On Binges and Benders
There’s a scene early in the movie Leaving Las Vegas when Nicholas Cage swings maniacally through the liquor store piling his shopping cart high with booze of all kinds, then drives to a seedy motel room to drink himself to death.
I can relate.
As matter of fact, I’m just days from doing something similar, holing up by myself in a Mexican Bed and Breakfast, except my drug of choice isn’t alcohol, it’s . . . writing.
My Name is Ericka, and I am a Writeaholic.
Unlike the disciplined writers I know and admire who get bits done every day, I write in blurts, in bursts, in short binges fueled by roasted unsalted almonds, dark chocolate, dried apricots, herbal tea, and good black coffee. I write in the middle of the night, I write in cafés. These bursts are punctuated by long weeks of lethargy and time wasting and not writing. And then whenever I can, I hole up somewhere with my laptop and go on a major bender.
A few years ago, I wrote the first draft of an essay about my journey to Auschwitz in four days straight, and came home from my retreat pale, shaking, with cold sores covering my lips. And I considered this awesome, because in my dreams of the perfect writing life, every month is National Novel Writing Month: fifty thousand words, “no plot no problem,” type until your fingers fall off.
I’m not the only one who considers this awesome. For every writer who rises at four a.m. or fulfills daily page counts, there’s one miserable soul like me, trying to justify my actions with the words “creative process.” Even artist colonies are set up to encourage this kind of behavior. They feed you three meals a day, give you a studio and a place to sleep. All you have to do is write. It’s supportive (and I love it), but for us Writeaholics, it’s also kinda enabling.
I’ve long been sensitive — and defensive — about my writing habits. “I’m a binge writer!” I say proudly. “Rick Moody is a binge writer too! I heard him say so myself!” Now, Rick Moody is a successful writer and seems a nice enough guy (he’s also very attractive), but I wouldn’t hold him up as my role model. Not that he’s doing anything wrong, just that, except for the writing binges, he doesn’t seem like me. He’s a hip, bestselling, East Coast, controversial, male, cutting-edge recovering alcoholic and I’m . . . me.
According to the Urban Dictionary, a writing binge is defined as “an occurrence in which a writer writes for an extremely long period of time, such as an hour or more at a time [emphasis mine]. The writer may take breaks between binges and resume writing.”
An hour. An hour is considered an official binge? When I’m writing, really writing, I can eat an hour for breakfast. What about periods of ten hours for weeks at a time, sleeping in two-hour bursts, punctuated by weeks of vague depression, followed by months of lethargy, and then my next big binge? I’ve suspected for a long time that my relationship with my writing is unhealthy, but then I start on another bender and I get that high, that hypomania and euphoria. And then I crash again.
Not so good, huh? Reminds me a bit of the bulimia I flirted with as a teen.
Plus, writing binges have been scientifically proven to make you unhappy. A number of years ago, Bob Boice published a paper with the University of Stony Brook Press called, “Which is More Productive, Writing in Binge Patterns of Creative Illness or in Moderation?” His answer, in short, was that binge writers get less done, receive fewer acceptances, are more depressed, and have fewer ideas. He calls binge writing a “creative illness.” And then he supports this by using the example of Joseph Conrad (oh, he of the bleak world view in Heart of Darkness who suffered suicide attempts, gout, depression, poverty, and a really nasty temperament).
This work-yourself-till-you-keel-over ethic comes in part from my family. My grandmother had a fraught relationship with her writing, first squeezing it in the cracks of full-time work, poverty, and parenthood. Later, she was unable to produce, even through she had the time. My mother spent eight hours rehearsing the same dance step over and over. My father would come home from a full day of designing and building medical research instruments, and then spend his evenings in his shop, doing freelance projects or making jewelry. I fell asleep at night to the sound of the lathe. Yes, this kind of focus is how you build excellence. It’s also how you build Workaholism, and its subset, Writeaholism.
The songs we sang as a family celebrated overwork, too:
You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
Drill, ye tarriers, drill
For it’s work all day for the sugar in your tay
I’ve been workin’ on the railroad
All the live long day
It’s a-many a man I’ve seen in my day
Who lived just to labor his whole life away
Like a fiend with his dope and a drunkard his wine
A man will have lust for the lure of the mine
I love those songs. And they certainly imprinted themselves on me.
But now, as I pack my bags for twenty days in Mexico by myself on a writing retreat, I’m questioning my work patterns. My binges and benders aren’t healthy on my poor middle-aged body.
What scares me most, as I face weeks of blissful time alone to write, is not that I’ll end up in a blithering heap shouting, à la Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz, “The horror, the horror!” My fear is twenty years down the line I’ll face a daughter who, like me, like her dad, like her grandparents, is under her work, not on top of it.
I fear it’s too late. For years, she’s watched me binge and suffer and mutter, “I’m not hurting anybody but myself!” Now she’s fifteen and she stresses out about homework, waits until deadline, then works herself raw. She’s the coal miner and the foreman, she’s skilled at beating herself up for not enough work done. She’s my daughter.
But I’m finally ready to accept my powerlessness over writing and make a change. I’ve got a writing teacher. Today I made a commitment to her to work on my novel every day, not just in binges. At least fifteen minutes a day for the next seven weeks.
Baby steps. I can do that. One day at a time.
6 replies on “On Binges and Benders”
Tienes suerte marveloso, mi amiga!
Don’t forget to say the Serenity Prayer every day: “Grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change tthe things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.”
I like this piece, this approach.
Ahhhh I am so envious of you and your Mexican retreat. I write very much in the same way. I have to try and get this daily practice down. You’re an inspiration!
I too love dark chocolate and coffee and apricots and almonds and have been beating myself up over lack of discipline ever since I was in sixth grade! actually earlier…
for a binge writer you have an impressive body of writings. I love your sense of humor.
often I have wanted to stop writing, just to stop beating myself up. like I should start at 8 am and why don’t I start until 5 pm (it’s gotten worse with age and with recovering from a recent injury> I keep thinking tomorrow.
Hi, My name is Bethany. I’m a binge writer of 32 years.
Sorry. I had to do it. Because, honestly, if I didn’t write this way, I’d never get anything done. So, join the club. Take deep breaths. And let’s just accept this as our way.
And hey, how do you convince your family to let you leave for 20 days. I think I’d be in heaven!
Hey, Ericka: I really like this piece. Probably because I can totally relate, mostly to the deadline thing and the hard work. I just feel that if something comes up, to work on a photo project, or to put up a show, or to teach (all of which has happened in less than a week!), I need to say “yes!” Keep saying yes, keep writing, I know it’s kinda unhealthy, but I always figure it’s better than not writing (or not photographing, for me). I just wish I could figure out a way to do it all more sanely.
A good movie to watch along these lines is the golfing one with Kevin Costner and Rene Russo. He doesn’t know how to play it safe either, prefers his striving to hit a difficult shot than to play it safe and make it to a tournament.
Have a great time in Mexico, and enjoy your writing. Kathy Buckalew