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Writers, Feed Your Brain

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I am now on day eight of my tour for The Raven Boys — at least, I think it’s day eight — and I’m eating my breakfast here in my room and thinking about a blog post I’ve contemplating for a long time. It is sort of about writing, but it’s also sort of about room service.

Right now, this is what I have on my room service tray: an unsliced banana, a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice, and two sunny side up eggs. Tomorrow I will probably also get room service and tomorrow this is what will be on my room service tray: an unsliced banana, a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice, and two sunny side up eggs. In fact, by day 30 of this tour, I will have probably had as many eggs, glasses of orange juice, and bananas. I will never want to see any of them ever again.

I swear I’m working to a point here.

My point is this: I’m allergic and/or intolerant to pretty much every chemical preservative under the sun. Some make me big, some make me small, the details are largely unimportant. All we need for purposes of this post is the knowledge that, at worst, they make me fall down, and, at best, they make me feel slightly awful. They are my kryptonite. I’ll do anything to avoid them, even if it means thirty days of sunny-side-up eggs, bananas, and (when I can get it) freshly squeezed orange juice (Also, 30 days of Chipotle, the only national chain that’s preservative-free). (That’s a lot of burritos.)

Having to obsess over my food has taught me a lot about how my body reacts to certain foods and chemicals. In the past, I rejected the idea that a trace amount of a preservative or a coloring or a raising agent would’ve had the power to change how I feel. Now, that seems like a strangely cavalier attitude. I trust a tiny bit of ibuprofen to cure a headache, a tiny bit of caffeine to wake me up, so why wouldn’t I expect other chemicals to have effects? I reckon at this point you’re wondering when this stops being one of those conversations where you nod politely and plan your exit and begins being something relevant to writing. THAT MOMENT IS NOW.

I think everybody has a dietary kryptonite. We all react differently to common foods: milk, corn, honey, red food dye, baking soda. It might not be a large enough reaction to be properly called a food intolerance, but it would be enough to make you sluggish or irritable. Also, it’s generally cumulative. Here’s the writing bit. As a writer or a creative person, it behooves you to listen to your body. Because focus and concentration are the first things to go when you’re eating something your body doesn’t care for. You might not notice that you’re operating at 90% when you’re shopping or working the day job or doing laundry. But that 10% is often the energy you need to be able to write or paint after doing everything else in the day. Studies have shown that the creative bit of our brain is the first to go. As writers, that’s the only bit that matters. That’s the part that lets us conceptualize an entire novel.

So this post is me urging aspiring writers to look at their plates. Even if you don’t have an allergy or intolerance, I recommend keeping a food journal for a month. We eat a lot of crap — especially we Americans — a lot of non-food things, and those are the ones that often mess with our creative brains. If you simplify your diet and keep a journal, you’ll be able to easily track what makes you feel great and excited and what makes you feel sleepy. Basically, if you aren’t feeling bright and awake for all of the moments that you have your eyes open, there’s room for improvement.

And you’d be stunned, I think, at what it will do for your creative productivity.

I’m going to go eat an egg, I guess.

  • Michelle

    Actually tried the food journal after baby #2 and was amazed at the junk that I indulged in daily. Great blog post btw!:-D

    • Well, don’t get me wrong, I love cookies and all that. But I think we’re all surprised over what’s in processed foods, when we break it down.

  • Fascinating! I know I have a mild intolerance to milk. I can’t eat yogurt or drink cow’s milk because it can cause me issues. Cheese doesn’t bother me (thankfully!). I never thought about this stuff before in relation to my creative brain. I kept a journal for almost 2 years while I tried to lose weight, but at no point was I thinking about how it affected my creativity.

    I might have to try this sometime.

    I do know that some of my sleepiness is due to sleep issues unrelated to diet. I know this because I’ve always had sleep issues (mostly insomnia) even at a young age when I wasn’t eating as much junk as I do now.

    • It really does make a difference. Even my friends who are not so violently reactive to preservatives can tell a difference when they isolate the chemicals in their diet.

