Marathon Training for the Fiction Writer

Guest Post BY STEPHEN LOVELY
Listen to the FULL PODCAST: Stephen Lovely, Marathon Training for the Fiction Writer 

If you told a friend of yours who wasn’t familiar with the process of fiction writing, or of making art in general, that you planned to attend a talk by a fiction writer who spent over ten years writing his first novel, and who three years into his second has only just figured out what point of view to use, and that by attending this talk you hoped to get some insight about how to finish your own novel or book of short stories, your friend—especially a good friend—might suggest that you attend a class with a writer who was more efficient and productive. “Ten years?” your friend might say. “Was he carving the words on stone tablets? How long is his book? War and Peace?” No, you say, it’s just a normal-sized novel. You wish you could remember that quote from Rilke about how, in the artist’s life, there is no measuring with time, how the artist must slowly ripen like a tree that will not force its sap. But you can’t remember the quote. So you just tell your friend, “Yeah, well, they say writing a novel takes a long time.”

You need to learn to ignore your friend, despite his or her good intentions, and the assumptions of the culture at large, for which your friend speaks. You’ve set out to become a writer. You are a writer, if you write with seriousness and intention. So what are you really doing? To what do we devote ourselves? Let’s strip away the adornments and delusions and remember. When writing a novel or a story, we are carefully, meticulously constructing a communication, an experience in language with which a reader will engage alone, singly, privately. This isn’t news, but it’s worth reminding ourselves of. This communication, this constructed experience, if it’s worth anything, will convey your impression of the world, incarnate in a small slice of it, and your understanding of the people and forces at work there. It will explore and reveal and illuminate. It will organize and synthesize. It will require that your reader devote a portion of their busy, finite life to processing it. When writing a fiction, you’re writing a piece of software, a program, and asking someone else to install it in their head. To run it in their mind. You’re asking to take control of their perceptual processes. This seems to me a bold and audacious request. Why should anyone say yes to you? True, the reader may enjoy it, but there are hundreds of attractive offers in every library and book store. The presumption on the reader’s part must be that your fiction offers something exceptional.

Let’s assume that we all do have something exceptional, or at the very least interesting, to communicate. If so, in crafting this communication, what’s the rush? Is there some urgency? Will your communication somehow be devalued if it isn’t delivered within six months? A year? Three years? Is there an expiration date on your fiction, as there is on milk and eggs? If there is­—if your story or novel is especially timely, “ripped from the headlines,” and depends heavily for its meaning on perishable social or cultural references—then it too will be perishable, and stands little chance of being timeless, of transcending and outlasting the headlines, the noise of the day, and touching on the universal, which all great fiction does. True, few writers are likely to achieve this—to become Virginia Woolf or Alice Munro, William Faulkner or W. G. Sebald—but what pleasure is there, what opportunity for personal and artistic achievement is there, in aiming low? The pleasure of writing, one of the few pleasures of writing, is that of straining against the limits of one’s potential and occasionally breaking through. The intensity of being absorbed by the challenge—an absorption that can, at its best, be transporting, even euphoric, and can remove oneself entirely from time. Some psychologists says this is the closest a person can come to happiness: complete immersion in a challenge to which one’s talents are especially suited. The hours pass, you separate from the space around you. You’re in a trance, hypnotized by your imaginary world. True, more often time refuses to move—have you only been writing for an hour? it feels like six—and you’re miserable and frustrated and afraid that the world is keeping a terrible secret from you: you’re not that smart or talented, and you fall short exactly where it counts.

Fortunately the world may be keeping another, more inspiring secret from you: plenty of people—writers, musicians, athletes, scientists—triumph in their fields despite such limitations, often surpassing those with more natural gifts. How? They work harder. They work longer. Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers should be required reading for all writers. In the chapter titled “Late Bloomers,” Gladwell presents evidence that there is a marked difference between prodigies and late bloomers, which is, in essence, that prodigies tend to be conceptual; they start with a clear idea of what they want to do, and then they execute, whereas late bloomers tend to be more experimental: their goals are imprecise, and they proceed tentatively, incrementally. Gladwell cites the examples of Cezanne, who did most of his best work in his sixties, and Mark Twain, whose writing process, according to the critic Franklin Rogers, was “to start a novel with some structural plan which ordinarily soon proved defective, whereupon he would cast about for a new plot which would overcome the difficulty, rewrite what he had already written, and then push on until some new defect forced him to repeat the process once again." Young Cezanne—Cezanne in his early thirties—could barely draw. In Gladwell’s words, “The Cézannes of the world bloom late not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition, but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition.” Gladwell continues, “on the road to great achievement, the late bloomer will resemble a failure: while the late bloomer is revising and despairing and changing course and slashing canvases to ribbons after months or years, what he or she produces will look like the kind of thing produced by the artist who will never bloom at all.” For those of you laboring on your first novels or story collections, or maybe I should say for those of you who are laboring and a bit older, this news should come as a revelation, a kind of grand reprieve. It certainly did to me. The message, as I understand it, is this: You’re not a loser. It’s just taking you longer.

The other message, implicit here and expanded upon in Outliers, is that a person has no control, and never did have any control, over which of these two types of artists—prodigy or late bloomer—he or she will become. Anyway, in either case, what is required to endure and create is the same. Hard work. Gladwell describes the research done by the German psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, who studied violinists at the elite Berlin Academy of Music in the early 1990s. Ericsson and two colleagues divided the school's college-aged violinists into three groups: stars, the merely "good," and those unlikely to ever play professionally. Everyone from all three groups had started playing at the same age, around five years old. Everyone had started out practicing roughly the same amount, two or three hours a week. Over time, though, the students who would end up in the star category practiced more than everyone else. “The striking thing about Ericsson's study,” Gladwell writes, “is that he and his colleagues couldn't find any ‘naturals,’ musicians who floated effortlessly to the top while practicing a fraction of the time their peers did. Nor could they find any ‘grinds,’ people who worked harder than everyone else, yet just didn't have what it takes to break the top ranks. Their research,” Gladwell continues, “suggests that once a musician has enough ability to get into a top music school, the thing that distinguishes one performer from another is how hard he or she works. That's it. And what's more, the people at the very top don't work just harder or even much harder than everyone else. They work much, much harder.” Gladwell goes on to say that this idea—that excellence at performing a complex task requires a critical minimum level of practice—surfaces again and again in studies of expertise. In fact, researchers have settled on what they believe is the magic number for true expertise: ten thousand hours. According to this “10,000 Hour Rule,” it takes 10,000 hours of intense, focused labor to achieve mastery of any craft, artistic, scientific, or athletic.

10,000 hours. If you write for 4 hours a day, 5 days a week, that’s almost exactly ten years.

The experience of spending ten years writing a first novel or story collection is one I don’t wish on anyone. If you can finish your first book to your satisfaction in less time­­—seven years or five years or three—that’s fantastic. For our purposes, it doesn’t matter. Three years, five, seven—these are substantial chunks of a life. And life won’t pause and wait. You shouldn’t wait for it. You may be zealous enough to shut life and its distractions out. You may be the kind of writer who spends eight to ten hours a day in a dim basement room sucking down energy drinks and typing furiously, eating out of the microwave, rarely showering, avoiding your friends, sleeping in irregular spurts. If you are this kind of writer, and many great writers are, I’m full of admiration for you, and respect. You set a demanding pace. You’ll reach your 10,000 hours in half the time, and you may have a deeper, more intimate relationship with your writing than the rest of us. You know that art is something that can only be done to excess. You do what you have to do to create the work, and to satisfy your craving for engagement. I work at a slow pace. I can only write for about four hours a day. I get fidgety and tired. I feel like I’ve been working air traffic control, bringing planes into O’Hare. Writing, for all of us, the basement dwellers and the air breathers, the fast-paced and the slow, is intense, arduous work. Every neuron is engaged, enormous complexities must be scrutinized and unraveled, disparate elements aligned and synthesized. We’re creating people and worlds. We bring words down from the ether, slot them into sentences. A person who doesn’t write fiction just can’t understand how difficult and depleting the process is. And how frustrating it is not to be able to keep working, to have to wait twenty hours or more while your mind recharges, when you’re so impatient to keep moving, sustain the inertia—to finish the work before it finishes you.

The point here is that if you want to reach your 10,000 hours, no matter what kind of pace you set for yourself, you’re going to need to be durable. In a 1985 essay titled “Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years”—there’s that number again—Ted Solotaroff, who founded and edited The New American Review in the late sixties, and who devoted a portion of each issue to emerging writers (among them Philip Roth, Donald Barthelme, and Ian McEwan) makes the case that durability, and persistence, and learning to value the process and “intrinsic interest” of writing over the pursuit of recognition are the leading factors in determining which writers endure to finish and publish books and which writers don’t. Like the young violinists at the Berlin Academy of Music, all the young writers Solotaroff published in The New American Review started out with innate gifts, but only a small portion went on to have careers. The rest vanished. “It was,” Solotaroff writes, “as though some sinister force were at work, a kind of literary population control mechanism that kills off the surplus talent we have been developing or causes it to wither slowly away.”

I’ve wandered, but I approach my purpose. Writing your first book will be something you accomplish over a long period of time, in daily increments, with much longer expanses of non-writing—of living­—in between. There are plenty of resources out there devoted to helping writers write—workshops, seminars, books, conferences, graduate programs—but little discussion about how to prepare for that 10,000 hour apprenticeship, how to condition yourself to survive it. You’re a swimmer who intends to swim the English Channel, a cyclist about to ride the Tour de France, a runner heading into a marathon. Actually, you’re more like some kind of crazed triathlete who intends to do all three, consecutively, alone, in Antarctica. It’s going to be cold and lonely. There’s going to be a lot of pain. You’re going to need a mindset. You’re going to need a strategy.

First and foremost, you’re going to need to know yourself. To learn yourself: what works for you, what nourishes and protects your writing, and what weakens and obstructs it. This may be the central most important project on the long road to becoming a writer. And every writer is different. What works for one may not work for another. All I claim to do here is tell you what’s worked for me, over the years, as I’ve put one foot in front of the other.

First, and most importantly, you do not have to justify yourself to anyone except yourself. That is to say, you and you alone understand what you’re doing, the difficulty of the project you have embarked upon. If other people—friends, parents, siblings, children, co-workers, neighbors, snarky people at parties—fail to understand and appreciate what you’re attempting, what you value, why you’re home in the middle of the day in your pajamas, or more likely working a menial job for which you’re wildly overqualified, you must learn to disregard their mystification and doubts and press on. Your ego, your confidence, your faith in yourself, your sense of purpose, your resolve, the covenant you’ve made with your art—you must keep all of these sacred things locked deep within yourself and not allow grubby, uninitiated hands to touch and tarnish them. If you’re a very young writer, in your twenties, you’re emerging from, or possibly still caught in the grips of, a school culture in which you are asked to justify yourself to others at every turn: by participating in class, scoring well on exams and tests and quizzes, completing assignments and projects, winning distinctions and accolades, scholarships and internships, gaining admission to colleges and graduate programs where you will continue to be asked to prove yourself, excel, achieve—all in a public sphere. Even if you’re a little older, in your thirties or forties, even your fifties or sixties, you have in all likelihood spent most of your waking hours in the culture of the workplace, where you’re also asked to account for yourself to others more or less continually.

And now you’ve decided to write a novel or a collection of stories. What a completely different world you are entering! Every day you descend into a deep, twisting tunnel. You are like the Upper Paleolithic cave artists who crawled hundreds of yards on their hands and knees into the bowels of the earth to paint horses and reindeer on looming walls. No one can understand what it’s like down there, not unless they’ve been down there too. Not unless they’ve experienced the loneliness and the dark, the cold cramped damp, the disorientation and fatigue that come when you emerge into the light, into the world of people. “What do you do down there all day?” you may be asked, and you can’t be daunted by the question, or by the disbelieving stare you’ll get if you answer most truthfully, “I write sentences.” You want to prove to this person that what you’re doing is worthwhile, and that you’re good at it­—you’ve been conditioned to respond to these types of inquiries with evidence, justification—but there’s nothing you can show this person yet. No one wants to see one of your sentences. No one wants to see a paragraph. Even a chapter only leaves the reader wanting more. So, you need to resist the compulsion to account for yourself. You are accountable only to your work: to those sentences and paragraphs. To your project. The outside world isn’t going to give you much encouragement, so the less you depend on it, the less you ask of it, the stronger you’ll be.

So you’re toiling away in obscurity, struggling with a story that seems to disintegrate every time you touch it, a novel whose premise seems more contrived and uninspiring with each passing day, all the while rushing to cram in your writing between a 6 AM bootcamp wakeup and the looming hour of  9, when you’re obligated to report to a job that drains and depletes you and spits you out at 5 o’clock, or possibly later, with just enough energy to watch TV—while you’re doing all this, Other Writers are publishing stories, finding agents, signing book contracts, publishing story collections and novels, winning prizes and awards and fellowships and grants, being offered teaching jobs, heading off to residencies in Vermont and New York State, Tuscany and the Loire valley. These Other Writers seem to have charmed lives.

If you’re prone to self-doubt, as most good writers are, the question you’re likely to ask is, Why them and not me? What am I doing wrong? Is there something wrong with me? Am I flawed or inadequate or lazy, or all three?

If I could travel back in time fifteen or twenty years and talk to the younger version of myself, the message I would give him would be this: Relax. Stop torturing yourself. How much do you know about these Other Writers? Do you know how old they were when they started writing? Do you how many years they’ve been doing it? Some of them may have already put in their 10,000 hours, or 15,000, or twenty. Do you know anything about their parents, their childhoods, the schools they attended? Are you privy to the opportunities and advantages they may have received, or to the hardships and disadvantages they may have endured, that compelled and forged them? Are you familiar with all the crucial determinants of their personalities: their ambition, their obsession, their misanthropy, their willingness to sacrifice? Their afflictions? Certainly you are not. We don’t know what damage a writer has taken, or what blessings he or she has received. We should be careful, envying other writers. We can’t be sure what we’re envying, what we might be condemned to experience or suffer, being them. And you must be that writer, to achieve and earn what he or she has. You must exchange lives with them, nothing less. This is the terrible, impossible price your envy conceals from you. Because of course you can’t exchange lives with another person. Even if you could, would you really, when it came down to it? Would you give up your childhood, your family, your friends, your pets, all the experiences and triumphs and travails that constitute who you are? Please don’t say you’d give up something as personal and sacred as your writing, that you’d hand over your short stories and novel chapters and assorted prose fragments just to have written someone else’s book. You’d be selling your soul. You would be committing an act of unspeakable self-betrayal.

To survive the writing life and not be miserable, not be petty, and to avoid the inevitable disappointment of continually comparing your achievements and rewards to those of your peers, you must do your best to cleanse yourself of envy. Tell your envy this: I am who I am. I have my own distinctive impressions of this world, my own stories to formulate and tell, and they are worth putting into words, no matter how long it takes. I have no value as anyone except myself.

So there you are in Peoria or Phoenix, Tampa or Brattleboro, toiling away in obscurity on your novel or story, trying to rely for encouragement and self-justification on whatever sentences you set down that day, whatever striking images or interesting ideas you conjure, your proximity to human truth, wishing the Other Writers well as they garner accolades and awards. Still, something eats at you. Another worry. You worry about publishing. You worry that even if you’re patient, and work hard, and finish something—a story or novel—that no one in the world of publishing will want anything to do with it. You’ve heard so many stories about accomplished writers, writers you suspect might be far more accomplished than you, getting rejected by dozens of journals or magazines or publishing houses before finding someone who wants their work. At the same time, all those Other Writers you try not to think about are publishing right and left. Every time you go into your favorite bookstore there are new novels and story collections on the tables and shelves. There’s a veritable orgy of publishing going on. Once in a while you try to get in on it—maybe you submit a story or novel excerpt to a literary journal—only to be rebuffed. And so it begins to seem to you as though publishing, the world of publishing, is a kind of exclusive club whose rules of admission are mysterious and inaccessible to you, and worse, that there may be a kind of conspiracy among members of the club—editors of journals, literary agents, editors at publishing houses, prize juries—to keep you out, a kind of widely agreed-upon consensus about you, which is that you’re not a contender, you don’t have the stuff. Each time your story or novel excerpt is rejected you begin to suspect that the conspiracy has spread, that the campaign against you has hardened, that there is in fact a specific, dedicated person in the office of every literary enterprise whose job it is to intercept your work; to carefully sift through the heaps of incoming manuscripts to catch anything you might submit and quickly reject it before it infects the body of literature.

There’s no conspiracy, of course. The world of publishing is just waiting for you to send them a great story or novel—indeed, their greatest hopes and dreams revolve almost exclusively around finding and publishing a great story or novel, and they are rooting for you to write one. Their deepest interests largely coincide with yours. I firmly believe this, and I’ve believed it all along, in between bouts of doubt. If you write a good book, someone will appreciate and publish it, sooner or later. The better the book is—the more engaging and interesting and individualized and profound—the better your chances. While writing my novel, I tried to relax and forget the world of publishing—I hoped it would still be there when I finished—and be the best writer I could be. I tried to focus on writing the best book I could, and not be anxious or impatient to publish. It wasn’t easy, but I knew it was crucial. This is the great paradox of writing and publishing: to publish your novel, you must forget about publishing your novel. The more you worry about publishing, the less attention and energy are available for the writing. Anxiety about publishing disrupts your patience, corrupts your purposes. The more you focus on the writing, the better your chances of producing something distinctive and valuable, something worthy of publication. If you want to worry about something, worry about finishing. That kind of worry is productive.

All this anxiety, all this unease about outside forces conspiring to ignore or thwart us, when the greatest threat may come from within.

