Health & Wellness

(I recently wrote a book on writing call The Glorious Grind: Meditations on Crafting Fiction & The Writing Life and have decided to simply publish it in installments here.)

Chapter Twelve

Health & Wellness

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Writing novels and short stories is not an inherently healthy task. You spend a lot of time sitting at a desk writing or sitting in a chair reading. I can only imagine the amount of stationary hours, once added up, that writing has added to my life. It must be in the tens of thousands by now, and this on top of all the hours spent sitting at my day job and planted in front of the television or a movie theater screen. So much sitting. An ocean of sitting.

There’s also the drinking. For some reason, writing and drinking seem to go really well together! I know, a bold statement, right? The field of writing has seen more than its fair share of raging alcoholics, high-functioning boozers, cryptic, insomniac sousers, stern, tight-lipped dipsomaniacs, delirious inebriates, on-the-road ravers, bombastic bloated barflies, and posh, hyper-arrogant tipplers. I just googled “alcohol and writing” and the phrase churned up two hundred and seventeen million results.

After dabbling here and there in novellas as a kid (they primarily featured the furry TV alien A.L.F. and ninjas) I sat down and wrote my first novel at fifteen. Unlike what you’d expect, I didn’t start throwing back mason jars of whiskey and gin straight off. No, sir. I didn’t drink much at all until I was twenty-two, actually, when I was a senior studying abroad in England for a semester. It was the fall of 2001 and the world seemed to have gone insane. I read the newspaper every day (the printed one) in the University of East Anglia’s student center while drinking cup after cup of coffee. My mother had died the year before after a two decade battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and the complications that result in treating it with 1980s era radiation. I searched the sky for answers. For meaning. I went to every class but my course load turned out to be remarkably light, a tourist’s course load, and I was left with a lot of time on my hands in my comically small student apartment.

This is when I discovered drinking could be your friend. Your nightly consolation. You’d think I would have been a drinking man since arriving at college three years earlier but I’d never really felt the need—I always joked that my imagination was so stoked I didn’t need booze. But then in England I discovered Scotch whiskey and hard apple cider (a big favorite of British teenagers, I was told) and I’ve been a big booze fan ever since, though I’ve graduated to hoppy IPAs, Old Fashioneds, and dirty martinis.

Yet if you’re expecting the turn here, the big writerly recovering alcoholic confessional, it’s not coming. Why? Frankly, I don’t think I have the stamina or inclination to be an alcoholic. Have you ever read an alcoholic’s biography? To reach that level you have to be truly committed to drinking. It’s a whole soul crushing raging beast of its own. You have to get up ready to roll. You have to hide booze in clever places. Myself, I don’t like drinking in the morning or the afternoon and I don’t particularly enjoy happy hour, either. I can’t write at a high level drunk. I can’t read drunk. What I am, you see, is a night drinker!

I’ll write into the evening, until nine or ten o’clock, and then I’ll hit that writing goal for the day and push back my desk chair. I’ll fire up the TV (that great friend of the drinker), make a cocktail, and suddenly three or four hours will have flown by and I’m bound for my bed, all caught up on my media allotment and ready for a profound sleep. Booze and TV are my sweet reward for a hard day’s work and my good pals—I am the modern day Netflix-loving writer!

#

Fifteen years of writing and night drinking and stir fry eating and not much exercising[1] caught up with me eventually. I grew fat! My cheeks became puffy! Oh, Lord. The ignominy of it all. The ignominy of getting older! My thirties! My mid-thirties! I was 5’9” and 245 pounds of writer man and I was not so happy with my appearance in photographs. I scowled at myself in the dark reflection of my computer monitor, frowned to see my passing reflection in storefront windows. I was working my ass off at my desk but I looked as soft and plump as prairie dog who’d eaten his way out of a barrel full of cheese curds.

Then one day about a year ago I went into the dentist to my get my teeth cleaned and they took my blood pressure. Apparently my pressure was pretty high and the hygienist said if it was much higher they wouldn’t have been able to clean my teeth. What the hell, right? This hygienist was clearly overdoing it but still, this information gave me pause. Later that night, while I was getting my night drinker on, I was scanning through Netflix and saw a movie listed called Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead. The film image had a picture of a fat guy going into a vegetable juicer and coming out thin. I started the movie, even though it was already two in the morning, and I watched it all the way through, getting wicked drunk along the way.

The film, in a nutshell, is about an Australian fellow named Joe Cross who decides to fast for sixty days as he travels across America while drinking only water and vegetable juice. His main juice of choice is a blend of kale, cucumber, celery, green apple, lemon, and ginger, though he mixes it up every day to make sure he gets all the nutrients he needs. Joe loses a ton of weight and interviews Americans along the way about their dietary choices. In one scene, which continues to stick with me, he interviews a father and his teenage son and their friend as they eat in a greasy spoon-type diner. He asks the father if he’d be willing to drink vegetable juice for some of his meals while still getting to eat whatever he wants a couple times a week (i.e. steak and gravy-type fare) if he knew he’d be able to extend his life for many years and watch his son grow up. The guy thinks about it for about a half second and then replies no, when his time’s up his time’s up—it’s more important he eat whatever he feels like while he’s still alive.

