On Being A Professional Writer No. 6: Physical Work
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.