Running In The Hamster Wheel Of The Mind

If all I do is write, why am I so tired?  If all I do is write, why do I get so hungry?

This has been brought home to me as I’m recovering from a severe ear infection, and today, at the end of ten thousand words, I woke up, having fallen asleep in front of the computer.  And it wasn’t that I was bored with the story – on the contrary.  I kept writing way past the point where I felt a little tired and out of it because I was interested in the work.

What is so tiring about typing?  How can sitting in front of the computer waggling my fingers tire the living daylights out of me?

And yet it does.

I first came across this effect when I was writing the Minoan fantasy (yes, yes, I do get that eventually I will have to rewrite that thing just to satisfy all y’all’s morbid curiosity.)  After … many pages, bringing the thing to a close was a trial, particularly since my character had had so many walls dropped on him, he just sat in the middle of the pages like a passive-aggressive Job or perhaps an uncooked lump of dough, refusing to do much of anything.  So I made it a point of finishing it in a month.  For that month, I’d sit down after breakfast and write five thousand or so words.  At which point I realized I was starving.

It got so bad that I – who hate pizza and who can cook – would forego the extra trouble of cooking, because I couldn’t concentrate on cooking while starving.  For a month, I ordered a small pizza at noon every day and ate most of it before I could think again.

You see, those last few chapters (okay, fifteen or so) were the battle scenes. The worst day was after writing a scene where my heros (ten or so of them) cross a ravine by the force of their arms on a rope stretched across.

Since then, I’ve noted that effect many times.  Trying to push on writing (and editing, being detail work is worse) while I’m sick or just recovering, or otherwise depleted is impossible.  I know that I’ve sometimes had to rest or snack before I could write a big epic scene.

Now, I’ve done real work – hard work, under the sun, like planting potatoes with the aid only of an old fashioned hoe, or building decks, or even distance-hiking.  And I’ve done intensely physical, boring work, like ironing for twelve hours a day.  I can tell you right now that this writing stuff is easy, soft work, a gig done indoors and on a cushy chair.

And yet… and yet, the phsyical effects – the tiredness, the hunger, the occasional muscle pain are very real.  Are they only psychological (is there such a thing as only psychological?)  Or is there something more at work?  There have been studies that seem to prove that you can increase your muscles by thinking of exercising, provided you think intensely and in detail about exercising.

Of course, to write action scenes, we have to think each action intensely and in detail.  So it makes a certain amount of sense.

Does anyone else experience this?  Or am I alone?

I’m taking my tired self to bed.  Tomorrow I have more actions scenes to write.  I just wish I knew if I’m insane (beyond the normal run of writers, that is) or truly, truly a weakling that I can’t recover from whatever the heck this was and write at the same time.

18 thoughts on “Running In The Hamster Wheel Of The Mind

  1. Make sure you get electrolytes (yes, like a sport drink – alternatively, half juice, half water, with a pinch of salt). At the end of very intense writing sessions, I’d get a headache (I who never gets headaches), until I learned that writing is really hard work on the brain, and the brain needs liquids and electrolytes (at the very least) to function, or it’ll deplete it from the rest of the body.

  2. You’re neither insane nor a weakling.

    The brain uses a hugely disproportionate fraction of the body’s energy. If it’s being used at a high rate, whether it’s writing or working out math problems, the accumulation of metabolic waste products is the same as that for muscles being worked out. “Working” is work, whether it’s intellectual or physical.

    This is actually something of a puzzle for those who think about such things (and get tired doing it 🙂 ). Is diverting so much of the total metabolic resources to a big brain a successful adaptive strategy? Modern humans haven’t been around long enough to answer that question; recent indications are sort of push and pull — there are a lot of us, but we seem to have a high propensity for wiping ourselves out. Ask in another ten million years or so.


  3. Your brain uses a lot of juice. I’ve seen figures of 15 to 20 percent of your metabolic budget being used to run the brain. (This is why people feel stupid when they’re sick: the immune system is soaking up the energy the brain normally gets.)

    So if you want to lose weight without exercising: think harder!

  4. And… the post to which I was responding disappeared…

    What I meant to post, then mis-spelled my name, and am now reposting… is that yes, the brain *does* use extra energy when you are writing, dreaming or thinking about action scenes.

    So I am thinking that perhaps I shall blog about it.