On September 12, 2008, one of America’s most brilliant writers, David Foster Wallace, committed suicide at the age of 46. Wallace had struggled with depression since college. He’d taken a variety of medications, been in and out of hospitals, and received electroconvulsive therapy. The tragedy of Wallace’s death isn’t only that we lost yet another magnificent writer to depression—a writer whose best years and work might have been ahead of him—but that Wallace failed to survive even though he had a caring, devoted family—a wife, a sister, actively-involved parents; several close friends; access to highly-trained physicians and to all the modern medications and treatments; and, most importantly, full awareness of his disease.

What lesson should we take away from his death? Make no mistake: there is a lesson, a dire warning, which every serious writer ought to head. Writers, as a group, are far more likely—and I want to emphasize: far more likely—to experience depression and other forms of mental illness than members of the general population. It seems strange that there is and always has been a general consensus, to the point of stereotype, that writers and artists are “crazy”—eccentric, mentally unbalanced, neurotic, mad—but that we writers and artists, though we reject the disparaging tone of these labels, don’t openly acknowledge, at least to ourselves, that there is truth in the cliche, and that we as a group are under threat. I suppose no one wants to accept the stigma—ever-diminishing, thankfully—of being defective or weak, unable to pull one’s weight without chemical help. No one wants to be thought of as mentally unbalanced. But as writers we resist the diagnosis of depression, or the increased possibility of the diagnosis, at our peril.

Aristotle was one of the first to suspect we were vulnerable. “Why is it,” he asked, “that all men who are outstanding in philosophy, poetry, or the arts are melancholic?” Research in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provided largely anecdotal but compelling evidence that writers and their immediate relatives suffered from disproportionally high rates of mood disorders. More recent, systematic studies relying on extensive biographical research have consolidated the evidence. The 1949 study by the psychiatrist Adele Juda, examining German artists, writers, architects and composers; the 1972 Colin Martindale study of English and French poets; Nancy Andreasen’s 1979 study of writers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; the 1989 Jamison study of mood disorders in major English and Irish poets; Schildkraut’s research on abstract expressionist painters; the 1992 Ludwig study of creative artists whose biographies were reviewed in The New York Review of Books—the results of all these investigations coalesce around several alarming conclusions. First, the suicide rate among writers and artists is nearly 20% higher than among the general population. Second, writers and artists are anywhere from 10 to 40 times more likely to experience manic depressive illness than non-writers and non-artists. Third, writers and artists are nearly 10 times more likely to experience major depression. The lives of writers are full of mental illness, mood disorders, psychosis, and hospitalizations. The only good news, for we fiction writers, is that poets suffer far worse: their rates for suicide and manic depression are higher across the board. Even this is bad news for those of us who have poet friends.

The link between mental illness and creativity has been studied at length, and it’s pretty clear that both share a genetic and/or neurological substrate, a common ancestor. Whatever genetic inheritance you’ve received from your ancestors that predisposes you to be a creative writer, chances are that same genetic inheritance may predispose you to suffer from mental illness. It’s not that having a mental illness allows you to be a talented writer, or that being a talented writer makes you mentally ill. Don’t laugh: plenty of people believe this. People often question whether this or that famous depressed writer—Woolf, Dickens, Hemingway, James, Sexton, Plath, Tolstoy, Styron—would have produced such brilliant work had they been taking antidepressants. The implication is that somehow the depression endowed these writers with the sensitivity and perceptiveness necessary to create, say, Mrs. Dalloway or Anna Karenina, and that if their depression had been alleviated the flow of writing would have been disrupted. In my experience, depression endows only suffering, and is an impediment to writing. I suspect that many of these writers would have produced even more great work had they been able to successfully treat their depression. The literary critic Lionel Trilling, who studied and wrote about this subject at length, emphasized that the healthy part of the artist, not the unhealthy part, gives him “the power to conceive, to plan, to work, to bring his work to a conclusion.”

Wallace, at the time of his suicide, was working on a large, complicated novel, “The Pale King,” whose difficulties he found insurmountable. He wrote to his friend the writer Jonathan Franzen that he was alternating between working and “recoiling in despair.” He was concerned that Nardil, a drug he had taken for over 20 years, might be interfering with his work. He decided to switch to a different antidepressant, then decided to go off antidepressants entirely. He had to be hospitalized. He went back on antidepressants and managed to stabilize briefly. Then he took an overdose of pills, which he survived. He had 12 sessions of electroconvulsive therapy but they didn’t help. Finally, in August of 2008, when Wallace’s doctors suggested a new combination of drugs, Wallace decided he wanted to go back onto the Nardil. But Nardil takes weeks to stabilize a patient, and Wallace was evidently too agitated and ill to survive the wait.

One wonders about the complicated, barely discernable interactions between Wallace’s writing, his depression, and his medications. Surely his difficulty with “The Pale King” compounded his depression, which would have aggravated his despair at ever finishing the book. In his desperation he may have blamed the Nardil prematurely. After all, he’d written all of his other novels while taking Nardil—proof that antidepressants don’t prohibit magnificent writing. Those of us who have experienced even minor, garden variety depression know how insidious and crafty it can be, how skilled it is at disguising itself and its roots, of deflecting responsibility for one’s unhappiness onto tangibles in day to day life—one’s girlfriend or boyfriend or spouse, the place where one lives, one’s job, one’s circumstances, one’s shortcomings—when in fact the depression itself, a circumstance of one’s brain chemistry, may be the worst culprit. Of course external circumstances can trigger and catalyze depression, so it’s always hard to be sure exactly what’s happening, what’s to blame, even for the experienced. Wallace was experienced—much more experienced than many of us suspected—and even he couldn’t navigate the muddle.

This difference between depression’s causes and effects can be especially difficult to untangle for writers, given the nature of our work—given that the act of writing involves a descent into and a constant mining of our own psyches. Imagine this. If you’re a serious writer, it won’t be hard. You’re at your desk writing. You’re not having a good day. You can’t concentrate. You’re tired. You’re starting to feel like you may never finish this project—this novel or story—and that even if you do it will be flawed, defective. You feel defective yourself. You tell yourself to press on, but your anxiety and restlessness are such that you can’t sit still in your chair. Didn’t you used to enjoy writing, or at least extract some satisfaction from the process? Now it seems a grim, impossible chore.

These feelings, so common for the ambitious writer, as common as air—the inability to concentrate, fatigue, feelings of hopelessness, not enjoying activities one used to enjoy—these also happen to comprise the major symptoms of clinical depression. You wouldn’t and shouldn’t be diagnosed if you only experienced these symptoms while writing, if they were absent from your larger life. But if they did appear in your larger life, if they followed you away from your desk, you’d want to ask yourself whether your writing was to blame.

I’m not trying to slap a diagnosis on any of you. I’m not secretly working for a pharmaceutical company. The message, especially for younger writers, is, again, to know yourself. Know that you are more susceptible to mental illness than most people, and take care of yourself. Screen yourself. Know the symptoms of major depression and manic depression, seek help if you have them, and don’t be afraid of medications, imperfect though they may be. Your survival as an artist, and as a human being, depend on it.

How strange it is, or maybe not so strange, that among writers, a group of people far more likely to suffer from depression than any other group, the most popular drink, the beverage of choice, is a depressant. Or, more precisely, contains a depressant. Wine, beer, liquor. Who among us couldn’t go for some right now? So many writers from the past would join us if they could to lift a glass, or maybe three or four. Poe, Melville, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner, London, Steinbeck, Parker, Cheever, Yates, Carver. These are just the major guzzlers, and because of constraints of time and space I’m leaving out the poets. Alcoholism among writers is epidemic. Statistic have shown than writers are more likely to die from cirrhosis of the liver than people in any other occupation except...wait for it...bartenders. Nancy Andreasen’s 1979 study of writers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop found that 30% of writers had problems with alcoholism, compared with 7% of non-writers. There is evidence across the board, from the Andreasen study and innumerable others, that the elevated rates of alcoholism among writers is closely linked to the elevated rates of mental illness among writers, especially manic depression. Clearly there has been a lot of self-medicating going on.

We can hardly blame many of these writers, especially ones struggling to live with their depression in the days before its biochemical origins were understood with any sophistication, before depression was accepted as an illness, before the standard symptoms were classified and known, before there was an effective class of medications, or medications without debilitating side-effects. This was not so long ago. Before that alcohol must have seemed a perfect drug: cheap, accessible, effective, socially acceptable and, let’s face it, fun. There are few greater feelings on this earth than that of being pleasantly inebriated. Even without the need to self-medicate for a mental illness, the temptation, the experience, is difficult to resist, especially for a writer. We work alone, for long hours, engaged in a fantastically difficult and complex act of creation—we are creating worlds—whose end result, if we can actually finish, will be a work of art that few people will pay attention to or care about. We suffer the psychic disorientation of commuting constantly between two worlds: our work in progress, an imaginary world, over which we are ruler and God, arbiter of all things, and the world outside our fiction, over which we have little power or influence. We may receive some praise for our work, but we will surely endure criticism too. Above us a constellation of brilliant writers constantly glows, writers we worship and aspire to equal but probably never will. There are interminable stretches of non-writing hours during which we are prone to anxiety about our work, our shortcomings, and the possibility of failure.

