Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

In sickness and in health

with one comment

David Mamet

As I write this blog post, I’m running on fumes. Last week, I delivered a novel to my agent for notes and promptly got sick, pretty much as I predicted I would. It was the climax of a fairly intense process that involved churning out most of a 75,000-word manuscript in something like six months, on top of child care and what felt like a summer of nonstop social commitments, and in the end, my body just gave out. (If I haven’t talked about it much here, it’s because I still hold onto the superstition about avoiding any mention of work in progress, and I’m only bringing it up now because I’m done with the first draft.) As it happens, my daughter got sick at around the same time, and although I can’t be sure who came down with what first, I have the feeling that I just no longer had any energy to fend off those baby germs. It’s also possible that I’ve been on the verge of coming down with something anyway, and I managed to push it away for long enough to lock down that last page.

And I’m not alone. Anecdotally, there’s a lot of evidence that writers and creative types tend to come down with something shortly after finishing a project. David Mamet tells this story about the filming of House of Games:

We finished shooting the movie on time and under budget in mid-August. I went home happy as a clam and immediately got as sick as I’ve ever been in my life. I couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks, didn’t eat a thing, and sweated the whole time. Sidney Lumet called to welcome us back. “How did the film go?” he asked my wife. She told him. “How’s David,” he said, “is he sick yet?”

Which shouldn’t be surprising. One of the underappreciated challenges of directing a movie is how physically demanding it is: you’re up at all hours, overseeing night shoots or camping out in the editing bay after the day’s filming is done, while constantly being asked to make decisions about what kind of coffee cup a character holds in a particular scene. Occasionally, you’ll hear reports of a director suffering a breakdown halfway through production, but the really surprising thing is that it doesn’t happen more often.

Walter Murch

Then again, successful movie directors make up a select group, and if you didn’t already have the aptitude for the job’s mental and physical requirements, you’d have been weeded out long before. Walter Murch likes to say that a film editor needs a strong back and arms: if a minute of celluloid weighs a pound, the footage for a movie like Apocalypse Now amounts to something like seven tons. With modern digital tools, that’s no longer the case, but the reserves of patience, discipline, and attentiveness it requires are no different. It’s a little like playing chess, which requires exceptional levels of physical fitness in order to compete on the highest levels. Writing a novel or editing a movie sometimes feel like playing chess against an opponent of infinite stamina and perversity, and you’re figuring out the rules of the game as you go along. It’s no wonder, then, that it leaves us exhausted. (For what it’s worth, this doesn’t seem to be a purely physiological reaction: the brain sucks up a lot of energy at all times, and when we’re engaged in sustained intellectual activity, it uses a little more, but not a lot.)

But it’s also possible that the body is simply enforcing a break. Prolonged brainwork may not burn as many calories as we’d like to think, but it consumes something less tangible. We’ve all been blessed with finite amounts of ingenuity, imagination, and meticulousness, and with any project, we eventually reach a point of diminishing returns, when we can barely even see the words on the page, much less revise them in useful ways. When we hit a wall, it may be less of a sign that our limits have been reached than a precautionary measure that forces us, even to the point of physical incapacitation, into a temporary surrender. Professional writers like to think that they can will themselves through anything, but sometimes the material demands a pause, and if the mind isn’t willing to stop on its own, the body steps in to settle the issue. I don’t think I’ll be able to get much work done today, but maybe I shouldn’t be working anyway. Every writer knows how it feels for a story to reach out and give you what you need at that exact moment, and sometimes it only wants you to take a step back. So you’ve got no choice but to take your DayQuil, and when you’re ready for it, the work will still be there, pleased to welcome you back in your right mind.

Written by nevalalee

September 29, 2014 at 9:37 am

One Response

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. As a recently published author, I totally agree. :)


    September 29, 2014 at 9:39 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: