On donuts and writing
What I talk about when I talk about mental strength, what makes us fat and upcycled cocoa honey.
Maybe you’ve heard about the extreme weather hitting northern California? It’s real. My power went out last night at 8:30pm. Early enough to call it a night. I grabbed a candle and my Kindle and headed to bed. Then I lay there waiting for what else might arrive alongside the biblical amount of rain and 25 mph winds. I was happy to have a roof over my head, but also worried: would the roof hold?
These internal thoughts can propel us to different places–-good and bad. My theme for this week is one we may all relate to. It’s about what’s in our head. How we talk to ourselves, our internal dialogue, our busy mind chatter or some emptiness when we (I hope) set aside time to meditate.
In an article on the mindset of runners, researchers noted that most people urged themselves in their heads to get past the initial aches and pains. Running, they said, is a mental sport. In a different category are ultrarunners who “embraced the pain” and other top-class athletes who are armed with “high levels of self-confidence, dedication, and focus, as well as the ability to concentrate and handle pressure.” These athletes' ability to self-regulate – their emotions, thoughts and actions – was what propelled them to run faster and longer than normal humans like you and I.
The concept made me wonder about the mindset of writers who depend on an internal dialogue to stay focused, achieve clarity and get words on the page. We sit in quiet rooms (maybe there’s a radio on in the background). Sometimes we have deadlines but other times we have nothing but our own mental chatter commanding us to sit our butts down and finish that thing we need to finish.
Most writers I know are easily distracted: oh hey, let’s do some laundry; have you watered the plants; I’m hungry. To get anything done we must push aside the multitude of distractions. Mental strength was the difference between a top-class and Sunday runner. Maybe it was also the difference between a prolific writer and a monthly blogger?
This thought drew a line to a new documentary called “Turn Every Page,” about the editing relationship between Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb. Caro, the author of books like “The Power Broker” and a multi-volume series on former president Lyndon Johnson, says he takes about seven years per book. SEVEN years! How does one even contain all that is learned and then somehow put that down onto hundreds and hundreds of pages? And then to edit it? Gottlieb, his editor, said it took him one year to return a first round of edits. (FWIW, seven years is also how long the documentary took.) The fortitude of this pair, to keep going, researching, interviewing, digesting (words), reading and editing, must be on par with high-caliber athletes when they override their brains saying to please just stop.
People often ask me how I get anything done without an office with people in it or a boss. “I’m highly self-motivated,” I usually say. This includes my mental chatter when I wake up in the morning: deciding what I need to work on, creating deadlines and tasks on my phone, endless lists. But the structure of my day is crucial. And so these two thoughts connected. My days are usually built around when and how I exercise.
Out the window, seeing the rain, I realized my workouts were off. The weather had thrown a wrench in my productivity. I had no evening plans (the rain), and little reason to leave the house (the rain), yet I was getting less done. Why was that? Not only that but my mood matched the gray skies. I wasn’t accomplishing enough, and I felt shiftless.
Once I put a finger on my mood, and what was creating it, I was able to redirect it and re-capture my internal motivation. What else can I do when it’s pouring outside? I can still hike, but wear some better gear. I can go to a yoga class, ask my friend if I can use his rowing machine, run up and down some stairs, and swing the kettle bells I decided to buy last year. (Easier to store than a Peloton bike.)
Back to how athletes and writers align. In the article they said that perseverance, the ability to block out our surroundings, setting clear goals, and coping with stress are the skills associated with self-regulation. The top dog in all of this, for endurance sports and, I think, writing, was our perception of effort. When I was productive–in work and in life–I felt better. When I had done enough in the day I could stop and kick up my legs.
This newsletter has little to do with food, but here’s where I connect it. My diet, or rather the diet of someone with Type-1 diabetes, requires all the same qualities that I need as a writer and middling athlete. Not eating the donut or buying the cookie involves setting clear goals, tapping into my mental strength and ability to self-regulate. I do eat the donut sometimes, but it tastes better when I land the other things first.
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A great read: This NYT opinion piece about what makes us fat. There’s little agreement what actually makes us fat, but scientists do agree about what doesn’t.
The Invisible Extinction: A film about scientists and researchers searching for microbes and how they can heal us in surprising ways. I haven’t seen it yet, but it looks great.
A new sweetener made from cacao bean waste? Inside the pod is what’s called cocoa honey, and if captured quickly (before it spoils), it can be used as a sweetener for baked goods and candy.
I once had a wallet made from Pantone color swatches, and shoes made from old tires. Now we’ve got purses, journals and art made from recycled FreshDirect grocery bags.
Where you can find me:
I wrote a piece for Consumer Reports on whether plant-based foods (creamers, pastas, and plant-based chicken) were healthier swaps versus their analogue counterparts.
In March, I’ll be the wrap up keynote at a conference on Novel Foods in Rome, Italy. Not in person, boohoo.
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This is a lovely piece, thank you! As someone who has worked from home for more than 20 years, I appreciate your thought process, and your recognition that "distractions happen." I am certainly queen of the multi-tasking world ... in fact, I am supposed to be writing something else right now, but thought I'd take a break to write you instead.
Thought you might like this blog: https://barrystrauss.com/ten-rules-for-writers/
It has some great tips for focusing and refocusing... and while you might have rain (sympathies) I have the grey upstate NY winter as a backdrop... so I am taking your tips, and the checklist from Strauss, and returning to the piece I am supposed to be writing! Happy New Year.