Reading “The Healthy Writer”

Reading “The Healthy Writer”

This morning, I started reading The Healthy Writer: Reduce Your Pain, Improve Your Health, and Build a Writing Career for the Long Term by Joanna Penn and medical doctor Euan Lawson. For four or five years now, Joanna Penn has been one of my favorite writing gurus (I especially like her podcast, The Creative Penn) and I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for quite a while. I finally decided to download it from Audible and–in the spirit of the book–get outside and go for a walk while listening to it.

I’m only about a quarter through the (not very long) book, but already I’ve found much to appreciate. For one thing, the book completely aligns with my own “take” on the writing life, namely that intentional improvement is always possible and “good” writing strategies differ from person to person. (This, by the way, is the whole premise of my blog here, and the writing podcast I co-host, Writing on Wednesdays.)

But this improvement-oriented approach does not happen automatically. Sometimes there are real struggles and limitations we have to face before we can find healing.

The Dark Side of Writing

There is a dark side to writing: when we neglect ourselves and our unique needs, it can quickly (or slowly and imperceptibly) diminish our overall quality of life.

Writing is a healthy and meaningful activity–it can help foster gratitude, for one thing, and it is often experienced as a highly meaningful line of work. BUT there is a dark side: when we neglect ourselves and our unique needs, it can quickly (or slowly and imperceptibly) diminish our overall quality of life.

Joanna has learned this first-hand and invites us into her mistakes and efforts to undo those mistakes. What inspired her to write the book was the personal realization that writing and related activities had caused or contributed to chronic health conditions like obesity, migraines, and severe back pain. Not only did these conditions eventually make writing more difficult for Joanna, but they also limited the scope and satisfaction of her life more generally. (By the way, Joanna is fairly young, so don’t write this off as “old people” stuff.) The Healthy Writer is in many ways a chapter-by-chapter account of her journey back to health and a more balanced life–with some expert medical commentary throughout (as well as candid input from other writers).

The main message is this: don’t abuse yourself for the sake of writing–and don’t assume that chronic physical and psychological issues are just “natural” and unavoidable aspects of a writing career. Building a happy and sustainable writing life requires attending to our whole selves, not just our dogged pursuit of productivity, publication, or financial stability.

Writing and My Own Health Concerns

It’s a timely read for me, because in the last month or so I’ve been realizing that as much as I love writing, it also exacerbates my natural tendency toward anxiety and depression. Actually, I’ve always known this, I guess what has changed recently is the recognition that it doesn’t have to be like this.

Lately, I’ve made some simple adjustments that have my improved writing experience in ways I frankly didn’t think possible even several months ago. Fortunately or unfortunately, though, these initial gains have only clarified the need for more seismic changes.

If I want to continue writing (and make it an even bigger part of my professional life), I’m learning I will need to shift my entire mental and physical relationship to writing. I am not yet sure what this will entail, but I bet it is going to take more time and intentionality than I probably want it to.

While all of that is rather vague, I hope to write more about it as I gain more clarity and take more concrete steps.

The time it takes to find (and maintain) a better writing path for ourselves is completely worth it. 

In the meantime, Joanna’s book gave me the encouragement and affirmation I didn’t really know I was looking for. (I started reading it mostly because I like her and am a nut for self-improvement.) She reminded me that change is possible, that there are healthier and not-so-healthy ways of writing, and the time it takes to find (and maintain) that better path for ourselves is completely worth it. 

This book is an easy yet life-giving and life-improving read for any writer out there hoping to build a sustainable creative life in the physiological, mental, and emotional sense. Hint: this should be all of us who identify as writers!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the intersection between health and the creative life. What do you do to stay healthy? How do you curb the physical and emotional tolls that writing and other creative work can take? Let me know in the comments below or on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!


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