On treating your body like garbage & writing like you’re running out of time.

journal on a bed

Listen to me read the below here:

 

This morning I drew the card Temperance from my Tarot deck. Last night I tweeted from my bed–not my work bed, which is in my office, but from the bed I share with C in the master bedroom–for much of the afternoon; I was hopelessly nauseated, with a temperature of 96.2°F, and my body flooded with chills and flushing heat; I asked people to please tweet me about good things that had happened to them that day. It did help. The writing I had hoped to accomplish did not get done, but I couldn’t worry about that, nor could I worry about the likelihood that the illness would cross over to the next day and prevent writing on that day, or the day after. Every day is a new adventure.

I’ve been told lately that I’m prolific. This is the result of a deluge of essays that I wrote in service of promoting my debut novel, The Border of Paradise–several of them came out several weeks in a row, and so I seemed prolific for that time. Part of me wants to argue that I’m not prolific–I mean, look at how sick I am most of the time. Yet the writing gets done, somehow.

But how? I sneak writing into the spaces where I feel best. Usually that’s in the early morning, but not always. If I suspect that I’ll be able to think somewhat clearly for a bit, but am not necessarily capable of sitting upright, I’ll lie in bed and tap something out on my Drafts app. I write in the bathtub. Grace Paley said that she did her best writing in the tub, by which she meant that she did her best thinking in the tub; I mean that I am literally writing in the tub, because hot water calms my chills and relieves some of my pain.

This is very different from how I wrote my novel. Perhaps it’s easy to romanticize that part of my life, but it was romantic: I sat on the couch or in an easy chair in my then-best friend’s studio apartment, and we drank pot after pot of coffee until it was time to switch to gin and tonics. These marathon stretches of writing were sometimes punctuated by her rising from the bed to grab her violin, which she’d play (beautifully) while pacing the apartment, trying to think through some kind of storytelling knot. Those were days in which we both held flagrant disregard for our bodies. We wouldn’t have admitted it, but we likely thought ourselves bulletproof, although we were both under enormous psychological strain. A year later, my friend had an inexplicable seizure that could be explained by nothing but stress.

working in a cafe

My Tarot guide states that Temperance invites moderation and balance, which are things that young people are prone to be disinterested in. I think this is even more true for young writers–at least, it seems true for ambitious young writers who, like Hamilton in the eponymous musical, “write like [they’re] running out of time every second [they’re] alive.”

I see it still with my peers, adults, who write now. They talk on Facebook about how they haven’t slept in weeks because they’re so devoted to their current project; they refer frequently to the “hustle.” I’m less likely to see the beauty in it now because I’ve become physically incapable of pushing myself in those ways. Horror of horrors–I’ve even been talking to my counselor about working on a new novel a paragraph at a time, one paragraph per day.

Another line from The Circadian Tarot: “You may be healing from recent trials, and in order to do so successfuly, you must respect the balance of Temperance.” The other card I pulled this morning–sometimes I pull one Tarot card and one oracle card–was Fear, which is depicted in the Earthbound Oracle by a hare surrounded by arrows. Sometimes I think that we rush our writing because we’re afraid of what will happen if we don’t. This is a logical fear. If I knew that I would die before fall, I’d push myself through another book–chronic illness be damned. I’d write half-delirious paragraphs while feverish. I’d dictate to Siri.

And yet writers must also be temperate. Be slow. Experience the world in order to write about it. Take care of our poor bodies, which are slowly breaking down every day, and are often treated as though they’re merely carriers for the great brain within. We’re all in a rush to write as much as we can, as well as we can, but it seems wrong for the goal to be to ravage our physical selves in service of our stories, poems, essays, and books–as if burning up our bodies for the flame is not only romantic, but ideal.

So drink a glass of water. Get a little bit more sleep. Eat something real. Of course, write. Write your heart out, of course. But not in a blaze of glory, please. Keep a steady flame.

Esmé

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  • A great reminder for many fields. It reminds me of the great Kumar Pallana’s words: “I don’t hustle and I don’t bustle. So sometimes you’re behind but that’s okay. Your peace of mind is more important. I have seen the people who hustle and bustle, and they are already gone, at a young age. They could have enjoyed life.”

  • Beautiful. I find it sad that creative types are often less likely to take care of themselves – or at least that’s the stereotype. But it’s so incredibly important to a sustainable life of creating good art.

  • Thanks for this, Esme. Wise, gentle, and powerful, as usual. My current self-care priority is refilling my water bottle 4 times during the day. I’ve been surprised at how doing this one simple thing has made me feel so much better.

  • For all of my life, right out of the starting gate of life, I fought against chronic illness that imposed limitations on how I interacted with my world. Trauma happened and I grew into an ultra driven person in school and then later in my career. I went without sleep, meals, bathroom trips, vacation, days off. It didn’t pay in the long run. Self care isn’t a fluffy thing. It’s necessary. I learned the hard way. After burnout and a psychiatric diagnosis, an assortment of additional chronic afflictions have found their way to me. And the ones I was born with never went away because I ignored them. I guess I though if I worked myself to exhaustion I could somehow make myself better.

  • Thank you, Esme, for your words of wisdom. I am not living with health limitations, but between a full time job and 2 children, my chances for writing are few and far between. I too have had to come up with strategies for making the most of what time I have and carving out chunks as I can– all the while staving my off the disappointment and self doubt that comes from feeling I could have pushed harder, I should have gotten more done. I wrote my first book over 2 years between 4:30 AM and 6:00 AM– the 1 1/2 hour blocks add up. Your blog makes me feel less alone in my ongoing struggle to make time for writing.