Write. Exercise. Shower.
by David Boyne
“You've got to jump off cliffs and build your wings on the way down.”
I have been trying to be A Successful Writer for over four decades and have managed to learn next to nothing about how to do it. But one thing I do know for sure is that every writer should have a mantra.
When I was 22, living alone in desperate poverty disguised as delirious excitement, I tried to be A Successful Writer by spending many hours laboring over a Remington Rand manual typewriter inside a fifth-floor walkup garret in Manhattan’s East Village. I used a mantra I had inherited from my Irish-Catholic-New-England-Yankee childhood. It was freighted with all the self-reproach and self-doubt I was brought up to. It went like this: "Stop whining and sit down and write something—anything—for chrissakes!"
By the time I was 28, I was married to a beautiful and brilliant woman, well-fed, well-loved, and had someone to stay up with until 3am talking about everything, absolutely everything. I tried to be A Successful Writer by spending many hours pressing keys on a buzzing electric Brother typewriter inside a big, comfortable apartment. I had modified my mantra by then. It went like this: "You're the luckiest dumb bastard in history so stop your whining and sit down and write something—anything—for chrissakes!"
By the time I was 35, I had caught on that if a mantra is to be effective (i.e. to summon the divine and open oneself to the flow of creativity) it must not only be commanding, it must also be kind. By then I was unmarried again and living with a cute, playful red-haired woman in a small, comfortable house in Portland, Oregon, and spending many hours in the attic tapping on the keyboard of my second-hand computer, trying to be A Successful Writer. It was a productive time, for I had discovered a new mantra, and almost every day it encouraged, emboldened, and inspired me to write something—anything—for chrissakes.
Here it is: "Work. Relax. Don't think."
I discovered this magnificent message in perhaps the best book I’ve yet come across on the art of being A Successful Writer—or for that matter, on being a successful human being: Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity. I adopted Bradbury's mantra because it meets the Prime Directive of Successful Mantras: it is commanding, yet kind. I also got a kick out of how the three parts of its magic equation can be sung in any order. ("Relax. Don't think. Work." is every bit as efficacious as "Don't think. Work. Relax.") Bradbury's mantra summons the divine because it transcends writing and tells us how all creative acts are accomplished: we must relax, we must turn off our ego-driven brains, and we must do something—anything—for chrissakes.
Finding the right mantra at the right time of your development can free you to be the writer that you and only you were meant to be (without struggle, and those annoying drops of blood oozing from your forehead). Fortunately, perfectly good mantras are as plentiful as seashells in a core sample from the Rocky Mountains. The best ones, naturally enough, come from other writers.
Once upon a time, I had a friend who, by her mid-thirties, had already achieved more, intellectually and professionally, than everyone in my high school graduating class—combined. She then decided she would be a writer. So she became a writer. She quickly became recognized as a very good writer, earning contracts with agents and having people she didn't know promptly answering her emails and returning her phone calls.
I would sometimes wonder how my friend managed to be so good at so many things, and then to so quickly become good at the one and only thing I had been trying all my life to be good at—writing.
Sure, maybe her being brilliant, and disciplined, and having compelling, compassionate, rich stories to tell had something to do with her so easily becoming A Successful Writer. But I suspected that she had some secret juju.
There came a time when my ever-achieving friend had to put aside her writing for several weeks while triumphantly succeeding in a few of her other demanding pursuits. When, triumphant, she returned to her daily writing, she was ecstatic. (And triumphant.) While in this state of triumphant ecstasy, she emailed me of the mind-expanding, muscle-building, soul-inspiring power of once again being free to write, to exercise, and to shower. In that order.
As I read and re-read my friend's letter, I was transfixed. "That's it!" I cried at my computer monitor, rudely awakening the snoozing golden retriever curled at my feet. "That’s her juju! That's her mantra!”
In case it slipped past you, here it is again: Write. Exercise. Shower.
Like Ray Bradbury's mantra, my friend’s mantra has three steps. But unlike Ray Bradbury's mantra, the three steps must be performed in exact order: Write. Exercise. Shower. And only after that should you do any of the thousand other things clamoring for your mind, your body, and your well-groomed attendance.
First, you must write. There is no getting around it. As the writer-artist and pretend-scientist Sigmund Freud correctly asserted, work is as essential to our happiness as love. (Hey. There's a nice little mantra: Love and Work. Goes backwards, too: Work and Love. Thanks, Sigmund!)
Second, after you write, you must exercise. Why? Because writing takes a lot of every kind of energy we have. Physical, psychic, spiritual, and neurotic. And given the fact that we are each of us spirits encased in flabby bags of water, if we do not exercise, the few bones and muscles supporting our flabby bags of water will slosh down the slippery slope of decrepitude faster than you can buy a used NordicTrack at a yard sale.
Finally, and of great importance, you must shower. Showering completes the circle of creativity, washing away the mental exhaustion of our writing and the bodily aches of our exercising, while rejuvenating our imaginations and reinvigorating our urge to create. For it is in the shower, when our left hemisphere is concentrated on lathering our hair and our carefree right hemisphere is romping through sunlit fields of daisies on Mars, that we have our most brilliant ideas.
More novels, cures for diseases, television pilots, pop tunes, ponzi schemes, and new dessert products were discovered in the shower than in every think tank, library, and laboratory on the planet—combined.
Write. Exercise. Shower.
And after you have written, exercised, and showered, you will go to your money-paying job, knowing you have already given the best part of your Self to your true heart’s desire.
It will not matter whether you pay for the laptop, the NordicTrack, and the hot water bill by being a psychiatrist in private practice, a clerk in a department store, or a programmer in a sea of cubicles in India.
When you write, then exercise, then shower, your prayer, your mantra, has been offered.