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Writing Excuses 8.8: Writing and Personal Health

Writing Excuses 8.8: Writing and Personal Health


Key Points: Mental and physical illnesses are issues that need to be dealt with, not hidden. Some people write it into their books. Other people use it for something beneficial. Working and living in isolation may contribute to problems. Being open about problems can help. Also, beware the physical issues! Sitting, repetitive motion, etc. can be problems -- take care of them, don't ignore them. Insomnia may be a problem or a productivity aid.

[Mary] Season Eight, Episode Eight.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Writing and Personal Health.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're all dying.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] [dying rattle]
[Howard] [final squeal]
[Brandon] And we have Robison Wells with us today...
[Rob] Hello!
[Brandon] Who is looking at us in bafflement. This is actually a very interesting topic. Rob suggested it again, but we're talking about it as Dan lays in semi-pain having been doped up all weekend for having had his tailbone out.
[Dan] I actually haven't been using the drugs the last two days of recording.
[Brandon] Wow!
[Dan] Because the first day of recording, I was so loopy that I knew I had to be cogent again.
[Mary] What's fascinating is that for our listeners, you will have been drugged all year.
[Dan] I know.
[Howard] In reality, Dan's in Germany. In fiction, Dan's on drugs.

[Brandon] And, going forward, Rob, why did you pitch this episode to us?
[Rob] Well, I pitched it because I, in the last year and a half, have developed some mental illnesses that I never have had in my entire life...
[Rob] Howard! That have been extremely detrimental to my writing, and it's been a very interesting process... As I've talked to other authors and found out how prevalent mental illness is among creative people.
[Brandon] Yeah. It seems to be one of the professions... I mean, you go and you talk to people of the old guard. You'll talk about one of the authors like Philip K Dick or one of these. They'll be like, "Oh, yeah. They were... They self medicated with this. Oh, they self medicated with this." It seems like every author you find out about had some sort of deep psychological problem that helped inform their writing and is part of what made them famous...
[Rob] Yeah. I think...
[Brandon] So, you're bound to be famous.
[Rob] Exactly. Well, it's actually interesting. I've talked to a couple of authors... I can remember one author, and I won't give her name because I don't... She didn't give me permission to. I have been very open about my mental illness. Basically I have a severe panic disorder. That led to agoraphobia. So I'm Emily Dickinson. And then lead to depression, and then it even led to... And this is where everyone says, "Oh, Rob's crazy." It led to self harm issues. This is all... I mean, I'm a guy in my mid-30s and you don't associate that... You think, "Oh, well. That's a 13-year-old girl problem." No. I mean, it's a very real mental illness. I have been contacted... I've been very outspoken about it, trying to kind of talk about my issues and to kind of tear down the stigma. But I've been contacted by other authors who say, "Thank you so much for talking about this. I suffer from this myself and I have used this to inform my writing. It's helped me both therapeutically..." I talked to one author who had the same kind of severe panic disorder, which is basically when your autonomic nervous system thinks that you're constantly in danger. You have the fight-or-flight reflex always turned on. So you always... Basically your body's always thinks you're being chased by a bear. She said, "Well, you know, the way that I got through this is that I wrote a book where the main character had severe panic attacks. That helped me to deal with my own issues through exploring it through another person's eyes. It also made... I mean, that book so much better because I was writing about a topic that I was so familiar with."

