The Embodied Life of the Mind: A Brief Improvisation

Between the time I finished my first book and came to the serious drafting stage of my second (note: I’m in that phase right now), I learned something vital about the writing life. It involves a mind that lives inside a body. That sounds painfully obvious, but pain is what helped me at last to learn this.

As I put the first version of my first manuscript in a box to mail it in January 2009, I felt something “go off” in my back. Many of us have had that unsettling feeling before. Like a rubber band snapped. Or a tiny bomb went off. Whatever it was, I had trouble straightening back up. In a day or so, my right leg felt like it was permanently asleep. Eventually searing, electric-shock-type pain shot down that same leg. I had spent so many long sessions slumped in my desk chair, toiling away at my manuscript between grading, course prep, and whatever else occupied my harried time as a new professor, that I had bulged a disc in my lower back and developed sciatica as a result. Explaining why I was walking so badly as I arrived for a committee meeting soon after, a (female) colleague said, “Sciatica? Isn’t that what pregnant women get?” Well, if men can have birth pains, I suppose it’s authors who come closest to the gestation experience. And my 400-page baby was wreaking havoc with my body.

I considered going on medical leave. I went to physical therapy to build strength back into my leg, but a new attack of sciatica left me in bed for a week (the same week I learned my manuscript was rejected). I barely had energy to get up, get in a car, and teach. Writing had broken me, it seemed. Length of sleep at night was directly connected to how I felt during the day, I learned, so I got more into a 7-8-hours rhythm, or as near as I could with a young family.

I gradually recovered, returned to something like normal life, did some more writing, got a contract, revised the book, then stopped writing as my wife’s cancer diagnosis in 2012 coincided with my book’s publication. Scared for my family’s future and relieved that I had a hardbound check mark for the scholarship category of my tenure portfolio, I found myself unmotivated, even unable to write, for two years.

During those two years, I was forced to discover a new ethic of self-care. I’d always been someone who could push and push to get the job done, whatever it took. That usually meant in college that I slept about five hours a night and got sick as soon as I got home after every semester. Even though I didn’t pull all-nighters as a rule and I eased my work schedule a bit after getting married and starting grad school, it took my wife fighting for her life for me to see that I hadn’t learned how to let myself live, only work. If we were going to make it through this—if I was going to make it through—something would have to change.

I learned to accept help from friends and family, who gave me generous gifts of time so that I could go for walks, make some art, get out in nature. After getting into hiking, I eventually found my way to cycling. I found these activities made me feel great, peaceful, more alive. And when I came back to taking care of my family, or the house, or my teaching, I had new energy to handle it. Nothing crazy, but more than I had before. Giving some space for my body to “love what it loves,” as Mary Oliver says, made it easier for my mind and body to work together.

Which brings me to writing. I live with the fear that another period of overwork will land me in bed with screaming pain again. I also have a drill sergeant in my head telling me to get things done, done, done. But that sergeant has gone hoarse over time. It’s easier to ignore that voice. In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron recommends that writers focus on the daily goal, often a word count, rather than the completion of a project. You wrote your 500 words? 1,000, perhaps? Great! You have the rest of the day to take care of other things now. The more time I’ve spent in my two-year super-sabbatical, the more I’ve found joy in that rhythm.

That doesn’t mean the deadlines are gone. I’m pushing one this month, with not one but two book manuscripts coming due before the year is out, with a spin-off book project begging for attention. How can I get all of this done, especially when I still have a family to take care of—and relocate to Massachusetts in a few weeks? My wife, fully recovered from her cancer, has been a champion in wrangling more than her share of the household stuff these days. But despite the pushes, the moments of exquisitely felt urgency, like a jolt of electricity going down a leg, I have my day’s work to do. And that’s it. I’m looking to draft 1,000 words a day. There’s revision work to do to meet my deadline, but the tasks are fairly discrete at this point. And I’m taking time to enjoy the family, to celebrate my body’s health through exercise, and to enjoy some art, music, and good, fun reading. And that’s what has me finally feeling like a writer: the consistent work includes keeping my body and family happy, because that provides the calm and energy to make my mind—no, let my mind—do what it has a penchant for doing with words and thoughts: generate, send waves down into fingers and pens and keyboards.

The writing life is a life of embodied mind, of honoring the physical and emotional elements that Virginia Woolf celebrated in A Room of One’s Own as the garden bed for intellectual flourishing. So, with that, I’ve written 500 words toward my deadline. I’ve done another 1,000 forming these thoughts now. There will be another writing session this afternoon, with some Poetic Faith reading in the mix. But first, it’s time to go explore the Delaware River on my bike. Because it’s a glorious day outside, and I now know that that ride is writing, too.

My bike + the Delaware

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