The physical cost of writing fiction

Rose bushes in a garden with shady trees.

The Rose Garden at University Retirement Community


Say many people. Most of them don’t.

I’M NOT DISCOURAGING ANYONE! But I haven’t cloned myself even once: when people expressed interest and I offered to point them in the right direction, none followed up.

My oldest is writing fiction – I get an occasional peek. That’s all.

Why? Because it’s a lot harder to do than most people realize. Lots of words, and they need to be in some kind of a comprehensible order.

It’s on the order of thinking you might be able to build a car because you’ve driven lots of different models. Or even because you’re actually a pretty good mechanic.

Different set of skills, and the finished product DOES NOT SHOW where the tools were applied.

I’ve produced two completed novels in two different series

but it is not likely that the first one (a mystery written before the turn of the century) will ever get the attention it needs to be turned into a finished product, given that I’ve learned a few things this century. Maybe, maybe not. The more I learn, the more I realize it need a lot of work. Great characters, I thought, and a good end and premise, but we’ll let it live peacefully for now. In the trunk.

The first one in the Pride’s Children trilogy took me 15 years, many of which were spent learning such things as how to write a full-length play (great for dialogue).

I’ve aged, and have not gotten well

Thirty years of ME/CFS is a long time, and during that time I’ve had at least the usual vicissitudes of aging, and probably even more than average because the energy to exercise, for example, isn’t there – thirty years of no real exercise (because we can’t go aerobic – our cells don’t produce energy fast enough) leaves you deconditioned, even if you’re diligent at doing what you can (bike/trike rides, pool exercises).

That’s one of the reasons it takes me so long to write: the energy has to come from somewhere, I’m chronically ultra-short of energy, and other things in Life have to be done, too.

I’ve pared away and given up almost everything. The pandemic is forcing me to relinquish even more: at the same time it is giving me a bit more time, it is increasing the stress – never helpful.

Most people don’t think of writing as requiring energy

They’re more likely to think it needs time, because how hard can something be that you do sitting down?

They know it gets you tired – mentally tired – and that you need to keep your body in at least reasonable shape to support your brain’s work.

But beyond the obvious, most don’t realize that writing fiction is exhausting under the best circumstances. Physically exhausting.

I can’t, apparently, do two energy-sucking things in the same day

I can count as rarities the days when I do something physical first (like a trike ride, or even a trip to the front desk on Maggie a couple of times to get a package in the mail in the right sized container with the correct postage).

I used to get around this problem by doing my writing first, and then going for a ride in the late afternoon, or for a swim AFTER writing (since I never get anything done in the evening anyway).

But there’s no pool Yolo County is allowing us to use, and the days are now so hot (though not humid, bless California!) that I can’t afford to go out after a certain time. This is because California starts off cool, and then heats from the sun straight through the day. Without humidity most nights cool off, but on a day over 90° like today, if I don’t get out by noon it’s already too hot for me to be out.

My physical body is a real limitation

to my current writing. I just don’t get the hours of functioning usable brain that I need, and days will go by when no writing can get done.

I’m doing – and will continue to do – the best that I can.

That’s a given. Non-negotiable.

But I’m wondering exactly how low I can push ‘taking care of body’ vs. ‘using body to support brain.’

So the rest of you?

Maybe you should get started on that novel, and not depend on retirement, or ‘when you have more time,’ because I’m here to tell you the physical part of writing keeps getting harder every year.

And there’s NO guarantee something won’t come along and knock you clean off your pins (must look up that phrase), and you won’t be able to do it at all.

As for me

I keep trying to cheat, and figure out ways to NOT do things, so they won’t absorb the little energy I have.

My long-suffering husband keeps not complaining. He gets points.

The mess will have to wait some more.

I don’t know how long it will take – I hope days, rather than weeks or months – to get the next chapter through the last little bits (epigraphs and chapter title and a final round of AutoCrit). I only know that I keep inching forward, and I’m still excited about the story (this chapter was a doozy), and I hope I’m still around to finish this job (there’s a virus out there that eats older people and people with co-morbidities), because I still haven’t found anything I love as much as this little obsession of mine.

Thought I was improving a bit, but not really. Shrug. It won’t stop me, but it sure slows me down.

Oh. And I’m grateful. It could be a lot worse.