[Howard] I found it really interesting, Rob, that about the time you announced that you had these self harm issues, you were also sculpting with X-Acto knives these massive pieces of wargaming terrain. There was a piece of my brain that said, "Whoa! I thought people with self harm stayed away from sharp things." But no, you grab it with both hands and create a mountain.
[Rob] Well, you see, the thing is that my self harm issues have never been related to knives, thankfully. I... But I got into other things like the wargaming terrain because I always have to keep my hands occupied with something. Or I would feel the urge to hit myself in the face. Or I'd feel the urge to smash my face into the corner of the wall or something like that. I know that now everyone thinks I'm a crazy person. Well, I am. Literally a crazy person. But, yeah, I got into all of those things, the wargaming terrain and all that, on purpose to keep myself occupied. The interesting thing is now that I finally, after a long time of dealing with a primary care doctor, I finally have seen a psychiatrist, and he's put me on basically an OCD medication. It has helped immensely with the self harm issue, but also, I have had no drive to build the terrain anymore. The more that I think about it, the more I think I was obsessing about building all of this stuff. I was basically... What's his name, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind?
[Howard] Richard Dreyfuss.
[Rob] Richard Dreyfuss. Yeah. Where I was building crazy things in the... Building the Devil's Tower.
[Dan] Yeah. Except now you've taken medication, and so you never contacted the aliens.
[Howard] Dan and I played a game of War Machine on one of the pieces of terrain you built, and I remember thinking, as I was leveraging that terrain to my distinct advantage. I remember thinking, "I hope Rob stays crazy forever."
[Howard] It may have been little selfish.
[Dan] We would love to take advantage of this.
[Howard] Which may have been a little selfish, but...
[Dan] But that's a good piece of advice, I think, for authors is if you have something that... If you have the means... If it's possible to redirect whatever issue is obstructing your health into something beneficial like Rob did with that terrain, that can be a real good way of dealing with it.

[Brandon] A lot of writers, as I mentioned before... It seems to be a career where this pops up. Maybe that's just because we talk about it more. We're writers, and so we're comfortable writing about... Or maybe it really is real that there are more.
[Mary] I think it's...
[Dan] I actually follow a lot of neurologists on Twitter. A couple weeks ago, they posted a link to an abstract for a research study that have been done that actually did find a distinct correlation between certain mental illnesses and increased creativity.
[Brandon] Okay. Excellent.
[Dan] Which I find interesting.

[Mary] Well, I was going to say that... I wonder if... Because that's a correlation... But I actually wonder how much of it is related to the fact that writers work in isolation?
[Brandon] Yeah. I was going to ask... Do you think that is part of it, Rob, or... Do you shy away from that answer?
[Rob] I think that that is... I think that it definitely contributes to the symptoms of it. I think in my case, I developed it almost entirely because of stress. Because I was basically working two full-time jobs. I was writing, and then I had my day job, which... My day job was a fairly high up in the company kind of day job. Basically torn in two directions. Plus an hour commute each day on top of. I essentially just lost it. Then have not been able to regain that health again. It basically flipped a switch.
[Dan] So all work and no play made Rob a dull boy.
[Mary] Well, I think one of the things that can also happen is that there's a... Without anyone else to spot what's happening...
[Brandon] Right. That's true.
[Mary] I say this because I have gone from being in theater for 20 years, which is very interactive, to working by myself. I am... I'm struggling with depression right now, which... Looking back on it, I think is something that I've probably always had to some degree, but I have never... It's always... It's never become a problem because there have been other people around. But I am completely isolated right now with the move to Chicago. Not completely, that's overstating things, but comparatively speaking to the... I see this hap... I mean, that's one of the things that also happens with depression and many of the other things is that you withdraw into yourself, which just makes it worse.
[Brandon] So, wait. You moved away from Portland and now your depression's worse?
[Mary] Yeah.
[Mary] What can I say, I like rainy weather.

[Howard] Well, I think that's a... I see the same thing with myself. Sandra is a huge check, a huge balance against whatever undiagnosed mental problems I may have. I found the comic very, very therapeutic when I started it back in 2000. By 2004, I was suffering from some of the same sorts of things Rob was. Certainly not to the extent... I wasn't trying to hurt myself, and I didn't have panic disorder all the time, but I was stressed to the point that I was getting sick a lot. Quitting the day job helped. Lately though, and when I say lately, last five years, Sandra and I get up in the morning and have a business meeting across the kitchen counter. Part of the point of that business meeting is to gauge each other's current level of sanity to make sure that we're doing well. Then I do a lot of my cartooning down at Dragon's Keep where I have to have other people around me.
[Brandon] Let's go ahead...
[Rob] Well, one of the reasons...
[Brandon] Go ahead, Rob.
[Howard] Book of the week?
[Rob] I'll talk about it after.
[Brandon] Book of the week, then we'll come back to Rob.
[Rob] Although I have the book of the week.
[Howard] So, go.