  • kat

    Great post! It’s amazing to look at the impact that health can make on creativity and the writing process. For me, it wasn’t food but sleep — I was a chronic insomniac for years. At first I thought it was cool and bohemian and that I was just a “night owl” who worked primarily at night, but then it got so bad that I’d only be able to fall asleep at 4 in the morning and wake up at 10 or 11 and feel like crap all day. I made a serious, concerted effort to address my sleep issues, and voila — it made a huge impact on my productivity and the quality of my work. Now I just write about creatures of the night — I don’t have to live like one!

    • This is so true. I can’t write if I’m sleep deprived. At all. Even if my deadline is looming, I will sacrifice 30 minutes for a power nap rather than try to force a chapter. I’ll just end up deleting it otherwise.

  • User

    So true. Keeping a food journal can be a revelation; we often don’t eat as healthy as we think we do. And eliminating dairy and gluten, at least for a short time, can do wonders for regaining energy. Also, if you’re on the road, Wellness Pills (Whole Foods) are a must! Pungent…but a must.

  • Ameriie

    So true. Keeping a food journal can be a revelation; we often don’t eat as healthy as we think we do. And eliminating dairy and gluten, at least for a short time, can do wonders for regaining energy. Also, if you’re on the road, Wellness Pills (Whole Foods) are a must! Pungent…but a must.

  • Heads up: There’s no Chipotle in Traverse City… so get extras to bring with you. 🙂 Nearest one is about two and a half hours south of TC in Grand Rapids.

    Epic post, by the way. I’m going through some massive “career” changes (i.e. I’m leaving my dead end job as a gas station attendant to become a full time stay-at-home mom to MY Thing One and Thing Two) and the goal is to feed the entire family healthier, non-processed foods because I’ll be home all the time. SO.. this post came at the right point in time for me personally. Food diary, here I come.

    And yeah, I’ll be at the Opera House in TC on Thursday. 🙂 It’s my WhooHooMommyGetsToGoByHerself date with.. well.. myself.

  • It is amazing how intolerant the human body is of so many foods. I have celiac disease so no gluten products for me. I also can’t handle hardly any oats. My diet has changed over to mostly fresh foods and organics. It’s amazing how much better I feel. A food journal is a great way to see if anything bothers you — make sure you record how you feel after certain foods, too!

    I completely understand the eating the same thing when traveling. I often travel for work and end up bringing much of my own food with me. That’s difficult to do in a carry-on, but somehow I haven’t starved yet!

  • Ishta

    Great post. I’ve had my kids on a Gluten- and Dairy- free diet for years, after noticing that my older son had difficulty socializing and having a urine analysis done on the whole family. I’m always surprised at how many people have little issues like drowsiness or sluggishness, but refuse to look into it because they don’t want to give up the convenience of junk. How is it convenient to feel tired and slow all the time?

    An alternative to keeping a food diary is seeing a naturopath for blood testing (for allergies) or urine analysis. And general healthy eating advice!

  • I didn’t know Chipotle was preservative-free; good to know, thanks! When I’m on the road, if I don’t eat well, I can barely function. Sometimes traveling can be a fun excuse to eat any and everything, but that only goes so far. I think there are more places sprouting up these days that make it much easier for those on specialized diets.

  • So true. I was just thinking about a friend with chronic migraines the other day. When he realized the cause was gluten and msg and got rid of them, his world suddenly got a lot better.

    In a different application, I belong to a religion with a dietary code. Growing up, I was taught that the choices I make about what I put into my body have very real consequences that either limit or enhance my ability to make future choices. Basically, what you just said.

    And I would add to your advice: Don’t -forget- to eat either. I can tell when my blood sugar gets really low, because I get grumpy and lethargic, and lose my ability to make rational decisions.

  • Jen Zeman

    Thanks for the inspiration – and Chipotle craving!

  • Let me know if you need me to bring some Chipotle to your Corte Madera signing! Due to my allergies/sensitivities to gluten, dairy, chicken, egggs, and sulfites, we eat a lot of Chipotle when we travel also. I get sick of it at times, but not sick FROM it, and that’s what’s important.

    I mostly have a handle on traveling with dietary issues, but I went to the SCBWI conference in LA this year and felt like I missed out on a lot of the socializing and hanging in the bar/patio. Those time slots were used up by me having to leave the hotel in search of food. Fortunately there was a small grocery store that had good choices, plus a Baja Fresh where I could get shrimp tacos, but it genuinely did take the majority of my free time just to safely feed myself.

