Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The head has a body

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Norman Mailer

As Blaise Pascal notes, a man is a thinking reed, the most fragile creature in all of nature, and an author is something even stranger: a reed that spends much of its time writing about the actions of other, imaginary reeds. We tend to think of writers as intellectual beings, but an author’s eyes and brain are inextricably tethered to the body, which often has a surprising degree of influence on the work itself. Writing is an intensely physical activity, like playing chess, and I burn a lot of calories in the process: my weight often drops during a first draft, then goes up again in the rewrite, which is when the manuscript itself tends to slim down. (Stephen King says that you should cut ten percent from any first draft, and I sometimes wonder if the missing material just ends up assimilated into the writer’s gut.) These days, the physical effects are even more striking. With a baby in the house, I’ve been getting up earlier than usual, and my writing process is more intermittent but very intense—when Beatrix goes down for a nap, I don’t know if I’ll have twenty minutes or two hours, so I tend to write with one eye constantly on the clock. As a result, I haven’t been this thin since college.

It’s been known for a long time, of course, that brain work is a very real thing. The brain consumes about twenty percent of the body’s energy at any given time, and that’s independent of any actual thinking: it’s more or less the same whether you’re writing War and Peace, killing time on Reddit, or, as is the case for most writers, alternating between the two. But writing isn’t just about the brain alone. Most of the sympathetic nervous system gets into the action as well, since you’re either sweating over a plot problem, caught up in your character’s struggles, or beating yourself up over an intractable page. (This doesn’t even account for the larger stresses of a writer’s uncertain existence, the endless worries over sales, reviews, and editorial notes that serve as a kind of perpetual drumbeat to the melody of the writing life.) It’s something like sitting down for a game of chess that lasts for forty years, and it takes a toll on the body as much as the mind. As the writer May Sarton has memorably observed: “Writing a novel is like taking an examination on which your whole future depends.” And we all know how exhausting an exam can be.

George R.R. Martin

There are more immediate physical issues as well. I’ve spoken at length about my own back problems, which arose soon after I wrote eight hundred pages of an epic manuscript while seated on a couch in my old apartment. They’ve never gone away entirely, but these days, they’ve settled into a chronic but manageable undertone, and I’d imagine that there are few authors who don’t suffer to some extent from back trouble. Keeping the body in line is one of the unstated but crucial aspects of the writer’s routine: it’s why alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine abuse is so endemic among novelists, and why a good diet is so important. Weight gain, interestingly, doesn’t seem to be quite as serious an issue, at least among authors of prose fiction. Based on no scientific evidence whatsoever, I’d guess that novelists tend to lose weight while television writers tend to gain it, which only reflects the difference between a career for which the term “starving artist” was more or less coined and one in which you at least get a free lunch every day. And our heaviest writers, like George R.R. Martin, are often ones who started in one world and crossed over into the other.

In short, when writers describe themselves as athletes, it isn’t entirely a fantasy. In his unforgettable essay “The Last Draft of The Deer Park,” Norman Mailer writes:

When it was a matter of strength I had as much as the next man. In those days I would spend time reminding myself that I had been a bit of an athlete (house football at Harvard, years of skiing), that I had not quit in combat, and once when a gang broke up a party in my loft, I had taken two cracks in the head with a hammer and had still been able to fight…

Yet Mailer, too, suffered from fatigue, and he found himself depending equally on marijuana and Benzedrine for one bad period. (Benzedrine seems to have fallen out of fashion, but it was the drug of choice for writers from Jack Kerouac to Ayn Rand.) Having the kind of career in which you can publish a novel a year for four decades is as much an endurance test of the body as of the spirit, and drugs and alcohol have the same debilitating effect over the long term as they would for any profession in which physical strength is required. The solution, boringly enough, is to treat the body as you would any other tool, and to keep it fueled with diet and exercise as much as you nourish your brain with books and ideas. Because while imagination alone can make a novelist, it’s the body and mind, working in tandem, that make novels.

Written by nevalalee

May 3, 2013 at 8:41 am

2 Responses

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  1. I admit I’ll look forward to the point where a first draft means weight loss. Right now the writing is just blended into the rest of my admittedly sedimentary lifestyle, which is something I need to change.

    I very much feel your pain about the back troubles though.

    Jenn Lyons

    May 3, 2013 at 9:35 am

  2. To be honest, the weight loss may have more to do with the baby than the novel. But it’s hard to tell them apart at this point.


    May 3, 2013 at 10:32 am

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