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Healthy Creative Living - Interview with Ted Neill

I've decided to conduct a series of interviews with some creative friends in order to shed more light on the topic of what it means to live a healthy creative life. My hope is that it will become a form of worker solidarity that helps creatives set firm boundaries around their time, safety, and long-term health.




For this post, I interviewed Ted Neill! He and I have been working on the children's book series Mystery Force for the last couple of years. Ted has a seemingly endless imagination and is an absolute writing machine with over 30 self-published titles currently available! Without further ado, here is our conversation.


Suzi

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I'm really excited to get your insights on this topic.


Ted

Yeah! As you know, my background is in public health. So, this kind of brings together many of my interests and my passions.


Suzi

Awesome. So, tell the readers a little bit about yourself and what you make.


Ted

Ted Neill, He/him. And I am a writer. I run across genres and age groups. So I do science fiction fantasy, regular old run-of-the-mill fiction, as well as kids' stories from early readers and then all the way up to young adult and then adult too.


Suzi

Do you consider your creative work full-time, part-time, a hobby or would you define it in another way?


Ted

Oh, that's a good question. Technically the first answer is full-time. But I think what a lot of people who do this work relate to, is it feels more like a vocation and a calling as opposed to just a regular, you know, in quotes, “Job”.


Suzi

Tell me about what a typical day can look like for you. Do you have a routine or are you just kind of taking things day by day?


Ted

Yeah, I definitely have a routine. And for me, that's really important. And when I'm not interrupted by other things, my routine looks like getting up early in the morning, sometimes early as five, and starting my work. Then I try to protect myself from a lot of stimuli and really focus on just reading or listening to music that kind of fits with what I'm going to be writing that day. I've gotten better about being able to actually read the news in the morning. There was a time where I just, I couldn't even read the news. I couldn't get myself out of the zone. But now I can usually read a few news articles over breakfast. And then I head up to my writing studio to write. And I will write for maybe four to five hours. And in my experience in research on this and creative work, that's what I've heard is pretty common for folks who are doing highly cognitive work.


Say you're learning a new piece on an instrument, or even in other fields such as science - if you're working on mathematics or physics and trying to come up with a new formula, that period of doing that intense work is really - you're only going to be able to do four to five hours. And I found that's about the same with me. It doesn't mean my day is over, it just means that around 11, a little bit before lunch, I usually take a break and shift to doing other things throughout the day. Whether I'm doing some consulting, which I do on the side around public health, racial equity, or volunteering, or doing some work on marketing. And that's usually when I arranged my time for phone calls. Like talking to collaborators like amazing illustrators like yourself.


Then towards the end of the afternoon is when I save things for like working out in the yard or even just working out and getting a bike right in. Now what I try to tell folks that I mentor in creative fields is that time you spend not writing or not creating is just as important. And you should plan for having both. I actually, I don't believe in writer's block. I believe when you sit down and you don't have anything coming out of the well it's because you haven't done the time to really refill the well. You haven't put in the ideas, you haven't spent that time, not writing in order to kind of - to mix a metaphor-feed your muse. So when I knock off from doing all the work, whether it's marketing admin in the afternoon, and I work in my garden or I, you know, I'm riding my bike - that's still for me, part of my creative process. And at that point, I just I've kind of shut down, you know, what's going on in my conscious and I allow my unconscious mind to kind of work on things and that's why I want to get up in the morning. It's what my unconscious mind has been doing in the afternoon that allows me to sit down the next morning and write.


Suzi

That's great, and actually plays well into one of my questions, which was how do you maintain your creative energy in the short and long term? And it sounds like what you're saying is that you invest in lots of other things that are not really directly related to writing.


Ted

Yeah. I made a decision earlier in life when I was trying to decide what to study in school. I was an English major in college, but I did not go the route of getting my MFA. Because I looked around and I thought that the most interesting writers and artists, did something else. They had something else from life to inform their work, especially with writers. And so I actually went into public health because I really enjoyed it. But being in global health, that allowed me to also travel the world and wow. Did traveling ever kind of feed my creative energies. And so I also have all those experiences as journal entries from that time. I think just being a writer would be kind of boring.


Suzi

Are there any physical health risks associated with your practice? And if so, do you take any precautions to minimize those?


