Holistic Health for the Working Writer

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We live in a new pulp era, an era that prizes proliferation and productivity. Pulp Speed, the ability to write at least 3000 words a day, preferably more, is an essential skill for the writer who wants a shot at the big leagues. Through Pulp Speed I have written in the span of two years two novels, two novellas, eight short stories, and hundreds of blog posts, and I’m only getting started. But high output requires high energy, and high energy requires holistic health.

Writing is like most desk jobs today, but more difficult. You sit at a table for hours and hours on end, hunched over a computer and staring at a screen. Unlike some desk jobs, however, you can’t write by rote. Switching off your brain and writing produces only garbage text. You need to keep your creative juices flowing. You need to achieve a state of flow, and you can’t do that if you’re sick and tired all day.

If you want to produce strong work, you have to get strong.

Heavy Iron

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Hunching over a screen for hours and hours on end leads to poor posture, rounded shoulders, weak glutes and abs. This is a recipe for chronic backache, poor flexibility, and shallow breathing. Put it all together and you’ll have a miserable life.

I combat this through a carefully tailored physical training regimen. My workouts emphasise the upper back and posterior chain, focusing on weight training with compound movements following the 5×5 Starting Strength plan. The goal is to strengthen the glutes, abdominals, trapezius, latissimus dorsi and spine–the muscles and joints most significantly affected by a writing career.

My preferred exercises include:

  • sumo deadlifts
  • reverse lunges
  • squats
  • dips
  • bent barbell rows
  • overhead press
  • pullups
  • hanging leg raises
  • bridges

There are, of course, many other exercises out there that target the posterior chain, abs, back and spine, so don’t be afraid to try new exercises and see what works for you.

By strengthening the parts of your body most affected by a career of sitting down, you are proofing yourself atrophy and steeling your body against the wastage of stagnation. Regular exercise also keeps blood and oxygen pumping through your brain, boosting your creativity. Following this regimen, I work out three to five times a week, and no longer suffer from back pain and related hassles.

(I should, of course, point out that this is not medical advice, and you should always approach a doctor if you have complex ailments.)

Stay Flexible

Typing freezes you up. You are locked in position for hours upon hours on end, your body immobile while your fingers and hands and wrists fly across the keys. if you don’t move often, your joints will become stiffer and stiffer, until one day you realize you can’t scratch that itch in your back.

There are many benefits to joint flexibility, including increased strength, enhanced performance, increased fluidity and range of movement, better posture, and improved quality of life. This is not something strength training alone can resolve. Joint flexibility must be developed alongside strength training to keep yourself loose and limber.

In my case, I practice qigong every day, and mix up yoga asanas into my training plan. When warming up, I flow through a series of yoga asanas, including the tree, eagle, downward dog, snake, cat, triangle and all three warrior poses. Every so often, I get up from the desk to stretch and work every joint from head to toe, twisting and turning and circling and bending as much as the body can go.

Flexibility is a state of mind. To improve your flexibility, you must consistently stretch to the utmost of your ability, putting yourself right on the edge of discomfort. Do this long enough and your body will adapt and expand its range of motion. However, you must be be willing to push yourself there, to believe that you can become more flexible — and act on it. If you harbor the belief that you are a stiff, frozen lump of meat incapable of doing more than what you can now, you will remain that way into perpetuity.

Dynamic Posture

Slouching is the signature of this profession. Bad posture leads to bad backs and shallow breaths, which means you’re tired and in pain all the time. It is not conducive to sustained creative work.

The easiest way to fix your posture is to get up at regular intervals and press your back against the nearest wall. This automatically aligns your back, spine and head. Make a conscious effort to stand tall and straight, and if you feel yourself slipping, hasten thee to the nearest wall forthwith.

But posture is not static. It is dynamic. If your posture crumbles when you’re moving, you’re not going it right. You want to move with fluidity, grace, balance, and ease of motion. It is the perfect antidote to sitting in a chair for hours on end.

I take my postural cues from the Chinese martial arts. Your centre of gravity is the dan tian, two fingers below your navel and two inches within your body. When standing, keep your feet flat, relaxed and planted firmly into the ground, and keep your legs beneath your upper body. Everywhere above your hips should be loose and free and relaxed, sinking down into the earth. Your back should be straight and your tailbone tucked in. To do this, visualise a long, fine thread running through your body, starting from your crown, down your spine and dan tian, and out your perineum. Taking reference from your dan tian, keep this thread aligned and in between your legs.

When in motion, push off against the earth with complete mindfulness. Your feet should feel as though they are pressing completely and fully against the ground, the muscles of your calves and thighs and glutes should contract and expand, and your upper body should follow. The entirety of your body should feel loose but united; there should not be any unnecessary tension or unnatural motion isolated from the rest of your body.

If you’re ready for more advanced work, try the following. All motion should feel as if it originates from your dan tian. With your awareness locked on your dan tian, move your limbs in harmony with the rest of your body. Your hip movements guide your elbows. Your nose points where your navel points, your knees point with the toes, and your elbows point in the direction of motion.

Done properly, you should feel fluid and free and easy. Relaxed, calm movements should make you feel good — or at least, it should not be stiff and tense and awkward. Through easy motion, you counteract the rot of sitting still. When your body is free, your thoughts and words follow.

More Than Mere Movement

Personal health isn’t all exercises and motion and flexibility. A complete personal health plan should also incorporate rest and nutrition.

It’s hard enough being an office drone when you’re sleep-deprived. If you’re a writer, your brain is constantly on the go, churning out and refining new ideas every second. If you’re exhausted, you won’t be able to do this. You’ll likely find yourself staring at a blank screen with no idea what to write next for hours on end — or, more likely, you’ll just nod off.

Having enough sleep is essential to creativity. Find how much sleep you need every day and keep to it — and don’t go overboard. Too much sleep is as harmful as too little sleep, perhaps more so. Ideally, you’ll want to have enough sleep to keep yourself fresh and alert all day. Naps are fine, perhaps even necessary, so long as you don’t oversleep.

If you’re following the training regimen described above, you need to fuel your body appropriately. That means no junk food, no extra sugars, no processed carbohydrates. Make nutrient-dense foods the mainstay of your diet: fresh vegetables, high-quality protein, small amounts of fruits as desired. Dietary discipline grants you peak performance and high energy; poor diet lads to stodginess, fatigue and obesity.

There are a hundred other things you can do to further improve your quality of life. Sitting at your desk with proper posture. Taking frequent breaks to move, to look away and to rest your hands. Spending quality time with your loved ones. Engaging in meaningful hobbies and activities. Pursuing self-improvement and developing new strengths. Health isn’t limited to the physical: it is a holistic pursuit that encompasses the physical, mental and emotional.

Writing at Pulp Speed is challenging enough. Doing so when you are weak, exhausted, and aching is even more difficult. By pursuing holistic health through strength and flexibility training, developing posture, and proper sleep and nutrition, you gain the vitality for creative pursuits. To have high output, you must have high energy.

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If you’d like to see the result of Pulp Speed and holistic health, check out my latest novel Hammer of the Witches.

Holistic Health for the Working Writer
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