The Wellness of the Writer: Is It Genre-Based?

Since mid-March, I’ve been fighting illness after illness–colds, a flu, hacking coughs, interminable sore throats, you name it. No matter how hard I try to get better, I pick up the next round of whatever’s going around and do my part by breathing life into its nasty, persistent existence.

Even my computer–my Mac!–caught some kind of bug last week, and I had to do a full reformat to rid it of its germs.

If only it were so easy when we were ill, eh?

There’s no doubt that the time I’ve spent trying to nurse myself back to good health has taken a toll on my writing. I’m looking for more time to sleep, not write. More time to grade papers during the day, not at night. More time to keep the river flowing in all aspects of my life so that it doesn’t build, become stressful, and contribute even more to my compromised immune system.

What I have written, though, has been a darker, more poetic side of me.

I’m at Red Robin, sitting at the bar waiting for them to complete my to-go order, when I open my daybook and write this:

I lick my fingertips and granules of love slip to my cheek like crack,

An illusion of perfection.

This–all of this–is mine:

The prize, the bell around my neck, and the flowers on the floor–

Salt dissolves and the gums go dry.

I awaken to the clamoring of dishes in some far-off kitchen,

Where busboys dream of sex after the last customer leaves. . .

That’s just not the kind of stuff that I write. A product of being sick? The medications I’m taking to combat the red eyes and the stuffy noses?

For the record, Benadryl is just about the hardest “drug” that’s been in my system in 20 years. I don’t drink, either, unless you tally the occasional Guinness that I enjoy, oh, about once a month. I’ve always believed (corny alert! Beware!!!) that I can get my highs out of life; to rely on drugs or alcohol to transcend is, in my belief, the wrong way to get that Rocky Mountain high.

Okay. Off soapbox.

Here’s my point. I teach writing. I study the lives of other writers, past and present. One of the questions that has been frequenting my thoughts lately is the wellness of the writer. As I mentioned, I cannot deny that my being sick has slowed my writing. Philip Gerard, creative nonfiction guru and author of many books, including Secret Soldiers, stresses the importance of being in shape when you write. He compares writing a book to running a marathon. You have to be in top shape and show up every day, ready to play your hardest.

He’s a nonfiction writer. I hear the same strategy from countless others who write true stories.
Then I study the lives of fiction and poetry writers, and I see a slightly different pattern. Historically, writers like Poe and Kesey have turned to various life-altering drugs when they have written. Many singers/songwriters follow the same lifestyle, where performers like James Taylor have battled heroin addictions in their attempts to manage the pace of their lives and dig down deeper to get the lyrics that connect with their audience.

I know. As many drug-taking performers that I can list here, you can name two clean poets who have made it through the back-alley poetry slams to have their words heard to a much larger audience.

Still, I don’t know many nonfiction writers who dip in the doozy to find the right words, strike the right mood, describe the final conflict. I do know plenty of fiction writers and poets, though, who say they can’t put the words on the paper with a little help from their pseudo-friends…

Given the choice, I’ll train to run the marathon. Gerard puts a bottle of high-end bubbly in the fridge for when he crosses the finish line. Interesting that the booze comes after the journey.

I’m with him. Even writing the fiction works that I’m currently doing, I can’t imagine composing a single line without having the clarity and vision of a sea captain when it’s time to weather an oncoming storm. My Benadryl-induced poetry of crack-like salt crystals on a Red Robin bar are interesting, but little else.

I think I’ll take two Motrin and see my muse in an hour. Anybody seen my running shoes?

4 thoughts on “The Wellness of the Writer: Is It Genre-Based?

  1. Thank you for this post. So many of my writer friends have talked about drugs/drink or on another part of the writing spectrum not taking drugs for severe mental illnesses because these meds kill their creativity. I have no answers, but musing along with you is interesting. Thanks.

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  2. Interesting Post. It has been said that Stephen King, the great horror novelist writes in a dark room with four cuban cigars lit in each corner. Perhaps it’s just his silly little ritual, or maybe it really does help.

    I am not one to condone drugs or alcohol, for I am not one to partake in such novelties, but there may be something to it.

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  3. I liked your poem very much. But I agree it doesn’t sound like you; then again, I don’t think I’ve read your poetry before.
    I like to sip on red wine in the evening, but when I am writing I am very conscious of when it affects me and then I stop. I can’t write under the influence at all.
    Even without being sick, I’m struggling to find time to write. I hope you’re feeling better soon.

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  4. I have to admit that I like the drug-induced Red Robin poetry. Dark and fun, just the way I like it. Though the only writing I really do is on my blog I find that I like what I produce better when I somehow get into that groove where I feel almost as if I am slightly buzzed…everything flows better then. I haven’t tried to actually induce that state, however.

    A piece of advice, don’t be licking your computer when you’re ill. That is how you pass on viruses. I hope you, and your Mac, are all better now.

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