I had a screenwriting class with Randall Wallace late into my undergraduate career, and even though I didn’t always agree with his method of teaching, he taught me a very important thing about writers: we are at a greater risk for mental illness.
A 2012 study by researchers at Karolinska Institute in Sweden looked at 1.2 million patients with varying forms of mental illness, including depression, anxiety, alcohol or drug abuse, autism, ADHD, and suicide. Looking specifically at authors, researchers found they overrepresented people with depression, bipolar, schziphrenia, and substance abuse. The last in this list is pretty well known: many famous writers, like Edgar Allan Poe, Aldous Huxley, and Stephen King, are known to have abused alcohol or drugs.
The research is pretty bleak, but it serves as a reminder to us writers that no matter how involved we may be with our work, we also have a responsibility to take care of our bodies and mind, and that was a point Wallace emphasized.
Each class, as we mulled over scripts, he asked us to stand and stretch with him. He told us about his daily rituals as a writer, which included running or swimming and streching. Exercise is something I’ve fallen in and out of the routine of, but its role in my long term health and happiness struck me during my annual trip to Telluride, Colorado for the Mountainfilm Festival.
Ben and I spent nine days in Telluride, and although we slacked on watching many of the documentaries that they showed, we did a lot of hiking. Of the nine days we were in Telluride, we hiked eight of them. One afternoon we climbed the slope of a mountain (not our best idea) and on another we trudged through waist-high snow to a frozen waterfall. At the end of each hike we took breaks to admire the scenery, and boy was the view stunning–lush mountainsides on all sides, softly running streams, gleaming snow, and absolute quiet. Coming from Los Angeles, quietude is a rare and wonderful thing to experience, especially when you commute two hours every day in traffic.
We cooked and shared meals with friends, had coffee along the main street, and just… relaxed. When you’re in the middle of an eight-hour workday or stuck in classes, it can be hard to remember to let your muscles and mind relax. And sometimes at the end of a workday or work week we convince ourselves that all we need is to sit down and unwind with some TV or video games. But this is the pitfall of technology. It offers us the convenience of entertainment we crave, but does nothing for our bodies or mind (well, video games have been shown to help improve hand-eye coordination and boost brain power, but the fact that our bodies are stagnant while playing games makes it inferior [in some cases] to regular exercise).
A multitude of studies into regular exercise show that it slows mental decline, lowers Alzheimer’s risk, improves sleep, and relieves stress. It curbs a plethora of other diseases, like heart disease, and slows bone loss.
But exercise is boring. Or is it?
I barely use my gym membership. I go to a weekly yoga class, sometimes two, and go running every so often. But I’m not a gym junkie. I get bored, especially lifting weights. The fluorescent lighting drives me mad after a day at work and repetition in weight lifting is unnerving. I don’t like walking outside; we live on a busy street and sidewalks are hard to come by in LA.
So I’ve taken to other sports that don’t give me the choice of thinking, “Oh, I don’t feel like doing that today,” which is easy to do with a gym membership.
A few weeks ago my friend invited me to join a summer kickball league for amateurs. I joined up for the season for $50. Then I remembered that I had always wanted to practice archery, so I signed up for that too at a nearby range. Besides running, I haven’t practiced a sport since, oh I don’t know, elementary school? I was in baseball and, well, I wasn’t too good. And while competition does make me nervous and I get anxious at the range when I’m shooting arrows into the red, after a long practice or when the sun goes down and the range closes, I feel good.
Who knew being out in the sun doing something could feel so good?
Now don’t get me wrong. I still play video games like a mad man. I still watch Game of Thrones every Sunday and Naruto every Thursday, but I’m trying to limit my exposure (note: this is incredibly difficult). It helps that I have coworkers who are open to hiking after work some days too, and that I have a team captain who makes sure I’m up every Saturday morning.
I’m happy to say I feel good about the change. No I’m not ripped or generally look any different. But I do feel better. I’m more alert, energetic, and sleeping better. At the end of the day I feel spent, and I think that’s important. I generally have pain in my arms and shoulders because I injured my tendons from spending too much time on the computer (thanks for that, grad school), but my coworkers and I stretch every day at work, and that’s made a big difference. Yoga has helped a lot, too.
So I want to encourage my fellow writers to find an acitivity. It can be something you do once a week or twice a week. Find something that makes you move or use your mind in a different way, something that breaks your regular schedule of work-eat-sleep. It isn’t easy to get into the habit of it, and I know I’ve broken the cycle before. But if you find something that works, something that you enjoy, it can have a positive, lifelong impact on your life. And for us writers, I think that’s especially important.