Ted

Yeah. So, putting on my public health hat. I love this question. I think the obvious with a lot of people who sit in front of screens is eye strain. And for me, I've been lucky enough the past couple of years that I can work with my computer in front of a window so I can look up and let my eyes focus on other things. I have a bad back, my lower back - I've had pain there. I have a herniated disc from an injury years ago, so I have to be really careful about how I'm sitting- if I'm sitting up straight and I also have a kneeling chair at my writing desk.


You didn't ask about this, but I have - I really do think it's important to have a separate space for my creative work. And so when I'm doing that work, I'm on the kneeling chair in my writing studio. Where you're talking to me right now, where I've got my computer -This is where I do everything else. Whether it's paying bills or answering emails, this is kind of my office. But the writing studio is separate and since the writing studio is where I spend more of the time, that's where I have the kneeling chair.


And then finally, I guess there's also carpal tunnel. I have had some pain in my wrist a couple of years ago. I try to be really careful. And I think that's another advantage of just admitting to yourself that, yeah, four to five hours a day i great. Doing more than that, you really may be pushing your body.


Suzi

How did you recover from that wrist strain and get back to a healthy routine?


Ted

I was lucky in the sense that I had gone back to school and I was getting my MBA. And for that reason, I wasn't writing as much for about two years. And so it just kind of got itself resolved on its own.

And I did have a brace for a little while. The irony was, I had originally aggravated by trying to make myself a standing desk. And I had the angle wrong. And so my wrists were bent in an unhealthy way. So you got to make sure you do that correctly. Or else you can mess yourself up.


Suzi

What are some things you've had to let go of in order to live a healthier creative life?


Ted

I love this question. Relationships. There are some relationships I've had to let go of. People who don't understand the creative process. The creative process doesn't look like a typical nine to five. And I have friends who do work a nine to five, and they would look at my life and summarize -maybe out of jealousy, maybe from not understanding-They say little passive-aggressive comments, like, “Oh, you just get to hang out at your house all day. And you know, you can take a nap whenever you want”. And after a while that really kind of would wear on me and maybe cause it lined up with some of the voices in my own head that I had internalized about what work should look like. And so those are people I just kind of had to let go in my life if they didn't really understand the creative process.


And another I've let go of, was trying to explain to them what it looks like. Because that's just the energy that I could be putting into other things. And then kind of implied in all that is letting go of that typical week. The typical idea of what a workweek or schedule looks like. Because the creative process doesn't necessarily fit into that. And I feel bad for anyone who's trying to make it fit into a nine-to-five format.


When I'm early on in a process of writing a book -the early processes is the hardest for me. Because it's the least structured. And I do like structure. And when I'm at the very beginning stages of a book, I'm just outlining. I'm doing character sketches. And I may work on something for a whole day and none of that will actually may actually make it into the book. It may all just be background that I know about -say a character or a setting. And it informs my process but none of it's going to make it into the final word count. I have to just let go of the deliverables at the end of the day. I have dear friends who are like, “Oh, I have a word count that I have to get to each day after 1500 words a day”. I let go of doing that because that's not what the process looks like for me. I still have to have this battle in my head with my “itty bitty shitty committee”, as I call it. As I get farther along in the process and I do have page counts and I do have those measurable things, I notice my anxiety goes down. But being someone who likes structure, that period in the beginning really hard for me.


Suzi

Well, thank you for sharing that. So let's talk about the mental health side of creative work. Please share as much or as little as you like about your struggles or successes with maintaining your mental health in relation to your creative process.


Ted

Yeah. So, I'm very comfortable talking about this, and I think I've shared with you, and even in some of my books that I live with depression and anxiety. I take medication for it and I've even been hospitalized for it in the past. I'm really, really lucky that my creative work is a form of my self-care. I think because my work lines up with my values and what I described as a vocation -when I'm doing my work, I feel great. I feel like I'm lined up with my purpose. And man, if there's anything that, is a great cure for depression, it's having a sense of purpose. So I'm very lucky in that way. But for any of us trying to do our job-whatever it is-that work that we have to do for our emotional and mental health is fundamental. That's our foundation for anything that we're doing. So, whether it's therapy, whether it's being connected community or all those things, I think that's really important for everyone. So I'm a big advocate of that.


