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Refilling the Well

Photo by Sterling Morris: https://unsplash.com/@sterlingrmorris

I didn’t write much this weekend—too busy taking care of myself and my health, refilling the well of my energy so that I can write better than ever when I return to it tomorrow.

This is important to remember. The work will be there when you’re ready to get back to it. But if you regularly sacrifice your health, mental or physical, in order to bust out some words or push through a wall, eventually you will pay for it.

I’ve seen writers mentally snap and quit writing altogether to go back to manual labor jobs.

I’ve seen writers gain twenty pounds in a month because they pushed on when they shouldn’t have.

I’ve seen writers get carpal tunnel syndrome, back problems (I deal with these myself), and heart problems.

But the truth is that your health is a PREREQUISITE to writing. You can’t work well or at all without your health, so your health must comes first, always.

I began my journey as a professional writer about six years ago, and have made either part or all of my living as a writer since then. And one pattern I’ve noticed over time is that the Well of Inspiration eventually runs dry. It can’t be avoided.

When you’re just starting out, though, it’s hard to tell when you run dry because it feels just like any other blocker.

First, you think you just need another cup of coffee.

Next, you think maybe it’s a story problem. You go back to the concept; or you read through again, searching for the thread.

Then you open Facebook or Twitter and scroll through the endless feed, hoping to distract yourself, and that the inspiration will come back to you. Eventually, after staring at the screen for so many hours, you have to give up for the day.

The true test, of course, is when you come back to it the next day.  Finally, you look at the blank page and feel that blankness echoed in your own mind.

Your well is empty. Time to take a couple days off and do the things that refresh and energize you.

For me, those things are to read for pleasure, go hiking in the woods with the dog, play Tak with friends, attend a sketch comedy show at a local theater, and visit to a winery in the Texas Hill Country.

It can be very difficult to take the time you need—especially if you’re on a tight deadline. I told Shelly yesterday that since I have trained myself for years now to write every single day, taking a whole day off makes me feel like a worthless slug.

I am reminded of a scene from Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Roark, the brilliant young architect, is a sort of ubermensch character. He has an enormous capacity and energy for work, and of course he is an artist in his field. But what struck me most was the scene near the end of the book where the newspaper mogul Gail Wynand brings Roark on a months-long cruise on his expensive yacht. Wynand is testing Roark—hoping to see the young architect crack under the pressure of not being able to work. Hoping to see him break.

But Roark manages to lounge in the sun, to be a completely lazy slug, with the same commitment he gives his work. Howard Roark tells Wynand:

“I’m not running away from my work, if that’s what surprises you. I know when to stop—and I can’t stop, unless it’s completely. I know I’ve overdone it. I’ve been wasting too much paper lately and doing awful stuff.”

And on the yacht, Rand writes of her hero: “Roark did not speak of buildings, lay for hours stretched out on deck in the sun, and loafed like an expert.”

We should all aspire to that kind of commitment on our off days. Fill your well. Read, lounge in the sun, do laundry, or just be lazy.

Do nothing with the same dedication you give to your work.

Belly Breathe

I spent the weekend in severe pain when my back problems flared up again. At one point I had a muscle spasm so bad I was laid out for a whole day.

I don’t write about my back pain very often, so I wouldn’t be surprised if this is the first time you’re hearing about it. Back pain is not a fun topic to write or talk about and I figure that I have to deal with it often enough in life that I can leave it out of my writing.

But it’s a part of my life, and I promised that I would be more honest with this blog, so today you get to read all about it.

On Monday I went to see the chiropractor/physical therapist who fixed me last time I had problems—back in the summer of 2014. I’ve been taking pretty good care of myself since then. Although, clearly, I have not healed completely.

She said that part of my problem (this time) is that I’m aggravating the muscles under my scapula—where the spasm was centered—by breathing too much with my chest and not enough with my belly. This is a bad habit I probably developed from having asthma as a kid. I lift my shoulders and chest using these back muscles when I am trying to grab a full breath.

The solution she proposed was to fix my blind spots (how I’m doing certain exercises and with which muscles)—and learn to belly breathe.

It’s worked so far. It’s only Wednesday and my pain is already down significantly from where I was 3 days ago. The muscles that spasmed are still weak and sore, but as long as I remember to belly breathe and do my exercises, I’m able to write and work and go about my day without interference.

I even went for my normal 1.5 mile walk this morning. Haven’t been able to do that since last week.

So, back pain bad, doctor good. I wish I would have had the awareness to bite this in the ass before it got really bad again, but I never can predict my breaking point. Some mundane action triggers a muscle spasm—like taking water out of the fridge or reaching down to tie my shoes—but it’s really my bad habits that are the source of the problem.

Usually, I go to the doctor until the pain is gone and then I’m on my own again. But since I’m starting to see a pattern, and habits are hard to break on your own, I’ll keep seeing the doctor until the core problem is resolved this time.

Until I learn to belly breathe naturally. Until the pain is completely gone and my core is strong and my posture is correct. I’ll have to come up with some benchmarks, but I’m getting really tired of going back to physical therapy every couple years. I can’t change the fact that I have scoliosis and an extra vertebrae and a 12 year history of back problems. But I can change how I deal with it.

So I’ll be here belly breathing if you need me.

Photo by Teddy Kelley