ensure that you don't stick with it is to overdo everything all at once, right from the beginning. This almost invariably leads to burn-out, and in short order. I'm not sure that there is a specific order in which to begin implementing these lifestyle changes, but there are definitely certain things that are easier to start doing right away than others.
And I'm not going to try to convince anyone to follow the exact regimen of exercise and nutrition that I follow, or especially to adopt my hokey spirituality. But I do believe that I have acquired in my years of doing this an outline of possible ways to address the very real connection that exists between our minds and our bodies in order to help you get the absolute most out of your brain and create the best work you possibly can. I only intend to give you the outline, the rough sketch, and the know-how to take what works for you and create a balance that fits your lifestyle and your work needs. Nothing here will be prescriptive. Just a purely informative source of hopefully fun-to-read articles about what has worked for me, and ideas about how you might fill in the sketch for yourself that can work for you.
I will also be exploring the difficult nature of time management as it relates to this mind/body relationship, because it hinges on and is affected by our work/life relationship. For most of us, being a writer means being a writer and a cook, or a server, or even a real estate tycoon or software developer. It can seem impossible to find the time to write, work a job, and take care of your body, and honestly this is one of the most difficult aspects of my life as well and something I am always working on. But together we'll explore these things and create healthier emergent writers.
Does this mean that I think you need to quit all those wonderful vices that so many writers enjoy as a matter of course, or totally abandon your self-image for a completely new one? Not necessarily. But you might find, as I did, that you feel better without some of those vices, and your work reflects a calmer mind and a more intentional auteur that naturally causes your self-image to evolve. You may also find that scaling back on some of these vices makes it easier to achieve that work/life balance as well as optimize the mind/body connection.
The benefits I've received from pursuing these relationships of duality have been as varied as looking better naked, having greater stamina for intense cognitive work (and for other things), a better self-image and the higher confidence that goes with it, and even a new and more ambitious level of personal drive. I'm now a writer who writes, and not just a person who talks about writing. I may again find myself working a cook line in a restaurant to make ends meet during hard financial times, but I will not again mistake that for who I am, or let myself get stuck in that role and forget that I am, at my very core, a writer. And that is at least partly due to the fact that I have developed a body and a mind that are optimized for writing.
Some of you may already take pretty good care of yourselves, while others may be more lacking in this particular type of self-care, and as such I will try to offer a broad range of articles for people at all stages of physical fitness. To start off with in this first post, I want to simply offer a very brief and simple tip that you can use whether you are a couch potato with low energy or a go-getter with a six-pack who just wants to learn how to boost cognitive function for better writing.
The simplest thing you can do to get started toward a more streamlined brain/body connection is to take a walk before you start writing. I know this sounds overly simplistic, but the fact is that the benefits of going for walks of a mile or more (I find that four to five miles is optimal for me) as a part of your writing routine will show up in your work almost immediately, and will cut down the amount of time you actually spend working. When I walk, I don't have to set out with the specific intention of sorting out my thoughts about what I will write when I return, because it naturally happens on its own, as if my brain were running a creative writing program in the background that I didn't even need to actively engage with. When I return to my workspace, the pages stack up quickly, and before I know it, I've reached my daily writing goal or even surpassed it, often in less total time, including the walk, than I might have otherwise.
Part of this, I'm sure, has to do with getting blood flowing, although I'm not a doctor and have no medical education, so to claim that this is the specific mechanism at work would be dishonest. I just don't know. But I think a bigger part of this has to do with developing a routine and queuing your mind/body in to the fact that you're preparing to work. And for this reason, although unfortunately this can't always be the case for my tips, I think this one will work for those who are differently-abled as well (I will always welcome feedback on how to be more inclusive in my posts for those with different physical capabilities than my own; see my contact page if you would like your comment to be kept private). The act of getting out of the house and seeing new things is probably more important here than any physiological component of it.
In fact, here is an article that clearly shows the link between travel and mental health, but I posit that you don't need to leave your state, or even your city, to get the same benefits (and let's be honest, travel has an income threshold; I want to keep my tips and strategies in reach for everyone, not just those with disposable income). Just being around a new environment, even in the same climate, and even if you don't have to drive to get there, will stimulate your brain.
So get out there, explore a new area of your neighborhood, city, or even the woods behind your house, and then get home and write! I think you'll really like the result. Happy writing!!!
Keep your eyes on this space for more specific tips and strategies for how to take care of the most important tool of your craft; your brain and the body it is inextricably linked to and dependent on. I'll also continue to post in my other category, also available from the home page. There you'll find my short stories and updates on my current work in progress: a horror/noir novel called The Octopus about an injured war vet and the interdimensional cosmic octopus that haunts his dreams and forces him to witness brutal murders through the eyes of the victims as it seeks the one soul it desires above all others; his.