Suzi

That's awesome. Yeah, that was a theme with the first person I interviewed. The art itself was a form of therapy for him. And his mental health struggles were more related to other life stuff, not the art itself.


Ted

Yeah, I'm really glad to hear that. And as much as I think mental health is important for everyone to consider, all the science and even just history shows that there is a real connection between creativity and mental health disorders. So I think artists especially have to be sensitive to it and be willing to talk about it.


Suzi

Yeah. So in that vein, have you ever experienced burnout? And if so, how were you able to recover from it?


Ted

Yeah. So I've experienced burnout, but not from writing. I've experienced it in my other work, whether it's consulting working in racial equity work, global health. I have not experienced it in writing and that's kind of getting back to what I talked about regarding -I don't believe in writer's block. If you're doing the process right the well keeps refilling. And I think the key to making sure that well keeps refilling is knowing your process and being dedicated to your process. Not everyone has the opportunity to learn their process or to structure their life in such a way where they can. So I totally understand and respect that. But I think that's why I haven't experienced burnout with my creative work. That, and also because it continues to be rewarding.


Suzi

That's really good to hear. And encouraging. As someone who's going to be doing full-time art. So, how do you discern whether you should push through a feeling of creative fatigue or just take a break?


Ted

On a daily level, I just know. And I don't know if it's like this with art. But I know for me with writing, I'll get to that point four or five hours in and I just, “oh, I'm empty”. And I just know my cup has been emptied for the day. And it's really clear to me and I know I just have no gas left in the tank. That's actually really easy for me to recognize. On a longer-term basis -say I'm working on a project and I feel like I'm not sure where to go with that, which just recently happened to me working on a non-fiction project - it was hard because I realized I needed to walk away from it for a few weeks, maybe a month or two.


And there's been times where that's been imposed upon me. And I've come back and I'm like, “Wow, I'm so glad I had that time away”. It was harder for me this time because it was totally up to me whether or not to do it. And there’s that self-critical side in my head like that committee up in my brain that was telling me. “Oh, you need to push through this. It's when it gets hard, that's when you know you're on to something”. And there's also, part of me is like, “No, I think I just need some time away from it”. And I took that time away from it and it paid dividends. I'm lucky enough to have other projects that I can go to and work on. And I can kind of get into a cadence among those projects. But that's something I just learned from past experience. If I try to force it the results are going to be bad. And I'll tell you if I've had a bad writing day, everything is terrible.


Suzi

So, what has your progress in creating a work-life balance?


Ted

Okay. So this is maybe the opposite of what you may have been expecting. But I mean, for me, once I could write full time, it wasn't about finding balance to write. It was about finding balance to do other things. Because as much as I do love writing, it doesn't fill my cup completely. It's kind of solitary, you're working alone. And there were aspects I missed about working on a team and working with others. I really missed mentoring people and managing people. That was one of the things I really enjoyed about working in an organization is coaching people and seeing them kind of realize their potential. Definitely not as much of an opportunity to do that in the arts. There's some, but not in a structured way that you would have if you have an actual, like, direct report. And there's also - let's face it- there can be a lag in terms of the impact art is going to make. We're seeing the impact that it's making. And maybe in terms of like a deliverable we might be looking for.


So for me, I volunteer a lot. It's also why I teach. It's why I still do some consulting, whether it’s racial equity work or public health work. And that allows me to socialize and, you know, meet new people. Whereas I might be sitting alone in my writing studio wondering if anyone's ever going to read my story and if it's going to have an impact. I'm handing out bag lunches or hot coffee or soup at the soup kitchen where I volunteer. I know on that, that moment I'm having an impact. And so that kind of return on the work is immediate. I need a little bit of that on the days when I've just been kind of in my head making up stories and wondering if these stories - maybe the overarching themes I’m trying to promote will have an impact on society. I can be like, yeah, but at least I gave out some hot coffee on a cold day. And that made a difference to that person.


Suzi

Is there any kind of spiritual aspect to your work process like rituals, meditation, prayer? That kind of thing?


Ted

I absolutely think there's a spiritual nature to storytelling. And for me it comes down to -when we're telling a story, we're talking about characters. And at the root of what makes drama is character change. And oftentimes the pivot of that change in a character is between what they want and what they need. And I'd say that that change within them is psychic and it's spiritual. And if we're not recognizing the psychological and spiritual aspects of that in our characters, I think we have little chance of actually creating characters that we can connect with, and we'll connect with other people.


