Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Healthy Writer

I've occasionally made reference to my radio scripts that I write each week. That's sort of my side job, and it's actually a continuation of my very first professional job. I worked for almost five years in the news and public information office at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Part of that job involved writing the public service radio health information spots (so I actually got to use my broadcast journalism degree), and I've kept doing this one task as a freelancer. This feature is called Health Watch and is syndicated on the ABC Radio Networks, so if you ever hear that feature, I wrote it (you can imagine fairies and gargoyles in it, if you like). It's a way of staying on top of medical news and keeping my ear for medical jargon (I like to say I'm multilingual -- I'm fluent in two dialects of jargon, medical and telecommunications), as well as earning some steady money. Anyway, I was writing my scripts this week, so health-type stuff is on my mind.

I know from personal experience that when you're on a writing binge, it's all too easy to get into some non-healthy habits. You grab junk food or eat whatever you can throw from your freezer into your microwave, you consume large amounts of caffeine, and you don't find the time to move very far from your desk chair. I also know from personal experience that although you think you're giving yourself more time to write by doing that, you may actually hurt your own productivity.

Believe it or not, there have been scientific studies showing that exercise boosts creativity and brain power. People perform better on tests of creativity and cognitive reasoning after an exercise session. Taking a little time away from the computer could, therefore, make you more productive when you return to it. It also helps you avoid carpal tunnel syndrome and aches and pains in your neck, shoulders and back. I do have to force myself to get moving, and that's one of my resolutions. I have found that when I'm stuck, taking a walk can give me time to think, and I usually come up with a great idea along the way (I've been known to get a run in this way, too, when I come up with a great idea and then turn and run back home as fast as I can). Sometimes I make a mix tape of songs that make me think of the book or characters and listen to that while I'm walking (an iPod playlist would work, too, but I'm low-tech and am one of the five people in America who doesn't own an iPod). I'm also trying to make myself do yoga more often to loosen my neck, back and shoulders. I used to have great posture, thanks to dance and marching band. I once, on a dare, walked all the way across the University of Texas campus with a textbook balanced on top of my head. But I noticed in a lot of pictures taken of me last year that I was slouching pretty badly, so I need to do something about that.

The other thing that's important is drinking plenty of water. Caffeinated beverages don't count toward your water intake. Caffeine is a diuretic, so it's actually the opposite of drinking water (alcohol, too). You really do think better when you're drinking enough water. The eight glasses a day thing is actually not entirely true. Your water needs depend on your activity level and environment. If you're sitting at your desk all day in cool weather, you may not need as much, maybe around six glasses. When I'm cold, I sometimes have a hard time making myself drink water, but all the hot beverages I really like are either high in calories or caffeinated, so there's not a great substitute. But I can really tell a difference in my energy levels and thought processes when I drink enough water.

I don't have any studies to back up the idea that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables helps your creativity, but it does make you healthier in general, and not having a cold or some other illness really does make it easier to write.

Of course, chocolate is an essential food group in the writer's arsenal. Dark chocolate is actually quite good for you. It's a good source of antioxidants that fight disease, and it's got more antioxidants and less fat and calories than milk chocolate. Drinking a cup of hot cocoa made with dark chocolate is the equivalent to a glass of red wine as a source of antioxidants.

Getting enough sleep also may help, but that's something I struggle with when I'm in the middle of a book. My brain won't shut off, so it takes hours for me to fall asleep, and then I have weird dreams and wake up a lot, which is why I then sleep very late. Last year, I decided to just go with the weird pattern, so I stayed up half the night writing and only went to bed when I was truly sleepy. Most of Damsel Under Stress was written after 10 p.m. If you have a normal day job that doesn't let you sleep until 10 in the morning, it can be a challenge finding time to both write and sleep, but finding that balance does make it easier to write better. Then again, I get some of my best ideas when I'm having trouble sleeping. In fact, I know I'm really into a book and on a roll when I hit the not-sleeping state.

So, that's all my health nagging. I just don't want any of my readers dropping dead over the keyboard. I need all the book sales I can get!

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