    I saw my nutritionist yesterday and she wants me to try going Paleo to see if eliminating all grains and legumes would help reduce some inflammation. Going to have to put some thought into that one!

  • I’ve recently started eliminating processed foods from my diet. It took a few months of finding replacements that I could live with for the foods I couldn’t eat anymore. I feel so much better and have lost 43 lbs. Food journals are amazing! Thanks for the support Maggie!

  • I’m intolerant of peppers. All peppers. All things derived from peppers. I can handle, usually, a small amount of table pepper used as a seasoning in my food while it’s being cooked… and that’s about it. It took me a long time to figure this out (I always thought it was part of my dislike for all things spicy). I have other food-related issues that clouded the matter but now that I’ve stopped eating anything that has touched a pepper or pepper byproduct, I definitely feel better. And I don’t miss Doritos or any of the few peppery things I used to eat. It’s funny how you don’t really miss something once you know how awful it makes you feel.

  • I wanted to say thank you!

    I’ve been reading Raven Boys and am really inspired to improve my writing because you are SO GOOD at telling a great story, and after reading this this morning, I made my son & I a good scrambled egg breakfast with raspberry jelly toast. When I went to work afterwards, I could tell that that ‘extra 10%’ was there for the creative portion of writing and I wanted to thank you for that!

    Simple, and easy to figure out, but not always something we remember or take the time to do for ourselves. Just that little breakfast made such a difference.

  • Very interesting! I’ll have to keep that in mind from now on!

  • Leanne Bridges

    This is brilliant, Maggie. Thank you so much for sharing.

  • Anonymous

    I’m slightly disappointed that there was not a recipe included for the cookies pictured…

  • I love this post Maggie, especially as my last proper conversation with you was about this very thing. It got me thinking and I told my mum who suggested I try not eating gluten. I’m not being dramatic when I say my life changed overnight and you were the catalyst for this. After 8-10 years of suffering and not knowing what was wrong, I’ll always be grateful for our conversation and what followed. As if I didn’t love you enough already!!!!! You’re an awesome lady. Oh and btw, I totally want to look at all your writing tips and I remember you saying that you had put them in one place now? Am going to look for them…

  • luponero

    maggie, I just want to ask you why you decided to make that forever ended well.
    I must say that it seemed pointless to me.I would explain why you’ve decided to end it like that?

    • Aj

      In her FAQ (which you can find at the top of the page) it says

      “Q: I would like to talk to you about the ending of FOREVER. Will you?

      A: No, but I will tell you that I did talk to readers about it in this chat hosted by Mundie Moms. I think it might answer your questions. (Click on “replay” and it will show you the archived chat)”

      I hope that helps you understand why it happened the way it did

  • Lisa D.

    Dear Maggie,

    Day 8 was here in Brampton! And how amazing was that night for me! I almost cried when you were signing my books, I was that happy!

    When I met you, I was just like you when you met your favourite author; barely able to talk, and almost crying.

    Its something I will never forget!

    From Lisa (girl who had the UK version of the Scorpio Races)

  • Lillian

    Yes! Thank you for this post! I knew I had a sensitivity to artificial sugar, but I hadn’t realized how much it was affecting my life until I embarked on a campaign to keep it out of my mouth, stomach, body. I also hadn’t realized how prevalent an ingredient it had become. Before I didn’t ask much about what was in my food, but now I am and even though I miss out on some things, I feel so much better that it is worth it. Thanks for putting this topic in a light that shows its importance to our work as writers–artists.

  • Mea

    In general, it’s just better for your health to eat a balanced diet with healthful, natural foods and as few processed elements as possible. I think it’s important for the people who read this post and the comments to understand that while there are things that some people are allergic to or can’t process (such as gluten or eggs or wheat or preservatives), that doesn’t mean that those things are automatically bad for ALL people (well, except maybe preservatives). There’s no scientific evidence that concludes that everyone should cut gluten or dairy or what have you from their diets. It’s just that some people’s bodies don’t like them. I, for example, can’t eat bell peppers without getting seriously sick. So bizarre, I know. But lots of people can eat bell peppers no problem. So basically, I’m saying that there of the Maggies of the world who need to follow a more restrictive diet, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has to. You need to do what’s best for your personal health.