[Rob] All right. The book that I'm going to plug is a fantastic book. It's called Imagine by Jonah Lehrer. If any of you guys have listened to the other podcast, Radio Lab, a very well known podcast, he's a regular on there. It's basically a hard science look at where creativity comes from. He talks about issues of how ideas are formed, how ideas develop, how they work on the subconscious level, how they work... How you can actively develop ideas. It's just absolutely fascinating, if you are at all interested in science... Just... I mean... Every page of the book, I would just be fascinated by some new idea that he had. So anyway, good book.
[Howard] You can support the podcast and start a free trial membership over at Audible. Lasts 30 days, get a copy of Imagine by Jonah Lehrer, and then pick some other titles for 30% off.
[Rob] Cool.

[Brandon] All right.
[Rob] I was...
[Brandon] I do want to kind of... Oh, go ahead, Rob.
[Rob] Oh, I was just going to finish that thought. One of the reasons that I am so vocal about it is... Going to Mary's point about isolation. I, for a long time, suffered in silence basically. A few people knew about it. My wife knew about it. Obviously, my doctor
about it. I was seeing a psychologist, and my psychologist knew about it. My immediate family knew about it mainly because I was even having trouble hanging out with... At family parties. Dan knows this. I haven't been to a family party in a year. Which doesn't bother me.
[Dan] Which doesn't bother him because he's hated family parties his whole life. It's just now he has an excuse to avoid them.
[Rob] Darn right. But the reason that I essentially came out about my mental illness is because I was so tired of lying to people. Making up excuses for why I couldn't go to my writers group, or why I was having to call in sick to work. Why I was having to avoid church, or avoid other meetings or missing deadlines. I was so tired of lying about it that I thought I needed to talk about these things. It has helped immensely to just be open. Even with the self harm. To Mary's point of... Don't isolate yourself because that only makes it worse. Even though when you're in the situation, all you want to do is isolate yourself.

[Brandon] Okay. Yeah. I mean... The point of this podcast in my mind is to let our listeners know that these things happen. Some of you may be feeling things like this, and try and help you... This is not a how to write better. We'll do a how to write better regarding psychology, probably next. Right now, we want to talk about keep... Take care of yourself, and these are ways to help with it.
[Howard] Did we want to address any of the more obviously, more blatantly physical aspects of this?
[Brandon] Yeah, we probably should.
[Howard] Repetitive motion and whatever else. Because as a... I mean, Mary as a puppeteer and me as an artist, we've both suffered from, "Oh, my hand hurts."
[Mary] Yeah, although I have to say that writing is a lot harder on me physically in some ways than the puppetry was. Because the puppetry was a physically active lifestyle, and I know... It's like, "Oh, I've hurt myself and now I need to deal with this as an injury." As a writer, it's like... I moved to a standing desk because my lower back was hurting because I was sitting all the time. It took me the longest time to treat it seriously, because I hadn't done anything. I'm having shoulder issues that... When I was in performance, I would totally have... I would've gone to the doctor a year ago for this stuff that's going on with my shoulder. But again, because I haven't done anything, it doesn't feel like it's an injury, even though I totally know that it is related to my writing posture and I need to address it.

[Brandon] So, wait. Do... Dan, you use a writing desk, too?
[Dan] I do a standing desk.
[Brandon] Standing desk. So three of us... All three of us... I stand at a desk, too. We all have standing desks now. Those are really nice. Mine's actually on top of a treadmill, so I can...
[Brandon] Have you seen my tread desk?
[Mary] I've been wanting to try your tread desk.
[Brandon] Yeah, I'll have to... I can turn it on. I only am walking for about two hours out of an eight hour day, but I... That just motion of walking has helped me... Like I feel so much more alive and energized and things. It's not a weight loss thing. It's just a keep moving thing. It's wonderful.

[Howard] I found that... I injured my left hand. I don't know what I did to it, but I had tennis elbow and the hand swelling up weird. I had to stop going to the gym, because I just flat out couldn't hold the equipment. I haven't been back to the gym for a few months since... Maybe one or two trips. What I found is that I now need more sleep and I'm in more pain than when I was exercising regularly. The good news is that one of the things that I studied while I was there at the gym... They had a free yoga class that I was going to. I have found that I can do just 10 or 15 minutes of yoga stretches and make most of the problems go away. Now that's sort of its own problem, because it's a fix that makes most of the problems go away. I need to get back to the gym.

