Writing Lessons from Quitting Sugar

I’ve decided that I’m going to break my sweet tooth, once and for all. We’ve had a pretty good run: 26 years of shocking and/or awing people by finishing entire Halloween-sized bags of Skittles, or making half a recipe’s worth of chocolate chip cookies from scratch and keeping the rest of the cookie dough to eat later, or being reasonably sure I could finish the Ben & Jerry’s Vermonster Ice Cream Bucket Challenge successfully—and by myself. You get the picture.

When we finally meet on the field of food battle, it's going to be epic.
When we finally meet on the field of food battle, it’s going to be epic.

Turns out that breaking habits and addictions—even to relatively harmless-if-you’re-healthy ones like a serious sweet tooth (I’m pretty sure it’s got control of at least part of my actual brain… maybe I have a sweet brain?)—is really, really difficult. But to make the process at least slightly less painful, I took a good look at the process of quitting this unhealthy habit and realized that I could apply a few lessons to a healthier habit I’m working to cultivate: writing.

Here’s what breaking my sweet tooth is currently teaching me about words. 

1. I’ve got no moral obligation to finish the pie or keep that paragraph. A lot of us were taught as children to clean our plates and that it was  practically a sin to waste food. As an adult, that lesson transformed into compulsion, and I learned to dissociate what I eat with how much body needs—when it’s lunch, dinner or dessert time, I just eat what’s in front of me. I remember the first time I threw out half a box of cookies simply because the cookies weren’t very good. It was liberating. Slowly, I’m breaking myself of the clean-my-plate habit, and only eating as much as I actually need. I try not to waste food beyond a reasonable degree, but if all it offers is sugar and empty calories, there’s no need for it to hang around.

Ever have that feeling when you’re editing your work? Just because a paragraph is particularly lyrical, or you’ve put an awful lot of work into it, doesn’t mean it deserves to stay in your book. Liberating yourself from a beautifully written passage—or chapter, or character—that simply doesn’t fit makes the rest of your book leaner, meaner and more awesome.

2. Just because I’ve eaten a healthy dinner doesn’t mean I “deserve” dessert. And when I’ve written a page or two, that doesn’t mean I “deserve” to play a five-in-a-row of Candy Crush or go watch a movie. Simple as that.

photo3. Stop brainlessly eating what everyone around me is eating just because they’re doing it and it’s there. Parties, especially family parties, are totally the worst. At the last family party I attended, one of my husband’s cousins brought Andes chocolate chunk brownies. Did I eat about 12 of them? Of course I did. Because they were sitting on a huge plate in the middle of the table, and everyone else was eating them, , and because they were freaking delicious.

Yeah, everyone else is heading out for drinks after work, everyone else is watching the TruTV marathon, and everyone else has at least been outside/taken a shower/worn actual pants at some point in the last three days. If you’re a writer, and you haven’t done any of those things, that’s okay. You’re not missing out, and pretty soon, your lack of current pop culture knowledge will become fascinating and novel to your family and friends.

4. Don’t settle for the crappy candy when the good candy is gone. Recently, a coworker brought in an entire pillow-sized bag of Wonka party candy left over from a child’s birthday party. Inside the bag, which ostensibly was meant to fill several piñatas, was some pretty rad candy choices, like Smarties, Airheads and Now N Laters. Slightly less awesome but still pretty desirable were the individually wrapped pieces of Dubble Bubble gum. There were also the crappy filler choices: off-brand Jawbreakers and Jolly Ranchers that tasted vaguely like the plastic wrappers they came in. Naturally I started to pick at the good stuff: Smarties first, then Airheads, then the Now N Laters. Pretty soon, they were all gone.

When the candy jar didn’t have anything appealing in it, a normal person would probably stop eating the candy. Me? I settled for second best: Dubble Bubble. When that was gone, 99% of everyone else would leave the also-ran candies alone. But I remained fixated on the candy dish, because hey, it was sweet, even if it wasn’t candy I actually liked.

Application: When your best writing is done, and you’ve run out of ideas, stop for the day. I’ve found that forcing myself to hit a daily word count is kind of like eating that entire bowl of Wonka candy (I did eventually stop after that cinnamon Jawbreaker). After a while, the effort isn’t giving you anything you actually like, and maybe you even feel a little sick.

Also, sugar really is pretty toxic in general. Check out this great Lifehacker piece from 2011 by Adam Dachis on What Sugar Does to Your Body.