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The Bottom Line

April 13, 2009

negredo-journal-0071We often have images of great writers being tortured beings. Culturally we have set this up as the archetype for being creative. One has to suffer to write, to paint, to play music – blah blah blah.

I’ve never held this idea about writing and was shocked recently when a old friend I was having lunch with was confused that I was a writer and I didn’t drink? He dredged up the image of the drug addled, alcohol soaked, sex crazed, mostly insane artistic unable to function in the real world. It was confronting to discover people actually hold this as a truth.

Australian writer Henry Lawson was an alcoholic for most of his writing career and whilst being one of the most celebrated writers of his time, was perpetually poor. Among Stephen King’s poisons were cough medicine, cocaine, alcohol, marijuana and valium. Julia Cameron used cocaine to stop herself from passing out when drinking and openly admits to having to race the bottle of scotch to get her writing done each day.

I’d like to think though that for every seriously dysfunctional writer, there are at least 99 others who aren’t.

Sometimes writers need to set boundaries to protect themselves as creative beings and their writing. Setting boundaries often comes down to deciding what is the bottom line about certain aspects of your life that crowd in on you ability to write or swamp, deaden or make irrelevant in the short term your desire to write.

Cameron, in her seminal book The Artist’s Way writes that some of the ways artists poison their creativity is via drugs, alcohol, food (including sugar), sex, money, work, family/friends. She calls these seven The Deadlies.

Since starting back on the path to writing, I’ve identified three of the Deadlies as major players in my life.

My first realisation was alcohol and writing did not go together for me. I could do one or the other. Because I wanted to write I stopped drinking on Friday nights (which originally was my writing time each week). After a nasty incident in October 2007, which coincided with starting The Artist’s Way for the first time, I all but gave it up. Alcohol is no longer fun for me. It sends me into a spiral of self doubt and even a couple of mouthfuls seem to completely derail my ability to put words on a page. For years alcohol was my crutch, my escape, my stress relief – but it was probably the biggest block to regaining my feet as a writer.

Workaholism was the next to go and of the three Deadlies I’ve hit face on, it was the worst. (I should add at this point, I haven’t been in paid employment outside of the home since early 2003 when I worked part time to support myself through uni. Except for the second part of my pregnancy, I have been in perpetual motion ‘doing something’). You can’t write if you are always busy – you also can’t sustain and support the relationships you need in life if you are emotionally and mentally somewhere else. Slowing life down and making it simpler, less crowded, fewer expectations and deadlines was like running my knuckles down a cheese grater and for a time it felt as though I had cleaved off a limb – but I did it. I actually felt lost and adrift.

Saying ‘no’ was the hardest part- after years of saying yes, or putting my actual needs on the bottom of the priority list. I’ve become somewhat of a hermit since, too afraid in some ways to venture back to my old group of friends for fear of being sucked back into the vortext of busy-ness (many friends have remained in birth activism which was where I sunk most of my time after the birth of my son). Saying no to being busy is saying yes to time to write. I have learnt a lot, through trial and error, about writing/life/family balance – it is an ongoing project!

The last Deadlie I gave up was sugar. My partner bought me David Gillespie’s Sweet Poison: why sugar makes us fat for Christmas and after devouring (no pun intended) it over the New Years break – there was no way I was putting sugar in my system again. It was like detoxing from a narcotic with headaches, stomach aches, nausea and sweats. My appetite changed, my eating habits became healthier, the weight started to fall off me and for the first time in years I was truly clear headed. I didn’t realise just how clouded sugar made my thinking. On the occasions that I have gone back to eat some sugar (Easter has been particularly challenging I have to admit) I’ve seen how it tangles and scatters my mental processes … it is like pumping a clutch of chickens full of caffeine and setting them free in a confined space. Helter Skelter!

To reclaim your creativity and to function as a writer doesn’t mean going to (what some people would consider) the extremes I have. Setting boundaries by giving yourself a ‘bottom line’ is a simple and effective tool to tackle your Deadlies and other non constructive habits standing between where you are now and where you want to be as a writer.

Your bottom line might be going to bed an hour earlier so you can rise earlier to write while the rest of the household is asleep or to get some writing in before rushing to your day job. It could be saying no to going out with friends when you’re not really interested, time you could spend writing. It might be barring certain sites (such as Facebook, Twitter etc) from your browser at certain times a day to limit your temptation to procrastinate or become distracted. Or it might be saying no to bringing work home from your day job.

It is a personal thing – identifying what comes between you and your writing. The bottom line over the past 18 months for me has been that I want to write. Writing is all I have ever wanted to do and after wasting ten years in no man’s land, I can no longer afford to squander my time. My bottom lines have been harsh, but my resolve, in the most part, has been strong and my creative life has begun to flourish.

What bottom lines would you consider making or what bottom lines have you made in the past?

Image compliments Danae Sinclair of Mama Magic
Jodi Cleghorn is reading Donna Woolfolk Cross’s Pope Joan: A Novel and is glad that she lives in a 21st Century society that embraces a woman’s desire to read, to be educated, think logically and rationally and is not reduced to the stereotype of an unreliable mass of humours. Read more at Writing With Passionate Abandon.
  1. April 13, 2009 7:03 am

    Work and family would have to be the two areas that impact my ability to write. The ‘eighth’ deadly that I’d add would have to be the internet.

    Clearly, I’m not going to cut off my kids, so what I do is I try to write when I am at their practices and things (unless I’m the coach!). That has served me well when writer’s block was not in the way, but right now I can’t focus any ideas so it is simply not working well.

    Work is another thing. I used to work a good 70 to 80 hours per week. I’ve now cut that back to about 45. I get to the office early and try to spend time writing before work starts.

    I can certainly turn off the wireless on my laptop and I probably should do so, especially with the struggles I’m having with writing right now. I think this is what I will have to do in the coming weeks in order to try to break the cycle I am currently in.

    In the end, what I really need to do is find a way to allow writing to be higher on the list of priorities. Right now, I don’t have an established writing time and so I just slot it in ‘when I can’. Housework, yardwork, the day job, the kids’ events… these things all take priority over writing. When something else comes up, the tentative writing time is one of the first things to get bumped. If there was one thing I could wish for, it would be for my to-do list to shrink dramatically so that I would have a space in my day to just dedicate to writing. It’s a search for time that I’ve been on for some time and have not yet found.

  2. adenpenn permalink
    April 13, 2009 2:57 pm

    I really needed to see this today. More than I would like to admit. I have been struggling for so long with getting into a set time for writing. (ontop of the struggle of self loathing) I have tried everything, and now I realize I am going to have to get harsh. Start taking things away from me. Distractions, procrastination. And I need to make my body healthier so my brain can catch up. (it is hard to write when you are in a lot of pain)
    I think it is time to get up an extra hour early during the week. To get up earlier on the weekend. To give my boyfriend my external wireless antenna with the instruction that I don’t get it back until I have spent at least an hour writing. (he is a good task master, he might even say two)
    Thank you Jodi for touching on this subject today. I appreciate it.

  3. Christine Fonseca permalink
    April 13, 2009 10:41 pm

    really great post. I think purging sugar is a very commendable act…and I agree, it makes a HUGE difference!!!

  4. April 15, 2009 3:15 am

    Aden I meant to come on earlier in the week and suggest you also do some lovely, beautiful, simple things for yourself.

    While I think setting bottom lines is really important, I also know from experience that we need to love and nurture ourselves as writers. What are ten thing you love to do, that require little or no money and you can do with the minimum of ease? Do one each day for the next ten days 🙂

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