Edited version of chat interview on Friday, March 20, 2015 9:45 PM
EPB: The first question, which I struggle with: what is the balance, for you, between artistic production and self-care? How has it changed over the years?
LM: Well when I was in high school I stayed up till 4AM working on collaborative projects with friends on the west coast almost every night, often at my computer 16+ hours a day because I was homeschooled.
Those are actually TERRIBLE working conditions. These days, my output is much, much slower but a much higher quality.
EPB: How long are your work bouts? What postures do you work in (seated, recumbent, standing)?
LM: I sit, either at my desk with its ergonomic keyboard, or with a small laptop if I am out (or occasionally reclining in bed), and I woke for no more than an hour before getting up, if that long. I tend to work in micro-bursts of mono-focus, 10 or 15 minutes of writing before I stop typing briefly. If I’m on a roll and the muse is relentless, I take 3-5 minute typing/attention breaks every 15-20 minutes.
I often work about a total of 1-2 hours over the course of an afternoon and evening in small doses.
EPB: What kind of signals from your body tell you to take a break? Do you have any particular practice for checking in with yourself? (disclosure: I am pretty terrible about this, even after injury AND practice as a bodyworker.)
LM: When the muse is damned insistent, or I’m under an external deadline, I often rely on a pomodoro timer app that allows me to set my own intervals, and force myself to stop if the timer goes off to take a break. It can also help me avoid the temptation to read twitter instead of write.
The rest of the time, my body is pretty annoying, I have a pain condition that gets worse if I stay slouched at the computer, so my body is pretty noisy about wanting me to get up, stretch my hands, etc. I’ve used browser extensions that tell you to stretch every 30 minutes before, but I tend to ignore those if the timing is inconvenient. My wife also can’t really get up that often because she has an acute knee injury right now, so I let her requests for things serve as reminders to move around physically. And my cats. If my cats are getting up to trouble, if I’m getting up anyway I’m going to refill my water and check in to make sure I’m not hungry and that sort of thing.
EPB: Tell me about your ideal workspace (and equipment).
LM: Ideally for me, my workspace has a full-sized monitor, a full-sized ergonomic keyboard and a mouse with a middle-clicker scroll, a very high padded chair (I am short) and, this is the crucial stuff for me: a place to put my feet up under the desk, and a heating pad. My muscles get sore very fast, and sitting actively bothers my sciatica, and a heating pad decreases my pain a lot. I’m also sensitive to sound and light, so a pair of over-the-ear headphones are necessary for me.
Out in non-ideal environments, at bare minimum I have to work with a comfortable chair, a full-sized keyboard, and headphones. I have made a rule that even if I want to I should avoid writing without a full-sized keyboard as much as possible, though I break my own rule sometimes and write on the touchscreen on my phone on the train.
EPB: oh wow. I have not mastered that. I only manage it with lots of misspellings for texts.
What other ways do you deal with non-ideal work spaces?
LM: If sound and light are really bothersome, I listen to dubstep or binaural beats and Gregorian chant, both of which drown out outside noises. I sometimes carry a small mouse to use when writing out of the house. I also designate low-attention writing tasks I can do if I’m tired or in pain — which means things like finding non-editing tasks to do, or world-building/brainstorming that doesn’t rely on getting it “right” the first time to keep going.
EPB: We have very similar taste in writing music! Lots of dubstep on my NaNo 2014 playlist. :)
and I have listened to Gregorian chant for a long time.
I remember Gertrude Stein’s Making of Americans_ aloud. Literally felt my chest open up and resonate–“like I am a cathedral” was exactly how I felt – vast, full of music, stony and ancient. No drugs, just voice.
Somatic emotional resonance is so powerful.
EPB: Following the example of my buddy Devin Harnois, I started putting together novel playlists.
for each project. I had my music/graphics/IT consultant curate one for NaNo 2014.
LM: Do you know about the website 8tracks.com ?