  5. It’s not just you.
    I get up from a long writing session and I’m drenched in sweat, my arms and legs sometimes shake. I think we’re using up a lot of mental energy, as Ric mentioned. Food, rest, fluids and a shower usually fixes everything.
    Getting up, drinking more fluids and moving around during a writing session helps, too. Though I realize when we’re on a writing jag, the rest of the world and our bodies sort of fuzz out.

  6. Ah, I see others (and with far better credentials than I) have already addressed the matter of the brain being a very very exorbitant consumer of calories.

    That is why, as we age, we do far less thinking and rely instead upon the mental construct we have built up and named “reality.” Thinking is simply too much work, even for the peculiar minority of us who find it pleasurable. Much easier to zone out in front of the telly (I presume you’re familiar with the studies of brain activity while watching TV.)

    Considering all that the writing brain must consider in composing action scenes — who is where, doing what (and is what they’re doing actually physically credible; a problem I have perusing “porn” is a proclivity to ponder whether positions portrayed are possible for anyone not an Olympic gymnast) and why the characters are there doing what they’re doing — an awful lot of wattage is being burned by the brain.

    1. actually it’s best not to read while visualizing actions described too clearly. Because I’m obsessive, I’ve been known to sketch other people’s fight scenes, and yes, sometimes (often) you have to get arms through other people with no damage, for the fight to hold. It’s distressing.

  7. The brain uses a hugely disproportionate fraction of the body’s energy. If it’s being used at a high rate, whether it’s writing or working out math problems, the accumulation of metabolic waste products is the same as that for muscles being worked out. “Working” is work, whether it’s intellectual or physical.

    Ric Locke has it. I don’t know if you keep up with the latest work an anthropology. I do, and there’s been huge discussions about how the ability to use fire allowed our ancestor’s to divert become more efficient food users. This allowed our brains to become larger, because brains are one of the largest energy drains on the human body.

    Here’s an article from 2007 which talks about the increase in brain size of H. Erectus. Of course this is theoretical, the work continues. We may never know for certain if there is a direct correlation.

    Of course you have to take into account the recent drop in average brain size. That could be argued to have occurred because of increased efficiencies I guess. I’m not an expert in the field. I’m just fascinated by it.


    1. Um… I have a disproportionately large HEAD — and not just in the sense of being full of myself… Of course, that doesn’t argue for brain size, but Almeidas are known for having heads that kill mothers. I wear a size 7.5 hat, male. It’s almost impossible to get girl hats that fit. Marshall has an 8 1/2 head, and Robert has a 9.

      1. Hah! Nice to know of somebody else with the same problem. Yours is a bit worse than mine, my hat size is 58, seems to be 7 1/4 in what you use over there. And I’m damn short too, just a bit over 5 feet 2.

        I started using mostly scarves during the winter years ago. That has, however, gotten a bit awkward during the last decade, enough Muslims have moved here that sometimes a tightly wrapped scarf seems to elicit the assumption I’m one, and I’d prefer not to be taken for something I’m not. On the other hand, since I’m a middle aged woman who keeps cats and likes house plants the usual assumptions seem to include that I vote the Green party, listen to mostly Finnish adult pop and hate guns and everything even vaguely militarish, which are all about equally wrong, so maybe I just shouldn’t care.

        1. Marja,
          LOL on the assumptions. I run into that in the US since I’m a middle aged, foreign born Latin woman who keeps cats and works at an “artistic” profession. People tend to assume I have far left politics, am a pagan and think men have oppressed me for six thousand years (I haven’t even been alive that long! Close, but not that long. And the man has yet to be born who can oppress me, though some of them annoy me — well, some women too.) I think a lot of my problems with my colleagues and the editors and the publicists in the field are that I refuse to play to stereotype. BAH. If I wanted to be a cartoon character I’d have been born two-dimensional. The readers don’t have this issue mostly because they don’t read authors, they read books.

  8. For the day job, I spend ten hours visualizing locations and finding the most efficient routes between them, while trying to use all of my people in the most efficient manner, and keeps them busy (sometimes these are not the same thing), and keeps them happy (not the same at all as the other two). There are the other crises and reports wanted yesterday, and long-term planning going on, of course, but that’s the critical function. I fear I’m yet another zombified sheep on the commute home – which probably explains a lot about rush hour, right there. Rest, food, shower, and a chance to do something that involves working, not thinking, are my main cures of choice. On the other hand, a hot toddy with some spiced brandy never hurt, either.

    Hope you get well soon!

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