For example, when I talk about things we want versus things we need -when we're talking about story structure and characteristics -the thing that a character wants is usually where they start out in a story. And typically, if we're talking about a story that involves a type of quest. This thing is maybe a golden fleece. Indiana Jones and the last crusade. What they want is defined as the grail. But really what they need - what Indiana Jones needs -is a better connection with his father. And so we see that connection -and this goes for all sort of quest-type stories- where the protagonists were out looking for what they want. But really there's a switch and sometimes it comes at the climax. There's a switch from what the character wants to what they need. And sometimes the thing that they're looking for never was the actual object. It was the experience, or it was a connection or this relationship. I mean, yeah, that's totally psychic spiritual change right there.


And then I think there's also a meditative aspect to creating. Whether you're getting into flow as a lot of the psychologists call it when you're creating. Like, you lose that sense of time. And you're just a hundred percent focused on the task. Or in my case, sometimes it's playing out scenes. And this is what I was getting into about my health aids. I actually have these yoga mats behind my chair up in my writer studio so I don't hurt myself. There are times when I'm working on a scene and I'll just need to just drop out of the kneeling chair onto the floor, close my eyes and play out the scene in my head.

And I kind of get into a state that’s something like meditation. And I'm sure if you hooked me up to one of those brainwave machines, I'm sure I'm going into like theta waves or something. And so it feels akin to what a lot of people describe as meditation.


And this is when I would be really embarrassed for anyone to see my process because they would think that I'm just taking a nap. And sometimes I can do this taking a walk, but again, you know, if people realize that a large portion of my workday consists of lying on the floor, looking like I'm taking a nap or taking a walk, they'll be like, “That's not work”. But it is! I was actually really validated recently when a friend of mine told me that her husband who's a mathematician does exact same thing. And he even had a mat in his office that he would lay down on the floor, close his eyes, and that's how he worked out mathematical formulas.


And maybe this just shows our own quantitative bias and like -see a mathematician does it, so that somehow gives me validation. So I maybe make that mistake of like lifting up the hard sciences, a little too much. But I mean, I'll just admit, it gave me some sense of validation. That mathematicians do it too. So that is kind of the spiritual nature and the meditative nature.


Suzi

Do you have any specific resources on healthy creative lifestyles you'd like to share?


Ted

You know, the best advice I ever got on this -and this goes, I think for whatever your field is - if you can figure out your process, and if you've got the flexibility -build your life around it. And I heard that from someone who had studied a bunch of people across fields who have been very successful and productive. And she said that was the only commonality that all these different people had. They knew their process and then they had the ability, the privilege, to build their life around it. And that really allowed for them to be productive and sustain that productivity and not come at any psychic or relational costs.


Suzi

Routine. Gotta love routine.


Ted

Yeah. And I think the other piece of that was always, always have a mountain to climb. You should always have something that's kind of challenging you. And I certainly do. I wouldn’t want to take on a project if I didn't think it was challenging for me. So I always have that mountain to climb, but also treat yourself like you’re someone you have the responsibility for taking care of. As if someone was entrusted to you. And sometimes I think we have to do that because otherwise, we don't make those allowances for taking care of ourselves.


Suzi

Please share your favorite thing about living a creative life.


Ted

It's twofold. The creative process itself, because it feels downright magical. That sense that you get that -the creation, whether it's a story or piece of art- there's almost a sense that it already existed before. And it's just flowing through us. Now Michaelangelo used to describe his sculptures - he'd get this block of stone and for him, the sculpture already existed. It just was trapped inside the stone. And so it's just a matter of liberating it from the stone. And I think that's a commonality to a lot of artists and creatives.


And then I think the second piece of that is when your work makes a connection with other people and through that connection makes an impact. And I often talk about my books are like my children. And I just want them to go out and make friends. And so that's kind of what I want for them. And when I get the occasional note on social media from someone who tells me about the impact that work had, that's just -I don't want to take anything away from people who have kids and love their kids. But I have the same pride for my book or for my piece of art that I think someone would have for their child.


Thank you Ted for joining me in this project! Check out his website where he has links to his books and social media.


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