Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Why zebras don't get ulcers -- and writers do

On the recommendation of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, I have been reading Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers, by Robert M. Sapolsky. First published in 1994, the book is now in its third edition (2004).

Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University -- which is about as respectable as you can get in academic terms -- and he is one of those rare scientists who write stuff that ordinary people can read.

The blurb on the back cover provides, for once, a pretty fair summary of the book's contents. Sapolsky, it says, 'combines cutting-edge research with a healthy dose of good humor and practical advice to explain how prolonged stress causes or intensifies a range of physical and mental afflictions, including depression, ulcers, colitis, heart disease, and more. When we worry or experience stress, our body turns on the same physiological responses that an animal's body does, but we usually do not turn off the stress-response in the same way -- through fighting, fleeing, or other quick actions. Over time, this chronic activation of the stress-response can make us literally sick.'

Now what, you may be wondering, does this stuff about stress-responses have to do with writers?

More or less everything, I would say. Sapolsky is giving us scientific evidence to back up a statement that I made back in 2003. The very first paragraph of my book The Truth about Writing runs as follows:
Writing is an activity which can seriously damage your health. It can consume huge amounts of time and energy, and it can lead to frustration, rage, and bitterness.
Some years ago I came to believe that emotions, particularly strongly negative emotions, have a profound effect upon our physical as well as our mental health. And Sapolsky provides chapter and verse of how this reaction works.

The first chapter attempts to give us an overview of the general human situation. For the vast majority of beasts on this planet, stress is a short-term crisis. You are attacked by a lion. You run like hell and get away. Or you're dead.

For human beings it isn't like that. We just sit around and worry. And in doing so we turn on the same physiological responses as would occur if we were attacked by a lion. Our body floods with chemicals to help us to run like hell. And we don't turn off the response by using up those chemical resources. On the contrary, we worry for months on end: we worry about our relationships, about the mortgage, about our jobs, and -- of course -- about the rejection of our novel.

Sapolsky goes on to describe this basic mechanism in great detail, and in relation to specific illnesses. There are chapters, for instance, on strokes and heart attacks; ulcers and the runs; sex and reproduction; stress and memory; and so forth.

The book is a long one -- it runs to over 500 pages -- and I don't think that many readers are going to read every word. I certainly didn't. But if you suffer, for instance, from insomnia, constipation, indigestion, or any one of half a dozen other minor ailments, you might take a look at what Sapolsky has to say before matters get any worse.

The good news is that there is a final chapter on managing stress. The bad news is that the simple answers to coping with stress 'are far from simple to implement in everyday life.' What you have to do, apparently, is find a means 'to gain at least some degree of control in difficult situations.' (There is more to it, of course, but that's a key principle.)

Now, just ask yourself for a moment. How could you possibly have less control than is experienced by a would-be writer, as yet unpublished, who is sending out a ms to agents and publishers, in the forlorn hope that someone is going to pick up the phone and tell you that you are a genius?

Hmm? Care to tell me?

If you are determined to press ahead with a writing 'career', just don't say you weren't warned, that's all.

What is more, even if, by some miracle performed by the goddess Fortuna, you find yourself an agent, get published, and have a success, you will still not be in control of your own fate. You may doubt that, but it's true. In the biography of Dean Koontz, written by Katherine Ramsland, the author relates how, after 54 novels and a US hardcover bestseller, Koontz still had trouble in persuading his editor (the lovely Phyllis Grann) to publish his next book. And in my own modest life, one of the main reasons why I gave up using an agent, in 1999, was because I wanted to regain control of how my work was handled.

In the course of this brief post about the health risks to writers, I have tried to adopt a fairly lighthearted tone, but the truth is, this is not a joking matter at all. If, on top of all the other multiple stresses of modern life, you impose the additional burden of (a) trying to find the time and energy to write a novel, and then (b) try to cope with the frustrations of offering it around, you are seriously pushing your luck. Your system will be strained to its very limit.

'In our privileged lives,' says Sapolsky, 'we are uniquely smart enough to have invented these stressors, and uniquely foolish enough to have let them, too often, dominate our lives.'

Couldn't put it better myself. Good luck to all you as-yet-unpublished writers out there. And even to those of you who are published.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure whether to be all scared, or be the literary equivelant of macho. I don't want to be the literary equivelant of macho and tough, as the thought smacks of either wanting to Byron or Palanuick. Not an attractive prospect for a woman, even in a supposedly post-feminist (pah) world.

James Warner said...

"I have tried to adopt a fairly lighthearted tone." Not sure you succeeded here! Thanks however for addressing topics few dare touch.

A tentative suggestion -- aren't there also some positive health benefits of being a writer? E.g. the documented physiological benefits of spending time in what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a "flow" state. Doing what you really want to do feels good (sometimes anyway) even if you're not in control of your fate. Some of us think the act of storytelling helps us heal emotionally... so shouldn't some of the healthy aspects of writing be factored into your equation?

Anonymous said...

As writers we're the lucky ones - at least we have a passion and a creative outlet. Many people spend their whole lives not knowing what it is that drives them, but feeling there is something missing in their lives. That can't be healthy.

Maybe I'd have been more content if my drive had been baking or flower arranging but there's a danger I'd have been driven by the unfulfilled desire to become a professional chef or garden designer.

I'm sure that if I hadn't taken up writing I'd have gone slowly and not so quietly crazy. And I am much happier when I write that when I don't, regardless of external recognition by publication.

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