I’ve painted a dismal picture of the writer’s plight, it’s true, and left out all of the good stuff, the rewards large and small. But it’s easy to see why a writer might want a drink if said drink made you feel loose and warm, numb and light-headed, hopeful, confident in your powers, embraced, blessed, lucky.

Drinking, for all of these reasons discussed, has become a huge part of the culture of writers, and of the prevailing mythology of who a writer is and what he does. This is especially true for male fiction writers, though I suspect they are more flamboyant drinkers, and thus more visible, whereas the women are less showy. In any case, show me a place where writers live or hang out—an MFA program, a writing festival or conference or residency or retreat, Brooklyn, Iowa City, Provincetown—and I’ll show you a bar doing a steady business. The problem with this mythology is that it’s passed down from older writers to younger writers who may not be aware of the origins of the tradition in the self medication of mental illness, or of their particular susceptibility to mental illness, and how alcohol exacerbates it. When I decided to become a writer, and to devote my life to it, I went through a long process of discovering the negative effects of alcohol on my mood and on my work. The young writer gets the impression, from seeing so many great writers constantly, convivially drinking, and occasionally shit-faced, that drinking is somehow essential to the lifestyle, that alcohol and bars are the context in which writers discuss their work and the work of writers they admire, the context in which they commiserate over the difficulties and encourage one another. The young novitiate suspects that drinking may even inspire the work, conjure the muse, sustain the writer through the long process of creation, when in fact it’s quite possible that the drinking is inhibiting or slowing the process, as well as increasing the likelihood that potential novels will never be written. Even this, the glamour of decay, can be alluring. By the time the young writer sorts all of this out he or she may have become a serious drinker, and may have lost countless writing days or months to hangovers and muddle-mindedness, and, if this young writer happens to have suffered from depression, he or she will have suffered more than necessary.

I’ll stop here at the risk of sounding tendentious and puritanical. I don’t mean to be either, or to moralize. I love wine, and I wish I could drink it more or less continually. Also, lives are complicated, our vices and pleasures are often inseparable from our physiologies and personalities, and the feedback loops, the circuitries of cause and effect, are complex and vary from person to person. Donald Barthelme, who had a brilliant and productive career, admitted to being slightly intoxicated nearly all the time. Did drinking sustain or inhibit him as a writer? I don’t think any of us can say. But we should try to say for ourselves, in our own cases. Again, know thyself.

We write with our brains. Our brains are encased in, and attached to, our bodies. The brain is the body. We’ve been talking about serious threats to the brain, serious threats to your writing. Anxiety, self-doubt, stress, depression. Serious threats from the brain as it reacts to the world around you, as it attempts to navigate the myriad difficulties of your endeavors, artistic and otherwise. Let me tell you about a drug I take for this problem, a drug on which I’ve come to depend. This drug increases cerebral blood flow, increasing the supply of glucose and oxygen and nutrients to the brain while removing toxic substances; it improves the brain’s performance, increases alertness and attention and memory and the ability to process complex thoughts; it prepares and stimulates brain cells to bind together, even encourages the growth of new cells as you age, replacing dying cells; and—get this—it alleviates depression and relieves stress and increases confidence. It’s a writer’s dream drug. You know what it is. Exercise. Specifically, aerobic exercise. In my experience, exercise has done more good for the sustained project of my writing than just about anything else. I’d suggest that anyone whose day to day work is difficult and stressful and sedentary would benefit from exercise, but for the writer it’s especially so, given our predisposition to depression and the long hours we spend alone, inside, sitting, staring at a screen or a page in a notebook trying to make hundreds of details fit perfectly together. What better thing to do than turn the brain off and crank up its charger, the heart. Get out of the house. Got to the gym, the pool, the yoga studio. Run, bike, play tennis. At the risk of positing a sporty, wholesome creative mileu in which writers prance around in Lycra feeling peppy and invigorated—I couldn’t stand such a world—and while allowing that many great writers haven’t exercised at all, I’d suggest to a writer intent on surviving the long haul that you’d be smart to make exercise a part of your routine. Take care of your brain the way an athlete or a dancer takes care of her body. The way a singer takes care of her voice. Your brain is your instrument. I know that my instrument feels more finely tuned, more clear and awake and alert, more powerful, when I’ve been exercising regularly. So does my body. And it’s the body that has to support the brain without complaining while it does its mysterious work.

