Writer’s Log, April 1: The Nervous System

Usually, when we talk about the challenges of writing, we focus exclusively on the challenges of working with words. And while I’d be the first to say that working with a medium that is both abstract and concrete (not to mention elusive and pervasive) cannot be understated, I firmly believe that the work we do with words pales in comparison to the work we have to do with our primary instrument: ourselves. To put it in simpler terms, the words usually come only after we’ve done some serious wading through our own shit. And no matter how hippy-skippy-trippy your life has been, you’re still going to need your galoshes, because a mind rich enough to want to create and communicate is going to have come out the wrong side of more than a few wackadoodle rodeos.

At the same time, writing tends to draw reflective souls, and it can be all too easy to get mired down in the stories we create about our own shit long before we even begin to set words down on paper. Believe me, I know this particular tendency all too well, having ensnared myself in more navel-gazing procrastination than I’d care to admit. I have so many delicious, slightly Victorian storylines about how I can’t get to my work because of how tragically compromised I am at the very deepest levels. But you know what? Those storylines get really boring and repetitive after a while, and I came to this work in the first place because what makes me feel alive is wondering my way through new stories, not wallowing in old ones.

So, what’s a girl to do? The trick, for me, has been to fully recognize that usually, when my mental angst is getting the better of me, it’s usually because I’ve forgotten, once again, that the nerves that are fueling all that angst are part of a nervous system. The mind, in other words, does not exist in an inorganic vacuum. This might sound relatively obvious, but it’s all too easy when you’re investing in creative and conceptual work to neglect anything that doesn’t take the form of a beautifully packaged idea. It can also be hard for those of us who might have spent our childhoods (or, say, first three decades) behind books and snacking on Devil Dogs to get up and go outside and eat something that is not first enrobed in sugar and fat before arriving on our plates. Those books and carbs are brain food, in other words, and we need to feed and care for more than our brains if we want them to function optimally.

I know, I know. It may seem self-indulgent and counterproductive to go for a walk or try to get a better night’s sleep or invest in less and higher quality food in order to jumpstart your writing, but it’s actually some of the most practical work I do. When I neglect the system that supports my mind my creative work tanks. Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way. I consider myself to have been a faithful product of my elitist New England upbringing, where I was raised to believe that it’s far more sexy and intellectual to stay up all night talking and drinking, or to be seized with so brilliant an impulse that you forget to eat and sleep and work yourself into a state of metal or physical disorder, or to sit all day within the four walls of an educational institution and spend all night behind the pages of a book in order to dedicate yourself to your craft. I faithfully lived the life of the mind, which is a nice way of saying I spent a little time writing and an inordinate amount of time worrying about how good my writing might or might not be, who might or might not read it, and how it might or might not be received.

On the other hand, what actually got me moving on my writing practice and to complete a handful of books was a far more kaleidoscopic approach to life. It involved having three children and slowly realizing two critical things: one, that I had been wasting an extraordinary amount of my precious time, and two, that I was encouraging my kids to live the kind of life I had never even considered for myself. A simpler, more obvious life. A life filled with good food and laughter and movement. A life that leads to the kind of richness my work had been begging for all along.

Art: Andrew Wyeth, Master Bedroom

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