The life of a writer is often assumed to be unsustainable and unhealthy. Iconic images like Hemingway and Faulkner writing furiously with whiskey in hand still influence a stereotype of what the successful writer’s practice should look like. On the other side of the coin, many career writers scramble to reach professional benchmarks or find validation in fame, remaining unsatisfied by what they’ve accomplished. But writing can just as soon be a practice that opens the mind without sacrificing physical and mental health. It took me a long time to learn—with years of chronic pain—that my writing practice is sustainable only if I am taking care of myself and that my own happiness is essential to growing my craft.
This is especially important since my fiction often concerns suicide and mental illness. Lately, I’ve wanted to learn how other writers look after themselves when working with difficult subjects and how the physical and emotional strain of writing informs their prose and process. Melissa Chadburn explores a serial killer in her forthcoming novel, A Tiny Upward Shove. Sarah Tomlinson writes about her complex relationship with her father and her own suicidal ideations in her memoir, Good Girl. And J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest, a New York Times bestseller, is a family drama about food, poverty, and loss.
Below are highlights from conversations with these three writers on how they stay cheerful and alive, as I know them to be, when spending hours each day lingering in the dark underbellies of their imagination.
As for me? Well, I just might buy myself flowers today.
Carmiel Banasky: What self-care practices or rituals to you have as a writer?
Sarah Tomlinson: I decided I was a writer when I was sixteen. And in my early days, I was very into the Jack Kerouac school of smoking/drinking/living hard. I guess I figured if I could smoke and drink like Jack, maybe I could write like him. Also, at that age, I often found it hard to be alone for the long hours writing required, because I always feared I was missing [out on] something, and so drinking a few glasses of wine while I wrote somehow gave me the illusion that I was living this dramatic, exciting life, even when I was sitting alone in a room with my laptop.
Obviously, that wasn’t sustainable. Now, the hardest stuff I imbibe while I’m writing is Earl Gray tea (with a side of dark chocolate).
I started running when I was 23. Getting outside for a run every day, or at least every day I’m writing, is crucial for keeping a balance between the physical entropy of writing and my desire, as I get older, to have a healthy life in my body. I’ve also always been interested in how other writers manage their creative lives, and I remember reading a great piece by Joyce Carol Oates about how running impacted her writing life, which has always stayed with me. I find that I come up with all sorts of interesting ideas when I’m running.
IT TOOK ME A LONG TIME TO LEARN… THAT MY WRITING PRACTICE IS SUSTAINABLE ONLY IF I AM TAKING CARE OF MYSELF.
I also have a transcendental meditation practice, which seems to keep my emotional equilibrium in a good (better) place.
J Ryan Stradal: I must admit that, at this point in my life, I don't have the healthiest writing habits. A lot of things fall by the wayside in the quest to get in the zone and truly inhabit a character. When I'm writing every day, I don't exercise nearly enough. I usually eat well, but I have alcohol too frequently. I do try to get a lot of sleep and drink a lot of water. I eat fruits and vegetables every day. Sadly for me, my chair/desk situation is promoting bad posture, I snack too often, and I'm completely reliant on caffeine.
In terms of practices that are healthy and consistent, I'm a morning writer—I wake up every day with my head full of ideas, and my favorite thing to do is to hop out of bed and get to it. Sometimes I go on a walk to think things over—I'm most comfortable when I'm perambulating. Emotionally, I do my best to ensure that the people in my life who are depending on me have their needs met, and if something has to change, I let them know in advance. I often can't write well if there's too much Sturm und Drang happening in my personal life. I need to know that the people I love are OK.
I FIND THAT I COME UP WITH ALL SORTS OF INTERESTING IDEAS WHEN I’M RUNNING.
Melissa Chadburn: I walk. There seems to be no problem too great to be lessened by walking—especially writing problems such as challenges with structure or determining “point of telling.” Every day, I wake up at around 5:30 or 6 am and journal. This is a combination of morning pages and a quick 4-minute chart of observations as instructed and designed by Lynda Barry.
Then I walk. I have a Fitbit, so I can now tell you now that I walk about 10,000 steps a day. I love to listen to a short story podcast and walk in Griffith Park, and then, if the story ends, I will often run home.
In writing, before I begin the tough stuff, I will often light a candle and do some sort of breathing exercise, feeling my feet on the floor, signifying that I'm about to head into the deep down dark, the guts and rumble-tumble. When I finish, I blow out the candles and again feel my feet on the floor to signify bringing myself back to present.
CB: In what ways do you treat yourself kindly when you’re burned out or down on yourself?
ST: I’m still learning to be kind to myself. This is why my creative friends are so necessary. When I’m convinced that I’m never going to have another original idea, and my writing is terrible, and that I’m a total fraud, they remind me that I’ve felt this way many times before and have always gotten myself out of such funks (usually by writing my way out).
I also have dinner with my boyfriend almost every night. The ritual of cooking and talking about our days is enjoyable and grounding.
JS: I'm not very good at relaxing or taking time off. What happens is that I get sick (as I am now) after a long period of intense work. It just seems like my body is forcing itself to shut down and take it easy. Once in a blue moon, after completing something strenuous, I'll get a massage or something indulgent like that. If the stoppage is writing-related, I read. Nothing fuels me like books. But too often, I don't treat myself very kindly. I push myself to the point of exhaustion to meet or exceed my goals.