[Brandon] I think I should tell you how I built my tread desk... Those listening.
[Dan] Excellent.
[Brandon] Because I went online and they cost like six grand, like for a cheap one. I built mine for under a thousand dollars. I went to Walmart and I bought their treadmill. I bought a medium level treadmill. You only need to be going one or two miles an hour. I bought a little particleboard sort of end table that would fit over it. I measured and made sure the feet were far enough apart. Then the thing that made it all come together was I built a metal computer stand. One of these things that looks like the deals that hold music, except it's for computers. I took... Didn't put the wheels on the bottom. I set it on top and it's like... You can imagine it sits up next to someone's desk. I stretched the thing up. I put the top that would hold the computer all the way down. Then I put my computer on top of that. Those three things piled on top of each other are perfect.
[Rob] How long did it take you to get used to it?
[Brandon] The next day, I was like, "This is awesome." From day one, I was loving it.
[Howard] I'm going to go take a couple of pictures of Brandon's tread desk and we will post those with the episode.
[Dan] What you need to do is get some pictures of my standing desk, which is the cheapest possible thing. It's literally a bunch of boxes stacked on top of each other in my friend's basement. I will go and I will stand on that. It took me forever to get convinced to use a standing desk. It literally took a tailbone injury where I could not sit down.
[Howard] You built that for just 2500 bucks.
[Dan] I know.
[Howard] That's including all of the stuff.
[Dan] I wanted to buy the nicest cardboard boxes possible.
[Howard] Yeah, that's including the materials that were in the boxes.
[Rob] They're all full of TVs.
[Mary] I just got a... You know those little folding out trays that you use when you... The breakfast tray that you have on your bed? I just put one of those on top of my regular desk. Then I have a bookshelf behind it that I have a monitor on. I will say that when I first started using the standing desk and I just had my keyboard on the thing, that because I was looking down, I started having neck issues. So getting the monitor directly in front of me made a huge difference. But it... Yeah, big fan of that. Also getting in the habit of exercising when I get up in the morning helps.
[Brandon] All right.
[Rob] I use a regular desk.
[Dan] Like a chump.
[Rob] Just wanted to chip in. Like a punk. So here's a question for you, Daniel. I know we're out of time.
[Dan] Go ahead and ask.

[Rob] You and I both suffer from insomnia, and I think you do, too, Brandon, right?
[Brandon] Yes. I have never called it suffer from.
[Dan] And Howard.
[Brandon] Because the insomnia has helped me a lot. But, yes, it is something I deal with. Insomnia. I've never had a job that I had to be up at a certain time. The closest was high school. But I always just came home from school and slept. So it's basically been the way I have lived my life. I don't even think about having it. But yeah, I do have insomnia.
[Dan] Yeah. I...
[Howard] Insomnia's a problem for me. It's a productivity hack for Brandon.
[Rob] It's a problem for me. But I know that Dan, you've said that you didn't know how people wrote books without insomnia.
[Dan] Yeah. I have no idea. There's an episode of Star Trek where Q gets turned into a human, and the first time he gets tired, he thinks he's dying. When I finally found an insomnia medicine that worked, and I got tired at 9 o'clock, I'm like, "Is this what normal people are like? How can you live like this?" I've never taken it since. I love insomnia now.
[Mary] Yeah. I find that I wake... I sleep like five or six hours. Which I didn't used to, it was longer. Then I wake up sometimes at ridiculous o'clock early and then work for a little bit and then go back and take a nap.
[Howard] I think the military calls that oh dark 30.
[Mary] Oh dark 30. The butt crack of early.

[Brandon] All right. Writing prompt. Howard, you had one last time, and I cut you off. Do you want to use it this time?
[Howard] Last time it was very specific to writing cliffhangers. What I want you to do is, I want you to take an outline, and instead of outlining traditional outline, make a list of the questions you are going to ask your readers at the beginning of the book, and then make a much shorter list of the questions you are going to not answer for your readers right at the end.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.

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