Stay well. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Etc.



13 thoughts on “The physical cost of writing fiction

  1. joey

    For years, I’ve also been hearing people say gardening isn’t exercise. I presume they have never gardened. I would think anyone who thinks writing isn’t a drain on the body does not write.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I think they believe some things are ‘work’ – which tires the mind and body and pulls energy out, and others are ‘exercise’ – which has the potential of improving the body’s capacity to process oxygen better for other things. Otherwise, running makes no sense.

      It also is the basis for the ‘good tired’ concept – which implies you did it to improve yourself for the future.

      The line isn’t perfectly clear, but except for the capacity to get up and down from the ground, gardening is work – not good tired – although I always loved the ‘working with nature’ aspects, and being outside…

      The writing is draining – and good – but not aerobic or improving physically.


      Liked by 1 person

  2. jvtripioauthor

    I’m glad I’m not alone! I am writing novels with the hope it can generate some income in retirement. It can be tiring to use all that mental energy. However, I have never felt better between the ears. I practice yoga and mediation to re-energize my mind. I did more exercise before the lock down of course and that helps. Writing exercises the mind, which leaves you up for physical activity, which helps the mind, which….you get the idea. Thanks!


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I can’t exercise – people with ME/CFS can’t go aerobic because our cells don’t produce energy fast enough. But I do what I can, and the mental stimulation is essential to who I am.

      I’m slow – so what? What comes out of I don’t know what part of my brain is exactly the kind of books I would read if I could find them. Welcome!

      About the income part… You may want to join some of the FB 20booksto50K groups if you’re a facile writer. They are very focused on getting a lot of books out as the means to create an income stream.

      I’m a member – without the capacity, or the desire, particularly – to write fast and publish lots of books quickly, but it is still a good supportive group of writers.


  3. Widdershins

    ‘…knock you clean off your pins…’ may have something to do with bowling. I think those strange ‘Russian doll’-looking thing that one throws absurdly large and heavy balls at are called pins, and the ball is intended to knock them over. 🙂


  4. Lloyd Lofthouse

    I think you can touch your face after you wash your hands and before touching anything else.

    I have learned the hard way that age by itself seems to limit how much energy we have. Decades ago, I could work ten to fifteen hours a day at writing or on a project in my woodshop or yard. I even got up at two or three in the morning to write before I went to work (teaching at a high school). Now, if I spend more than a couple of hours on one task, I have to take a nap to generate enough energy to do another, shorter task of about an hour gives or take a few minutes.

    And when I skip eating, the energy leaks out of me until nothing is left. I become a mindless blog staring at a screen.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I know what you mean: I’m working against an intransigent clock. No quarter given.

      When I had the kind of energy you’re talking about, I was doing research physics. The writing was supposed to be a retirement activity – for funsies.

      I went for a trike ride – and came back and immediately took a nap, something I’ve had a hard time forcing myself to do (I usually just sit here staring at the screen) – and it made no difference. Still nothing left.

      But I HAVE to take care of the physical plant, or I’m sure it will get even worse.

      I’m just hoping to finish 1-2/3 Pride’s Children novels before something happens to me!

      Snails move faster.


      1. Lloyd Lofthouse

        When I first started napping a half hour or so, I did it in the wrong place. I thought the bed was the place to nap, but all I did was caught and stare at the ceiling waiting for the timer to ring letting me know my half hour nap was over.

        Then I moved the nap into the family room and I used the recliner. It’s darker in there, cooler and with the TV off, a much quieter room without as many distractions as my home-office bedroom.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          The demonic impulses of auto-anything features vastly overwhelm their tiny potential for helping. One really bad one is far worse a bunch of little good corrections.

          I won’t use any of them. The most I do is to use the spelling check on my emails, and then only to let the software point out something it thinks is not right; never any automatic ‘fixing.’

          I still mess up sometimes, but those things are possessed.


        2. Lloyd Lofthouse

          Yes, the auto spell correction function is diabolical and whoever was behind it did not ask us if we wanted it. It was just there working in secret, and it took time for me to realize that some of my typos were being corrected to the wrong words. If we do not want it, we have to learn how to turn it off. I’m tired of learning how to get rid of apps I never wanted in the first place.

          Liked by 1 person

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