The Care and Feeding of a Writer


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[tweetmeme]One of the most common traits I’ve noticed in writers is that they tend to treat themselves like crap.

While lots of us pay lip-service to the importance of living the life of the bacchanal or of embodying duende, most of the writers I know seem to lead somewhat stale, anemic lives that do not involve quaffing large amounts of claret or reading snatches of Byron or Baudelaire at awkward, inappropriate moments (1).  Nor do we follow our hearts and spend a year writing in the wilds of Provence or on the beaches of the Algarve.

No, most writers I know wind up on the outskirts of some big, dirty city of industry teaching the children of privilege at three different institutions—none of which can afford to give health insurance (2).

And we rent apartments that we furnish sparsely with flea market finds, Swedish particleboard bookcases, and piles of dreadful student essays whose only interesting gesture is the inadvertent transposition of “public” into “pubic” more than 25 times in the same paper.   And our regular, nightly companion?  A screechy cat on antidepressants hell-bent on giving itself a Brazilian (3).

Sound familiar?

So what’s wrong with this picture?  Well . . . apart from absolutely everything . . . what is most wrong with this picture is the critical assumption that often flows forth from the mind of the writer who has ensconced herself in such unpleasant surroundings:  the assumption that she has writer’s block and cannot, therefore, write.

You see, as any normative member of the human race—that is, someone outside an English department or the poverty-stricken world of “the humanities”—would immediately recognize, Shakespeare himself would not be able to write in that demoralizing, debilitating situation.

And yet somehow, those of us who grew up loving books and leather-bound journals more than our pet guinea pigs still willingly keep placing ourselves back in that anhydrous situation only to discover that, when it comes time to write, the well is dry and we don’t feel like writing.

Quelle fucking surprise!

So what’s a writer, newly awakened to the horror of her own situation, to do?  How does she prime the pump?

Here’s my koan-like answer:  she takes better care of herself and lets it happen naturally.

Right.  Horseshit!

No, really, it makes more sense than you realize.   Do a little gedanken with me . . .

Think of everything you do and experience in your life as a kind of “food” that your mind uses to write.  The more palatable and higher the quality of food you ingest—both literally and metaphorically—the better your writing is and the less depleted your system feels.  The mantra known to both the nutritional and computational sciences seems screamingly obvious here:  garbage in means garbage out.  So, the reverse must be true, right?

My contention is this:  as writers, we need to be well-fed and fattened up with interesting calories that we can burn; otherwise, we just end up leaching out all of our own calcium when we give our little writing baby the tit.

And, if we do nothing but grade sub-par, semi-literate student essays in a drab apartment seven days a week, we’ve really done nothing more than empty the larder and punish ourselves with a constipatory diet of rice cakes and peanut butter. (4)

If you want to write, you need to take decent care of your system and vary that insipid diet.  You need to live somewhere you find pleasant and inspiring.  And you need to have some fun that involves cool shit, mind-stretching events, and honest-to-god enjoyment.

Some Tips on How to “Eat Well” as a Writer:

1.     Don’t feel bad about being good to yourself. This can be applied to something simple like getting a massage, going to sleep at a reasonable hour each night, or fucking a gorgeous younger man in your department.  As a writer, you need to make sure you feed yourself in an inversely proportionate manner to the amount of crap you’ve had to take in during your “day job.”  So, if you’ve just graded the latest set of drafts in a batch of 60, make sure to set the balance right and fuck him all night long.

2.     Read other writers for pleasure—not for comparison. Don’t pay attention to the reviews—those can be bought.  Skip over that annoying glam shot of the author that just makes her look pissed, pretentious, and precocious.  Rip out that little insipid roster of praise—the “acknowledgments” page that just tallies, as near as I can tell, the number of famous people they had to sleep with in order to get published or win that contest.  And then when you’ve done all that, you should just indulge, soak in, and absolutely enjoy the fresh beauty of those genius words for themselves.  Be inspired by them and know that there are plenty more words to spare in this universe—so many, in fact, that you don’t need to feel jealous about their awesomeness.

