The Body is a Garden, The Will is a Gardener

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You probably don’t know the name Laura Hillenbrand. But you probably do know the name of the horse Seabiscuit. You may even have seen a movie called “Unbroken.” Both of those are her creations. They are books—and collectively, they have sold several million copies.

Here’s what you don’t know: These books—gems of research and writing; with fans around the world; turned into blockbuster movies—were written by a woman with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

She can barely work. Sometimes, while reading or writing, she would have to rest. She couldn’t travel outside her home to do her work. Everything in her life is specifically organized to deal with her affliction. Here she is, in her own words, talking about how she manages:

To deal with the exhaustion, which renders me bed bound at times, I did everything I could to limit my energy expenditure to tasks related to my book. For the years in which I was writing, I did virtually nothing else. I put a refrigerator in my office, right next to my desk, so I could eat while I worked instead of walking downstairs. On some days, I’d lay on the floor, spread all my source materials around me and work there. Sometimes I’d lug my laptop to bed and write while lying down. There was no way for me to travel to distant libraries, so I used Interlibrary Loan services to arrange for books and newspapers to be sent to my local library from the Library of Congress and other libraries. I hired a former jockey to go to Kentucky’s Keeneland Racecourse, which has a comprehensive racing library, and photocopy like crazy for two days.

My other major obstacle was vertigo, which causes my surroundings to look and feel like they are spinning or pitching up and down. The symptoms never go away, but reading and writing greatly exacerbates them, as does looking down. My boyfriend jerryrigged a device to hold source materials upright, so I could avoid looking down. I put my laptop on a stack of books, so it was at eye level. When the vertigo was very bad, I’d lie in bed and write on a pad with my eyes closed. It was punishing work. At the end of every day I was quite nauseated from the vertigo and exhaustion, and in the final weeks of writing I was so overworked that my hands shook, but somehow I got the book done.

There’s a line from Shakespeare: “Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus. Our bodies are our gardens to the which our wills are gardeners.” Like a true Stoic, Laura Hillenbrand became a master gardener. She mustered an indomitable will in service of her craft. She has managed to extract so much out of so little.

And so can you.

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