Most writers understand the importance of an external support network. We realize how critical the encouragement of our loved ones and the honest criticism of our trusted readers can be. But despite how much time we spend in our inner worlds, I think many of us fail to truly appreciate the benefit of a strong internal support network – those private practices and structures we establish to complement and strengthen our writing work.
At the most basic level, an internal support network is an agreement you come to with yourself to skip the self-directed trash talk long enough to get a few words down on paper. This is hard for many of us most of the time, and shouldn’t be undermined. But there really is so much more. And when you take advantage of it, you might notice a remarkable and incidental reduction in the impulse toward self-directed trash talk. In other words, if you practice preventative creative mental health care, you are less likely to fall victim to your own invented diseases.
One practice I fell into early on that I return to again and again is that of engaging in complementary artistic work – an act that’s particularly helpful when I’m taking my writing a bit too seriously. It can feel like playing hooky to paint or sing or learn to play the banjo when your novel is stalled, but nothing could be further from the truth. Oftentimes, the stall comes from our failure to release the work to our better creative selves, the ones that know how to play and design and get out of their own way; when we engage them otherwise, that engagement spills back over into the parched writing world and floods it with color.
Another is to practice the kind of paying attention and care we want for our writing in our actual lives. It makes sense that we won’t get much development or color on the page if we’re not developing or adding color to our own lives – and to the lives of those around us – but we often follow through on the truth of this simple connection. Maybe volunteering regularly or asking your kids what they really think about their homework or visiting your aging grandparent might not feel like writing work, but it is. A life half-lived will cut your writing off at the knees.
And while many of us are guilty of unconsciously drawing divisive lines between the mind and the body, those of us who spend a lot of time in our heads tend to be even more guilty of enforcing this false dichotomy. We tend to neglect the expansiveness and care and potential of the body, as if these things have nothing whatsoever to do with how flexible and facile our minds can be. So while few of us are likely to become Ironwomen, to paraphrase the mighty Theodore Weisel, if you have feet on your legs and air in your lungs, use them. They’ll get you quite far indeed, and there’s no telling what your mind might notice along the way.
Even if you’re skeptical and think you can get along just fine with your exhausted mind and collapsed spine and frayed relationships, thank you very much, take a week or a month or a year to play with the idea of caring for them as a way of caring for your writing anyway. You might be surprised, as I was, to learn that while a richer and more balanced life might seem like it takes time away from your writing, it actually enriches your writing resources tenfold, so that fifteen minutes of work might get you much further than a few hours did before.
Art: Albert Koetsier, Ginko