EPB: Yes! One of the fans of [my co-author] Vera’s big fanfic epic put together playlists for each of the main characters. :)
Here’s the playlist for my NaNo 2014 projects (on youtube):https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kdComTp7KsA&list=PLBy6Vfa64gjVapNcn24LkfbgdN4_1THi2
LM: I use 8tracks to curate writing playlists, as well as character studies. You can follow me if you like http://8tracks.com/thelionmachine
EPB: So cool!I describe music to my colleagues as “writer’s whiskey, real deal, no hangover & reuseable.”
It’s the truth. I need to update it, some tracks got mixed up or missing, but a character study you will probably like is here: http://8tracks.com/thelionmachine/the-hound-of-heaven
EPB: oh wow!
LM: It’s for Hugh, my pet immortal crusader, who has to take a back seat while I write a different novel.
EPB: Now I have even more things to listen to!
LM: 8tracks is a never-ending “listen to all the things” adventure.
EPB: Are there any rituals (aside from music and workspace) that you use to get into writing flow?
LM: Sometimes turning on a work-timer can be a ritual, if nothing else it forces me to stop dragging my feet and actually stare at the document window until words come.
The other, terribly unromantic ritual, is I put writing submission deadlines in my calendar and every time I get up to start the day I stare at the deadlines that are coming up next and try to figure out what will serve the thing next approaching, and set up all my notes and outlines and so on AS IF I am going to write that thing today, whether I actually do or not. Often I work on something totally unrelated but it is mostly because I have to come up with reasons not to work on the thing I planned, the productive procrastination model.
EPB: Yes! I do that too! It’s a way to fool the brain.
LM: I apparently have some deep knee-jerk-y un-desire to be published because I keep working on projects while blowing past deadlines for awesome calls for stories.
EPB: What advice would you give to young writers (or young Yourself if you could get in the time machine): about artistic practice, about self-care?
LM: Marathons are for emergencies. They are a bad habitual practice, and they hurt you.
It is more fun, and more productive, to plan to work in the smallest efficient dose at a go; 10 minutes of really dedicated typing every hour is better for your body than trying to marathon a huge number of words in an hour every day.I think writers psyche themselves out about writing by being slavish victims of the muse; either they must write, whether the muse comes or not, even if words are painful to produce and not in a good way, or, if the muse comes, it is a torrential waterfall they must capture before she goes again. If you show up to do the work, and give yourself a really small amount of time to work, work will happen. There’s this concept in productivity studies called resistance and everyone agrees, to overcome resistance you make your goal so small you no longer feel resistance — write 10 minutes, or 100 words, or whatever — and this concept actually works great for sustainable writing, too. Breaking the act of writing into small chunks isn’t romantic, and it’s harder to get swept away into the world for hours at a time, but it also hurts much, much less in terms of repetitive stress.
EPB: I remind people that the original marathon killed the person who did it. :(
LM: YES. I used to be strapped to a chair all hours of the day and night, and I am 27 and my body now hates me for those previous bad decisions. Young writers do not want to be me.
EPB: zomg… this year, I will be twice 27.
LM: I won’t tell
EPB: And I have done some grievous things to myself, but had the great genetic good fortune to inherit my grandfather’s Hero of Labor constitution. Enormous endurance.
LM: My brother compares me to a dwarf. My constitution is enormous, I can keep going through just about anything, but, alas, heroic endurance is required for ordinary life
EPB: Yes. The writing life is a long campaign, and we have to be wily guerrillas.
LM: I have a rare genetic disorder where all the soft tissue in my body is extra-elastic, and joints do not stay in place and dislocate on a daily (on bad days, hourly) basis.
I want to be creating a long time, so I have to take care of myself now, once my fingers start to dislocate they will never stop.
EPB: Yes. That’s an unmistakable signal.
Over the years, I noticed that my colleagues who either had disabilities or who were physically restless (that’s me) ended up having fewer repetitive stress injuries on average. Artists have a tendency to obsession–I think it comes with the territory–and it’s so easy to overdo, if something doesn’t tell you otherwise. Repetitive stress is really insidious.
LM: It’s why I tend to be the lone militant messenger of the “take breaks and be kind to your body & brain” army. I needed permission, when I was young, to stop while I was ahead, and nobody gave it to me.
younger, I should say.