3.     Don’t beat yourself up for not making it big by your 30s. Think about it:  when was the last time you cracked open a volume published out of The Yale Younger Poets Series and actually read it for fun?  No, there are only two reasons to pick up such a volume:  1)  you want to flog yourself for being a fuck up or 2) because you, yourself, have been represented within its pages and want to stroke your own ego.  Really, for the life of me, I can’t figure out why those kinds of categories exist except to thin out herd of writers by inspiring exponential waves of hari kari.  I mean, honestly, who the fuck cares how old you are?  Age only matters when it comes to sex—and even then it’s just to make sure you haven’t violated those numbers that might land your ass in jail.

4.    Figure out what your writing process is. Spend some time getting acquainted with the way you really write—not the way you think you should be writing.  As I have found out, these often tend to be two quite very different processes.  And usually, for most of us, it’s “the way you should be writing” that contributes itself the most wholeheartedly to the formation of writer’s block.  So figure out what makes your process work and honor it—even if it means you have to wash that pair of lucky underwear seven times a week.  Learn to love the feel of writing and develop your own signature style—even if you think its corny, ugly, and not likely to get a dance partner at the next square dance.  Just do it and enjoy it.  Not everything written needs to be written for publication—indeed, most of what’s written for publication doesn’t ever succeed in getting published.  So, have some fun with it and stop thinking about the piece’s final destination.

5.     Make choices that support, not emasculate, your writing process. Often, these choices happen before you sit down to write and usually involve renting a set of cajones so that you can tell your beloved or significant others that, while they are super- important to you, the trimming of their hangnails will just have to wait while until you are done writing.

6.     Think of your writing life as a “battery” and turn off all the unimportant shit that drains it. This piece of advice is a corollary to statement #5.  It means that you, yourself, have to learn how to maintain your own boundaries around your writing time and not, say, schedule your OB/GYN visit, make a five-course meal, do a Costco run, or trim your own fucking hangnails during the appointed hour.  This is often much harder to do than merely renting a set and telling other people to back off.

7.     Be willing to cobble together a lifestyle that supports your writing dream. Writers can be really good at keeping themselves too busy to write.  Don’t be one of them.  Being a writer means saying “no” to a lot of shit.  Even Stephen King, the most prolific guy alive, would have a hard time balancing four kids, a volunteer gig at the Alzheimer’s ward every second Friday, and  an MLM biz that hawked vibrators out of his basement (5).  Plan your life around the one you want to have, then do it.

8.  Say “yes” to the really cool shit that will feed you as a writer. Be willing to seek out the new, the strange, the bizarre, and the incredible and just experience them.  Don’t think you have to write about everything you see, think, or do.  Sometimes it’s enough to just let go and be in the flow of things.



(1) Unless, of course, they’re still in graduate school living the literary dream on their parents’ coffers.

(2) Even though they can always afford to build new sports facilities.  To be honest and fair, I have a terrific job now—replete with health insurance benefits at a substantial remove from the “road kill” policy I had at my last gig—and this makes my look backward even more sobering as I begin to intuit just how sad that situation really was.

(3) Actually, this was me, ca. 2005, and I should probably let my now-dead cat’s odd fetishes rest in peace.  A shout-out to my friend Carol Quinn for the unforgetable “pubic” anecdote.  (And, yes, it is totally annoying when people who have no “peeps” nor know what “shouting out” might mean use that phrase.)

(4) This is actually based on a true story told to me by my good friend, Tim Gulden.  Tim recounted a legendary tale of a fellow Sarah Lawrence undergrad who, brilliant hacker that he was, was diagnosed with the only case of scurvy the U.S. had seen in decades after he spent several months in a darkened dorm room eating nothing but Doritos and Pepsi and creating one of the first-ever word processing programs.  Hard to hate a genius who was that intense, right?

(5) No disrespect to the “Life is Good” folks, but I think they’d be a far more honest company if their T-shirts all read, “Life is Short.”