Now I was no health nut[2], but that seemed rather dark to me and pretty lazy. This dude had a kid! He was supposed to be in it for the long haul! I’d always thought people had kids because A) they were tired of sleeping and B) it gave them a solid, undeniable reason to keep on trucking no matter how hard life got. Now here was this smug asshat who was unwilling to modify his diet for the sake of his kid. Jesus.

I stayed up until four AM watching the whole movie. In the morning, hungover as Lazarus popping out of the grave, I bought my first vegetable juicer and made a run to the produce section of my local grocery store.

#

The boozing writer’s life is not as glamorous in actuality as it has been made to seem in the popular consciousness. It’s a seductive image—drinking with Hemingway in Paris, drinking with Hemingway in Spain, drinking with Hemingway in Key West—but in actuality the overindulgence of alcohol (or any drug) tends to burn through talent like fire through deadwood. Writers spend a lot of time digging into their subconscious and uncovering the dark materials of their formative years. They draw on a deep, dark well of stored emotions and visceral experiences, expend a lot of energy transforming said material, and then refine that material into the high-grade fuel energy that brings their writing to life. It’s no wonder they seek relief, chemical and otherwise, and alcohol has traditionally been the most easily accessible form of relief available. They could turn to prescription medication, it’s true, but when you make a living with your mind every pill you take carries the risk of dulling your creative energies, of numbing you to the observational subtleties of environment that you draw on every day as your creative palette, of dampening the roaring voice that is You.

The artist is one big walking raw nerve and feels a lot of everything: the good, the bad, and the ugly. They can turn to prescription medication, drugs, booze, exercise, religion, having a family, but many can’t escape the feeling that they’re both dying to create and creating to avoid death. It weighs on them constantly, like a low tension drag, and there’s nothing glamorous about that. Just ask Ernest Hemingway or David Foster Wallace or Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf or Hunter S. Thompson or John Berryman or Anne Sexton or Hart Crane or John Kennedy Toole (man-o-man my heart breaks just typing his name in this list) or Spalding Gray or Richard Brautigan….

There’s nothing glamorous about being a corpse in a box.

#

I started making a green kale-based juice for lunch every day. I threw away the gummy faux-wheat bread and carcinogenic ham and oh-so-tasty Miracle Whip that had formed the basis for a lifetime of lunches and replaced them with a bottle of Mean Green. Never a big veggies guy beforehand, I started feeling a little peppier. I got rid of the milk in my fridge and the cereal in my cupboard and started drinking a blend of carrots and one green apple for my breakfast juice. I remembered the juicing movie with remarkable clarity (despite my gob smacked inebriation at the time) and thought about it whenever I was cutting up my vegetables and feeding them to the juicer.

I started to lose a little weight but it seemed to be going too slow for my liking. I was looking forward to the publication reading of my third book in June and wanted to be at my optimal writerly sexiness. So I took it up a notch. I started jogging in my neighborhood. It was…fucking terrible. I made it four blocks before I was huffing and puffing and had to turn back and walk home.

But I went running again the next day.

And the next.

It wasn’t pretty. None of this was pretty.

I started making eight blocks, then ten. I ignored the smirking fat smoking hipster who always holds vigil outside of my neighborhood pizza place and ran right by his smelly ironic ass. I made it to the park and back. I made playlists and put them on my iPod and I ordered one of those running armband carriers for it. I started running around Como Lake, which was prettier than my neighborhood. I bought cheap running clothes at Target. I kept running. Oh god I hated it. Oh god it was mighty. I did a ten day juice cleanse. I decided to apply the same day-in day-out dedication I normally reserved for working on a novel to losing weight—I flipped the crazy rabid gopher switch in the meaty recesses of my mind and just went for it. No more laziness justified by a prolific writing output and a day job and a sad personal history. No. No more justifications. None. I’d been childish and arrogant, ignoring my body and puffing up my ego. It had been easy to say fuck it, who wants to live forever, and do nothing about a correctible problem. It was much harder to be an adult and to do what needed to be done, however unpleasant, and keep things maintained. To keep shit tight.

By my reading I was down to 220. By October I was down to 190 and I was running up and down Summit Avenue like every gung-ho namby-pamby runner douchebag I’d always hated. I ran past this one school and a child had written on the sidewalk various inspirational things to the avenue’s many joggers in pink chalk. One phrase read, “Go hot wheels, go!”

The kid was right.

I was a hot wheels.

#

It’s been a year out now and I’m overdue for my yearly dental cleaning. I’m up to around 205 at the moment but I think I’ve got a handle on it (as long as my legs hold up—Jesus how they like to complain). I’m going to try to get down to 185 by June, when I am due to officiate a wedding. I still drink two to three vegetable/fruit juices every day. I go running four or five times a week and I can honestly say I’ve never felt a clearer sense of focus when I sit down to write. I used to hem and haw but now I just put on some tunes and go at it.

But I’m also still a night drinker. A TV binger. I still love extra sharp white cheddar cheese and reduced fat Triscuits and popcorn slathered in butter and sriracha and minced garlic. I love good beer and the occasional cigar. I still feel that drag that seems to accompany the process of creation, that melancholic tug, but I’ve come to accept it as part of the horror and the glory that is the Grind. I’ve learned to be kinder to myself, whether or not I really deserve it. Whether any of us deserve it.

And isn’t that what health and wellness is all about?

[1] I played on a beer league softball team during the summertime and walked about twenty minutes day to work and back but that was about it.

[2] I think I’d eaten a whole block of cheese that night.

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