EPB: When I was programming, I could lose hours at a time. i started drinking water so I’d have to take restroom breaks.
and I built myself a standing workstation — since I couldn’t get standard seated stuff to work for me (I am also short, or at least shorter than the 5’10” “average person” they design furniture for).
LM: One of the interesting things about my disability is my wife also has the same condition, though she hasn’t deteriorated as much as me (her symptoms appeared later in life) and so I am having to teach her how to listen to her body enough to work sustainably, to stop while she’s ahead, etc., because when she was asymptomatic she had been taught to just bulldoze through and get in the zone and spend 4 hours staring at research.
One thesis advisor literally advocated a method of strapping oneself into the chair with a seatbelt and not getting up until the day’s research had been finished and written on!! It seemed so harmless to him to suggest the work is the most important thing, but of course without bodies we can’t do the work, at least until our consciousness can be downloaded into a program that will execute research automatically in the background of a great virtual reality.
EPB: Graduate school has this sweatshop mentality…
LM: It’s terrible for people, and I loved it.
EPB: There is such a fine line between creativity and addiction… or rather, an extensive overlap.
LM: I definitely feel I write, and have written for such a significant portion of my life, because there’s something of a compulsion to it.
There’s a fabulous book called The Midnight Disease about the connection between psychiatric disorders, brains, and the urge to writing, which is full of food for thought.
EPB: I think I’ve heard of this book…
LM: The author is a psychiatrist who had a post-partem mental breakdown with hypergraphia as one of its features.
So it’s written with great sympathy. But not romanticism. I read it in college, during a period where my compulsion to write was keeping me alive (as in: I can’t kill myself, I haven’t finished [long writing project]) which may influence my feelings about it.
EPB: Yes. Sometimes it helps to find an outside anchor (yes, someone else has felt this, it’s real).
I’ve wondered a lot about the similarities between the immersion of reading and of writing.
LM: I have always found writing more immersive, personally, but I think it has to do with what and how I write.
Actually the two pieces that I stayed alive for I never bothered to finish. I do’t think I even could, now. I wrote an epic poem cycle and a Robin Hood retelling set in the Anarchy. I’ve never even re-read either, they were such products of the space where I needed huge, absorbing research-driven pieces to keep myself afloat. In a round-about way the novel became my undergraduate thesis, which was all about the 12th century.
EPB: I think a lot about the “false trails,” but really the undergirding, the architecture, the bones-not-seen of our ruling projects.
My own graduate research went back to age seven. I wanted to understand the shape of the universe.
LM: …what a question to drive you.
I can’t imagine that answer coming out of anything other than the context of a whole life.
EPB: Literally I wanted to understand everything. So by age 17 I wanted to be a systematic philosopher. By 27 I had moderated that to mathematical cosmologist.
My great act of faith is that it’s all one piece. Novelist is as close as I have ever come to my grand ambition.
LM: As a medievalist, the idea of being a systematic philosopher seems so logical to me, but my idea is still of philosophy and her sister theology as “queen of the sciences” even though that’s not my religious worldview.
EPB: Mathematics taught me to read for structure at multiple levels at once. It opened the doors of the mind to poetry, and later to the structure of novels.
LM: I sadly was not taught mathematics in a comprehensible way, it was classical music and poetry that taught me how to do math.
EPB: Mathematics is so poorly taught in this country that I cannot but believe it’s by design.
I studied both logic and martial arts to be able to defend myself with elegance and economy.
LM: I wonder, sometimes. Though in my case it was a flaw of the teachers; my parents were not equipped to teach me algebra and never let me move on to anything else when I was failing.
EPB: I hated algebra.
LM: I did fine when I got to college.
EPB: It was geometry that was the revelation.
Then logic. After a while I could come back to algebra and realize that it was a series of proofs about numbers and their relations.
LM: One of my dear little mental things is that I have a time-traveling architect who writes mathematical spells for traveling through the universe in 3-dimensional space as building schematics.
I should be going to bed, alas. The problem with interesting conversations is I want them to go on forever.
EPB: Same here! Take care of yourself. :)