I’M STILL LEARNING TO BE KIND TO MYSELF. THIS IS WHY MY CREATIVE FRIENDS ARE SO NECESSARY.
MC: I buy myself flowers. I allow myself to be yummy and sad and useless, binge watching Twinkies-for-my-brain-nonsense shows like Real Housewives. I try to stick close to where the love is. I really have to balance my time between being a writer and a spectator.
CB: Why did you start thinking about self-care?
ST: As I’ve written about, especially in my memoir, Good Girl, I had two periods in my early to mid-thirties when I came very close to committing suicide. Although I’ve been in and out of therapy for much of my adult life, I’ve never been diagnosed with depression. When I pulled myself out of the abyss, the best that I could figure was that I’d driven myself to this dark, isolated place with my extreme perfectionism. I remember when L’Wren Scott took her life, I totally got that—how the pressure to be perfect could become so exhausting that annihilation might seem preferable. Luckily, I was able to get enough perspective (with the help of therapy and the support of my family and friends) to see that if the two choices are to live this beautiful, messy, confounding experience as a less-than-perfect writer and person, or to not exist at all, I’ll choose the mess. I reprioritized my life so that happiness gets to be on the list of my goals.
JS: I had to, because I can’t go on like this. It's an evolving process. One day, I anticipate writing as part of a balanced day that includes exercise and plenty of sleep and three to four small balanced meals. I'm on my way but not there yet. I still work up to ten hours a day, which is productive but depleting and self-perpetuating.
I’VE SPENT MY LIFE SWINGING ON A PENDULUM BETWEEN I’M NOT READY YET AND FUCK IT, AND I THINK MY JOB IS TO TRY TO FIND COMFORT SOMEWHERE IN THE CENTER.
MC: I am a die-hard codependent person who is wired for worry. I think I just got sick and tired of feeling bad all the time. That is the simple answer. The more complicated answer is that I survived two brothers—one to a heroin overdose and the other to AIDS. My brother who died of AIDS’ last words were: “I’m not ready yet.” And my brother who died of a heroin overdose’s last words were: “fuckeeeeeitttt.” I’ve spent my life swinging on a pendulum between I’m not ready yet and fuck it, and I think my job is to try to find comfort somewhere in the center.
CB: Have you had experiences with mental or physical health that are related to (or informed by) your writing or your writing lifestyle?
ST: I know it always seems over-the-top when people say writing or art or kayaking or bagels saved their life. But I do truly believe that writing (my own and that of other writers) has saved my life at times. Not only when I was suicidal, but also when I was a teenager and during other low periods when I’ve felt isolated. Writing has made me feel like I’m a part of a community, which has been so important for, well… everything. I also have the good fortune of working as a celebrity ghostwriter, which may not sound like a service job. But it’s actually brought me close to a number of very successful people who also happen to have struggled with all kinds of addiction, physical and sexual abuse, mental illness, obesity, and pretty much every kind of hardship you can imagine. Helping them to tell their stories has given me a really clear understanding of the power of writing.
JS: Fortunately, not yet—besides the odd summer cold—in which case I usually shut down and don't do any work until I feel better.
MC: My mother suffers from mental illness, and I grew up in foster care. I think that writing has been cathartic for me, something of a constant no matter where I lived.
CB: How did you address these issues or begin the healing process?
ST: I guess you could say I addressed my issues (abandonment issues, self-esteem issues, perfectionism issues) by writing about them with as much candor and humor as possible. When I look back at my memoir, I sometimes feel a little embarrassed because it seems so raw and emotionally extreme. And I don’t feel that way about my father or myself or my life anymore. But I understand that I had to write that book, in that state of mind, and put it out into the world, in order to get to the next state of mind.
JS: There's a school of thought that you should act like you're not sick when you are and power through things, and I can't do that—at least not well. For me, my healing processes last as long as they have to. It's the one thing related to my writing career where I can't impose a schedule or expectations.
MC: I'm a member of a 12-step program for friends and family members of addicts and alcoholics. I stay close to where the love is. I try to get enough rest. I try not to make any big decisions when I'm hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. I fail sometimes. I get my feelings hurt sometimes. I practice forgiveness for myself and other people. When something starts feeling bad, I try to stop doing that thing if it doesn't serve me anymore. I used to go on these awful pain jags. Like, if I was in pain, I’d go and hunt for more. If I was in the middle of a big publication rejection, I’d start looking up exes on Facebook—that sort of thing.
FOR ME, MY HEALING PROCESSES LAST AS LONG AS THEY HAVE TO. IT'S THE ONE THING RELATED TO MY WRITING CAREER WHERE I CAN'T IMPOSE A SCHEDULE OR EXPECTATIONS.
Now I know if I'm in pain I'm either in the past or the future, and I try to bring myself back to the present. The only thing that's happening right now is: it's Friday morning, and I'm in my living room, a dog to my left and a dog to my right, both of them snoring. The birds chirping like mad. Looks a bit like it might rain here in LA—which is a relief. I'm answering questions for the witty, talented, pretty Carmiel—that's what's happening.