Warning: while this essay is really about writing, it contains highly descriptive talk, and quite a bit of it, about poop. If you’re very sensitive to poop-talk, you may want to skip it. Plenty of other stuff for you to read on the interwebs!
Back when I was first diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and trying to figure out this crazy new way my body was functioning (or not), I kept several diaries.
The first was a diary-diary, where I’d blather about what was happening in my brain and my heart because of all the upheaval in my gut. This is the diary that kept me sane, along with a few very carefully chosen friends who were good at dealing with illness and could either look at me without draining of color or talk to me like this was just something I was going through, not something I was destined to be.
Within this diary, I also kept a kind of secondary diary-slash-visualization-map of my gut healing, drawing my poor, broken colon every day with all of its current inhabitants: the Asacol, prednisone, Cipro, and mercaptopurine; the “bad” bugs that had taken up camp and brought me to my knees; and the “good” bugs that I was now sending in via massive infusions of SCD-legal yogurt. I added callouts and anthropomorphized the bugs with little faces and talk bubbles, using a lot of gentle encouragement to usher them out, with plenty of “Thanks for the help, we’ll take it from here!” reassurances from the new troops.
But in addition to all of this fairly squishy emotional stuff, I also kept a ridiculously comprehensive third diary of input and output. By which I mean I wrote down everything that went into my body and everything, including the quality and consistency, that came out. We called them “food logs” in SCD parlance, but let’s face it: they were poop journals, filled with page after page of Mr. Hankeys and the stuff that made them.
I kept this diary daily for well over a year, refining and finessing it as I went along. As I became sensitive to things that might impact my intestinal health, I’d add them: my menstrual cycle, my sleep (both quantity and quality), my external stressors. After a while, it became ridiculously obvious what worked and what didn’t, what I needed to do more of and what, or whom, I needed to do my best to avoid. Toward the end of the first year, my father’s Crohn’s took a severe turn for the worse, and his organs began shutting down. The day I got the call, almost immediately, I started bloating and cramping. And sure enough, the next morning I was gifted with an enormous explosion of diarrhea lurking behind the perfectly normal poop that had formed in the chute before the bad news.
The good news, however, was that I’d determined what bad news, or too much broccoli, or too few hours of sleep, would bring.
* * * * *
I have a friend who is a sort of Program maven, by which I mean she has spent a lot of time figuring out how 12-step thingamajiggies work, and the patterns they tend to follow. And one of the central tenets of all Programs is bringing your full attention to that which, up until now, you have not. You start with the obvious thing, your drinking, your beating yourself up over someone else’s drinking, your sexual fixations, your spending, and you note it. All of it. She told me that in Debtors’ Anonymous one of the mandates is that you keep a diary noting every penny that goes in and out of your life. Every penny, no rounding!
What it does is bring awareness to the actions you likely had been sleepwalking through before: picking up “just” a pack of gum at checkout, sticking a couple of quarters in the parking meter, blowing a month’s rent on the third race at Santa Anita.1 As an experiment in untangling my own clutter around money, I test-drove an index-card hack my friend Alison came up with, for two weeks, I noted every expenditure or bit of income, and any emotions that bubbled up around it. It was illuminating and not a little alarming, seeing all the anxieties secretly embedded in each transaction. Were I to do it long-term (like the Debtors’ Anonymous tool) and add a lot of surrounding detail (like my poop diary), I’m guessing I’d start to see some pretty helpful causal connections.
* * * * *
Writing is physical. There’s an emotional component, certainly, and maybe even a mystical one. When I get cranking, it certainly feels like I’m channeling something that’s not exactly me.
But physically, it’s your ass in the chair and your hands at the keyboard (or on the pen, you freak, you). Even the rogue, fairy-dust stuff is fueled by whatever keeps your brain floating in a happy mix of water and salts. And none of those things work as well, your ass’s ability to stay put, your hands’ ability to move, your gray mass’s ability to process, unless a whole series of things have happened before. Things like eating and drinking the right things in the right quantities. Things like exercise and rest and full-on rest, a.k.a. adequate sleep. And high-quality sleep: sleep begun and ended at the right times, uninterrupted, if possible. I have written enough and long enough that I can power through a crappy body day, but it all goes much, much more easily if, for at least 24 hours before I sit down to write, I have been living right. Because writing takes literal, physical energy.
If it didn’t, Laura Hillenbrand would have 14 amazing books written by now and I’d feel even worse about my inability to produce a single one.
* * * * *
It’s easy to mock the body optimizing movement: Tim Ferriss has done some pretty extreme and even borderline creepy things in the name of getting the most out of his original-issue equipment. What’s more, he’s done it in such a way that it would be equally easy to chalk it up to hubris, a need for attention, a desire to cheat death, a lust for winning. But that would be me (or you, or anyone else) judging: even if he was completely forthcoming and totally forthright about his reasons, it’s still him articulating them, and there’s still some part of the spectrum we’re all unable to be completely honest about because we can’t access it: we have a blind spot, we don’t know what we don’t know, and because we’re constantly evolving, we can’t know everything about ourselves. (Although with time and practice, we can get a lot better at guesstimating.)
But I’m starting to get it now, on a deeply personal level. While I don’t fear death, I live in abject terror of a long, slow, decline. I am wild at the idea of not being able to get all the music out before certain music-making parts of me shut down. What a cruel joke, that I finally start to “get” it, and another “it” is taken away. So I stay in and soak in a hot bath when I might rather go out. I forsake my beloved espresso for weak black tea, and slowly work in green instead of even that, though it always and forever will taste to me like drinking a wet lawn. I note the days when the writing comes well, and what I have and have not ingested/done/experienced in the hours leading up to this.
I am not just a writer when I sit down to write: I am a writer three hours before, in my last REM cycle. I am a writer 10 hours before, when I forgo another half-hour of BBC porn on my laptop for a (fiction, non-self-improving) book to wind down with. I am a writer 14 hours before, when I make my worker-bee self stop for the day.2 I am a writer 18 hours before, when I elect to do my stupid Nei Kung instead of answering another 10 emails; I am a writer 20 hours before, when I stop myself from eating a Medjool date, yes, that’s what it’s come to, and have some yogurt with applesauce instead. (No one can say I don’t know how to live it up, baby!)
The gift of operating a writing business from a rapidly decaying, overused-and-abused bag of aging parts is that I see with far more clarity what works and what gums up the works.
To be a better writer today, I had to start yesterday.
Fortunately, to be a better writer tomorrow, I can start today.
1Hey, I don’t judge, I’m the lady who spent the better part of a year divesting herself of (mostly, for nothing) what it took dozens of years and thousands of dollars to mindlessly acquire. And when Brooks helped me bring my awareness to the tangle of emotions I had caught up in my clutter, he did it the same way: we looked at each item, one at a time, and asked whether I still needed it or could let it go.
2If you’re doing the math as we go, I usually start writing at 9am, which means I’m still stopping my work day late, at 7pm. Worker Bee is working on it, okay?