  • GofferGirl

    I see your point! I eat so heathly for a week and then I eat a handful of chips and I feel like I have the spanish flu.

  • Anisah

    I know what it’s like Maggie. I’m allergic to some meats, gluten AND Egg. So that means I can’t have bread or biscuits or November cake! and I definatley cannot have eggs that are sunnyside up. 🙁 I guess English people stuff their faces aswell but we are more discreet about it. 🙂

  • Understand! Also intolerant to many preservatives – even some natural foods – and had to clean up the diet when the doctors couldn’t figure it out. Thanks for posting. Keep up the great work. My copy of Raven Boys comes today! 🙂

  • Hi, Maggie.

    I love your books, they are amazing I love how do you explain the love stories, and my favourite ones are Cole and Isabel. They are fantastic, and I have spent a lot of lovely moments with them. But I’m writting you because, I have just finished the second book and I can’t wait to read the third, I would like to know if there will be more books because they are amazing and I would never finish to read them. Sorry for my english I’m from Spain 😉
    Thanks for your books!!

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for coming to Traverse City. I book The Accidentals and they were excited to open for you w their original songs. As I said to you earlier… you were great tonite! and you were really entertaining. Favorite singer? band? You did mention Shins. Wondering about age market… I was thinking as early as eighth grade, but I thought you said 18 years. peace Tom

  • Tom

    I am Tom and not anonymous… peace

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  • Julia C.

    Dear Maggie,

    I feel your pain. I have Ulcerative Colitis – Crohn’s disease lesser-known sister – and there is a host of foods that I can’t eat (and miss awfully). Please do keep feeding your brilliant brain; I’ve just discovered your books and ripped through 3 in the last week. For any contemporary author to snag my imagination and inspire me to zip through books like that these days is a lovely surprise to me. (I’m currently a busy mom & oncology RN.). And I would love to keep supporting a fellow historian (former double major in history and French here – what the heck was I thinking?), writer, and lover-of-bagpipes. Keep up the great work. Slàinte!

  • I love how you brought up those food information about how healthy it is and then proceeded to say, “I’m gonna go eat an egg, I guess.” Lols! But it is rather true. What you eat does tend to effect your day. Keeps the runners running! I just had a bunch of cookies and bread today… I was starving. So yeah here’s to day one (tomorrow) of my food diary.

  • JinHee Aloi

    Ms. Stiefvater,
    My name is JinHee and I am in 8th grade and doing a research project on werewolves. I am researching the mythology of werewolves and would like to ask you a few questions about how and where you got your ideas for your books. The first question is: What do you think is important about werewolves? The second question: What are the many types of werewolves? Question 3 is: What other ways can werewolves be killed other than a silver bullet? Question 4: Are there any types of rituals that are performed to become a werewolf? And, question 5: How do humans transform into werewolves? I would really appreciate it you could answer these questions to help me out with my research project. Thank you,

  • Ashley

    This post blew my mind, because I was recently dabbling with The Virgin Diet (named after the woman who created it 🙂 and that was the primary change I noticed: my ability to THINK and to think CLEARLY. Amazing truths you’re exposing here!

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  • Sabrina CB

    Oh! That post is everything ! I’ve got a lactose intolerance. I know all the effects on my body. Well, I though I knew…
    Theses 10% I had no idea it will directly touch the creativity!
    I was little by little saying goodbye to all the lactose goodness : goodbye cheese, I’m French! Goodbye ice cream! Goodbye cakes and cookies!.
    But now, I think I’ve found my new motivation to stop eating all theses things!
    Thanks a lots! from me, my creativity, and my digestive system!

Maggie Stiefvater
Hi, I'm Maggie Stiefvater

Professional novelist by day and artist by night. I live an eccentric life in the middle of nowhere, Virginia with my charmingly straight-laced husband, two kids, and neurotic dogs. I’m the author of the Books of Faerie (LAMENT and BALLAD); the bestselling SHIVER trilogy (SHIVER, LINGER, FOREVER), and THE SCORPIO RACES.

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