One of the founding goals here at The Art of Stories has always been advocating writer’s physical and mental health. No, I don’t have a program for this or any kind of special diet or system I’m selling. There are simply certain ills associated with the practice of writing that should not be considered “inevitable”, neither should they be glamorized as part of a creative identity. Some of these include addiction, anxiety, depression, dysfunctional relationships, low self-esteem, narcissism, etc.
Of course, right along with the ills that really should be treated or avoided, there are behaviors that make for a healthy personal relationship with writing. Writing is a behavior, a project, and an action. It can be a full-time occupation, or a passion, but it is not an identity. A healthy life requires far more than a single activity to satisfy the needs of a soul.
Far from being the solitary activity non-writers (or new writers) may envision, writing of any kind benefits from interaction with people. Other voices get involved in your projects via critique groups, workshops, online clubs, conferences, book festivals, social reading, continuing education, and more. Social interaction can be a powerful anti-depressant, as well as a valuable network for support and professional advancement.
Alright, I’ll put away the soap box for now just to highlight a powerful resource for anyone evaluating their own relationship with writing.
There are a number of fabulous books on writing, and most will make a reference to the mental quick-sand pits creative people fall into over and over again. Some of us learn faster than others to see and avoid them and some of us pull others down with us. Misery loves company. Most of these works discuss writers’ mental and emotional issues indirectly. Some jokingly tell readers to get an early start on their alcoholism because the writing life is miserable. Sadly, this last approach was the one taken by the head of the Creative Writing department at my university and he made that point to a room full of impressionable college freshmen. I watched many take that route.
One book, however, of the many so far discussed on this blog, approaches the topic of a writer’s mental and emotional relationship with their work openly and with purpose. If you have not yet made time to read Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird, please do. While the whole book is excellent, colorful, and rich in truthful language, anyone interested in evaluating their relationship with their craft should soak in Part Two: The Writing Frame of Mind. This center section includes five chapters. Each addresses a particular way writing connects to our mental/emotional state.
“Looking Around” – Looking at the title for this section “The Writing Frame of Mind”, this first chapter describes a healthy, inclusive approach to the world that feeds into inspiration rather than resentment. Wonder, though she shies from the cliché term, is the name of the game here. Mindfulness and sincere wonder in everything naturally breeds curiosity and expression.
“The Moral Point of View” – This chapter explores writing as an exploration and expression of whatever truth the writer knows or needs to investigate with the story. Truth, as she describes it, is a relative and complex thing. Ambiguity isn’t a bad thing, especially as writing allows us to explore in story how a single concept is distributed, distorted, and developed in real life.
“Broccoli” – Anne Lamott has a gift for analogy, and the title of this chapter comes from a wonderful one. I won’t spoil it here because it’s a wonderful read. She addresses sources of writer’s block, aids for inspiration, and a discovery method for drafting. She’s open about the fears and stresses of getting a story on paper, validating the issues and offering simple sense for dealing with them as opposed to outside “fixes”. Her perspective is empowering and effective, but it’s no picnic to apply.
“Radio Station KFKD” – Again, a fabulous analogy. Describing it would ruin the fun. This chapter is one of my favorites because it sums up 90% of the drama within writer groups, it also describes almost all calls for attention by writers on social media. Essentially, this chapter is about the inner voices that crank up the volume to disrupt you every time you sit down to work.
“Jealousy” – This. Seriously, this. Jealousy turns a good accomplishment into a failure in seconds, breaks down the ego while building it up in all the wrong ways, and makes instant enemies of friends who meet with success. Rather than just taking self-righteous pot-shots and advocating the position of “suck it up and deal”, her take is both validating and proactive.
Read what she has to say and make your own conclusions, but I do wish every aspiring author could read these five chapters. Really read them, digest the concepts, and do some self-work. You, the writer, are more important than anything you may ever write. Strive to write well and with purpose, but you should never allow those marks you make on a page to reduce your identity and inner health.
Read it. … That is all. Sermon over. Keep writing!
Bird By Bird – Anne Lamott