Last year during the month of December, I didn’t stop writing—a first for me during the month of holidays. In fact, I wrote more than I had the previous three months combined. For the first time since last June I completed my so-called “monthly” column, entered a writing contest, and typed copious notes for several new columns, as well as completing a few manuscripts for clients. The reason for this was obvious to me; I’d done two theater productions in the past few months and was stuck in bed for several days with bronchitis. Once again I’d been reminded of my need for something to stop the buzz of mania in which I spin, unable to sit still enough to focus my thoughts on paper.
Herein lies a myth about mania, at least as it applies to me—that all artists resist giving it up. Because they feel too dumbed down by the drugs, dragged through swamps with lead chains. Others resist therapy, meditation, or any treatment at all; they require the high in order to create. Think Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf.
If that craving—that need for mental chaos—is the litmus test for creative genius, I clearly fail. I need to float around like an astronaut, in that space between synapses, to turn on the creative faucet. Otherwise, I’m just spinning around projects, dancing around my twirling office chair, never comfortable enough to open the part of my brain where thoughts flow freely through my fingers.
When I have the discipline, yoga sometimes does the trick, but once the bubbling tea kettle screams too loud, my mind boils over from the high to before it comes back down to that writing space. If I catch my zooming, cartoon reflection in time, deep breathing can sometimes stave off a migraine, where the flashing lights scream “warning” in more ways than one. Too many trips over my own toes up the stairs, close misses while cooking with a kitchen knife, or firecracker-fuse tantrums at my kids and husband for a change in my Sunday picnic plans will occasionally give me pause. But once that top starts spinning inside from over-work, overstress, lack of sleep, or other triggers, if I don’t turn the tide soon enough with self-care, eventually the migraine or bronchitis chains me to my bed.
Lava-like jealousy for prolific writers oozes from my pores. Even one of my best friends treads carefully around my green-eyes. Yet I know the words are inside me; like that volcano, they only erupt when they are ready. When the tectonic plates shift just right: belly fed; bathroom visited; children chauffeured; endorphins engaged; just enough caffeine; a walk under the trees; hips, thighs, and the back of my shoulders stretched; then most importantly, my breathing settles in . . . I write.
And yet, I’ll still never be one of those writers who loses track of time. Who sits for hours until my fingers cramp up depositing my thoughts on paper or keyboard. I’m simply too distractible. I need time limits and breaks. I need stretch rewards. Texts from writing buddies. Another quick walk or a cup of tea. A jog up and down the stairs. Pay the bills, do the laundry, the dishes, throw dinner in the crockpot—anything else I’ve been putting off. And then . . . sit down and breathe into it all over again.
You might ask: how was I ever a straight A student in high school, nearly so in college, cum laude and law review in law school, a successful lawyer? Fear. Fear of failure. Fear of judgment and breaking rules. What might happen if I did? (It’s the same reason I faithfully stay on my meds). Now as a freelance writer, rules and deadlines arise less often. I’m much more productive with my editing clients because I set deadlines with them. I make promises.
But if I’m careful, inspiration still comes. The thoughts unfold like antique cloth with deep folds, so deep they almost look like seams. My ears need to stay awake for stories buzzing behind them. Another thing I’ve remembered this month when I’ve been listening to my body in its actual, present state—instead of the mindless routines and habits I mold my life around—is that when my body and mind have healed, my brain works best while moving: all my lines as “Corrie” for Barefoot in the Park seeped in drip-by-drip while on a spin bike.
My words flow from a kinesthetic source. So, as I move through the daily patterns of my life—driving, spinning, showering, practicing yoga, walking, and running through the trees, I now carry a phone with yellow note pages that turn when I press a button. This technology smiting writer can be found most days of the week perched on a spin bike in the hallway of the gym where I teach yoga, legs circling as my torso holds me upright, awkwardly punching touch-screen buttons on a two-year old iPhone that desperately needs updating, storing my half-baked stories until I can plant myself in a chair.
Amy McElroy is a writer, freelance editor, writing coach, and yoga instructor. Previously, she taught writing as an assistant in the Writing Center and in the classroom, at Gavilan College. She was also an attorney in another lifetime. She has published numerous personal essays in print and online periodicals, such as Milk and Ink: Family in the Extreme. She also read her work periodically on KUSP, an independent radio station in Santa Cruz, California. Her blog-posts can be found at indie-visible.com, a writer’s collective for indie authors.
Photo by Peter Beug licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 International License.