On Being A Professional Writer No. 6: Physical Work

Reading & Writing

The Physical Part

Why is it everyone asks ‘Where do you get your ideas?’ and nobody says ‘How do you stay fit when you’re sitting in a chair all day?’ Ideas are never the problems – that’s our job – but wellness is.

The short answer is; Well, you don’t. The downsides of this lifestyle include working through weekends (you’re at home, not the office – there’s never anyone else there anyway), sitting rigidly for long periods and a tendency to heftiness.

The right chair is less important than the right height screen, otherwise you lower your head all day long. You need to get your eyesight checked regularly because otherwise you’ll soon be leaning closer and closer to the screen, and you get back pain and tendonitis.

Three years ago I completely lost the use of my right index finger. Repetitive strain injury is not a new-age injury but very real. The cause was traced not to my hand but back to my shoulder. I realised I was sitting for ten hours a day with my shoulder hunched. Six months of work on that area, and everything returned to full use. Tendonitis in the thighs is incredibly painful and rules out sitting easily in cinemas or buses or anything with a narrow seat.

You might tell yourself you’ll take regular breaks, but most writers I know forget to do it. I have two regimes; simple stretching and muscle exercises, and now martial arts with a trainer – not because I’m intending to get into a fight but because it requires you to carefully co-ordinate mind and body, and its less boring than the gym. It’s a lot easier to think clearly if you’re not in discomfort.

The Getting-Out-Of-The-Chair Part

For books that require research, an over-reliance on the internet is fatal. You need physical meetings with experts, personal contact with your subject or at least elements of it, and you need to make your own connections, linking elements no-one else has thought of. To do that, you need the full picture, not just the internet’s take on it. If you look up something arcane you’ll find that online references, when you trace them back, lead to the same tiny handful of reference sources so you need to dig others out.

Some while back I was up for a non-fiction award against a very nice author who had written about Oscar Wilde – but he had failed to draw out anything we did not know, which made his book feel like a carbon copy of everyone else’s. The problem could have been easily solved by spending time in Wilde’s old neighbourhood, say, and seeing if or how it had changed, or by looking at what else was going on in Britain at the same time. It’s harder and more time-consuming, but worth it.

The Mental Part

Finally, connections – I’ve noticed that when I’m very busy I virtually do nothing else but write or think about writing for days. But it’s important to build in recharge days when you simply go out and walk around, looking at the world and talking to people, because it grounds what you’re doing in reality. And I know a lot of writers hate this one but if more than a million people like something, you need to know about it, whether it’s the fact that Robbie Williams has a No.1 single (he does) or that thirteen of the UK’s top twenty books this week are about celebrities (they are).

One thing this will teach you is that public taste is a queasy mix of awfulness and great sound sense. For example, six books on that top twenty list are about food and two are the last two Booker Prize winners. The more knowledge we gather, the more we connect.

6 comments on “On Being A Professional Writer No. 6: Physical Work”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    Admin: Absolutely. This is a right-on piece. “You’ll take regular breaks.” Yeah, right.
    You get deep in there – eyes on the screen and head in the zone – and suddenly it’s sunset. And try standing up and hurrying to the wall phone or the front door. Thank heavens my wife remembers where she keeps “the sharp prodding stick” and the youngest granddaughter spends afternoons with me.
    “When I’m busy I virtually do nothing else.” Oh yes.
    I’m printing this one out.
    May I make a suggestion: This should be a first handout in your work with “new” writers – get them before the “newbies” can get hooked on mainline writing. It’s hard to break and the backsides does spread.

  2. Alan G says:

    Indeed. Rather like Dan and, I suspect, many who read this blog I spend far too long at a keyboard. Tap-tapping away to earn a crust, volunteering in several voluntary capacities (which all seem to involve a keyboard eventually) and working on a second degree (I just like the idea of having two.)

    Some kind of physical activity is imperative and, like admin, for me it’s martial arts. In my case half an hour of iai-do in the morning and meditation in the evening. It ain’t always easy to find the time and energy but missing a day of discipline makes me cranky and physically uncomfortable.

  3. snowy says:

    Some conditions are forever with us, their names just change as occupations change, the ‘dis-ease of scribes’ became the ‘scriveners palsy’.

    A job that taxes the body, dulls the mind and vice versa. A few are lucky enough to achieve a happy balance, and most of them don’t realise their good fortune, until they lose it.

    But enough philosophy, sitting for hours is damaging. Ignore the blandishments of wonder products shown in the ‘life style’ supplements. The giant ‘space hopper’ or the chair that looks like a reject from the ‘Torture Garden’.

    Consider a ‘standing desk*’ the top of which should be about an inch below the height of your elbow bent at 90 degrees when standing upright. Initially it will feel odd, standing and writing, but that will pass. If the writing is not going well, rather than stay slumped at the desk, because hauling yourself out of the chair is too wearying, you can just walk away and do something else.

    Sometimes you will be struck with an idea, so complete and fully formed that you must dash it down immediately, then reach for a tall chair that puts you back in the sitting position.

    As to breaks, there are various programmes and ‘apps’ that claim to be of use, all rubbish. Grandma’s old fashioned oven timer, mechanical, with a bell, placed twelve feet away does the trick. And makes a very satisfying ‘clonk’ every time you hurl it into the waste bin.

    *It need not cost any money to try the idea, a sturdy box of the right height, large enough to comfortably hold a laptop and mouse etc. can be put on an existing desk, to get a feel for the idea.

  4. Dan Terrell says:

    Ernest Hemingway stood to write. There is, was, a tall writing table of his in the Hemingway house in Key West, but I saw it in the late Fifties, so the termites may have lowered it – evenly one hopes – a great deal by now.
    Last month I was in Baltimore and stopped at E.A. Poe’s grave in the corner of the church yard, which is low-walled from the corner of the sidewalk of two streets. People just drive by and don’t realize who is resting there: Ever more, quoth the pigeon. (It was the raven you does the Nevermore bit.)

  5. Helen Martin says:

    If you go to the recent comments on “Sheldon” http://www.sheldoncomics.com you’ll find Dave Kellett’s new standup desk, which his brother built for him after Dave had some of those same tendon/muscle problems. He describes the items which he found essential in its design. The scribes used to make comments in the manuscript borders about the effect of cold on ink and toes, the difficulty of lent, and all the problems you can imagine working in dark, cold, and uncomfortable scriptoria, even if all efforts possible were made to facilitate the efficient transcription of material. Plus ca change and all that. Forcing oneself to take the break is vital, especially when there’s just two pages more and it’s done or as long as it’s in the mail by midnight I’m under the wire.

  6. Dan Terrell says:

    Thanks Helen. That’s one neat desk. In white it would fit into Admin’s place where there is that great light.

Comments are closed.