I know talented, productive writers who thrive on rootlessness, who live itinerantly, moving constantly from place to place, friend’s couch to friend’s couch, writing residency to teaching gig, teaching gig to winter house-sit, all the while tapping away on their laptops, scribbling in their notebooks, submitting stories. I prefer, as many writers do, to be firmly rooted, planted in one spot. Nested. I like having a life around me, busy and diversified enough to cater to my non-writing interests and affections but not so busy­—and this can take many years and lots of luck to achieve—that I can’t carve out three or four hours a day uninterrupted for my writing. Indeed, I imagine my life as a sturdy construction built to protect and encase the central act of writing, much as the walls and gates and guard towers of a medieval city protected its population and cathedral. This is my metaphor. You’ll need to construct your own. But if you’re a homebody, a domestic type, and feel you might do well with a model similar to mine, you have illustrious compatriots and predecessors. Flaubert spent most of his life living in his mother’s house in Croisset, France, near Rouen, close to the Seine. Countless other writers lived as he did—quietly, plainly, in the provinces—but he’s the one who formulated and expressed the credo: “Be regular and orderly in your life so that you may be violent and original in your work.” The implication is that writing is a difficult, high-flying act of daring, and that one best attempt it from a solid, immoveable base. A regular, orderly life provides a quiet, safe space in which to store energy for, and recover energy after, creative bouts. Iowa City, where I live, is full of writers living the Flaubertian model. Spend time there and you’ll see Pulitzer Prize winners squeezing lemons in the grocery store, puttering around their flower gardens, dropping their kids off at school. The poet Jorie Graham said, “We must write out of full lives,” and whether your full life will be one of rootlessness or rootedness or something in between is for you to experiment with. If I were asked for a quotation on the subject, I’d say this: “Most of the time you spend writing your book will be spent not writing your book.” So best construct a life around your work in which you’ll be comfortable and happy, a life that will nourish and satisfy and sustain you.

It occurs to me that many of the things I’ve been talking about here—the compulsion to justify oneself, envy, anxiety about writing and publishing, depression, alcohol use—are symptoms, to some degree, of the writers’ chronic underlying disease: doubt. If you’re a writer and you don’t suffer from occasional doubt, you might have a gigantic ego, and perhaps even the undisclosed genius to justify it. More likely, you’re not challenging yourself enough. I like this, from the novelist Rachel Kushner: “There has to be a real possibility that what I’m writing could be a disaster.” What’s the point of writing fiction at all, how can you expect to discover anything truly meaningful within or beyond yourself, unless you put yourself at emotional and intellectual risk, strain against your limits; unless, as Kurt Vonnegut said, you “continually jump off cliffs and develop your wings on the way down?” If you accept this challenge, you’re going to have to live in a state of perpetual, unrelenting self-doubt. And the thing with self-doubt, it seems to me, is that you can’t get rid of it. There is no cure: the symptoms can only, one might say barely, be managed. “If there is one thing that I have learned from writing a novel,” writes Adam Haslett, “it’s the ability to survive radical doubt about whether the project is worthwhile, whether you can complete it, whether it is going to hold together. If you can’t survive that in large doses, you will doubt it out of existence.” I think of Wallace, struggling with The Pale King, “recoiling in despair.” The real danger is that you can also doubt your self—not just your writing self, but your physical self—out of existence. 

So that’s it. These are my humble, imperfect, biased suggestions on how to survive the writing life. I hope they help you, or at least inspire you to examine your strategy. If you’re embarking on the long process of writing a book, or have already embarked, I wish you the best of luck, and would advise you, above all, to work harder than you possibly can, take good care of your instrument, and persist.

Here’s that quote from Rilke. “There is here no measuring with time, no year matters, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree that does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!”

 

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Stephen Lovely was born in Dallas, Texas and spent most of his childhood in Ohio. He attended Kenyon College, where he majored in English, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he studied with Deborah Eisenberg, Margot Livesey, Ethan Canin, and Frank Conroy. His first novel, Irreplaceable, was published by Hyperion/Voice in 2009 and translated into German, Dutch, and Chinese. Irreplaceable received the Dana Award for the Novel and a James Michener-Copernicus Society of America Award. Since 2005 Stephen has been the director of the Iowa Young Writers' Studio, a summer, residential creative writing program for high school students at The University of Iowa. He currently lives in Iowa City with his wife and several dogs and cats. He is working on a second novel.

 

 

 

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