Writers’ Physical Problems Solved Here

Observatory

Coleridge was a druggie, Joyce and Faulkner were functioning alcoholics, Sylvia Plath was bipolar, Swift, Milton, and Emily Brontë most likely had Asperger’s, Melville and Proust were depressed, Kafka was a mess.

Most jobs carry a physical cost. In London my living room overlooks the Guardian building, and I see the journalists slumped at their screens from morning to night, their heads low and forward, compressing their neck muscles and trapping their nerves, their slumped postures crushing their lungs.

Like most desk jobbers, writers suffer from appalling posture, eye problems, RSIs, tension and the wrong kind of exhaustion. You feel tired but not physically so, yet you don’t want to break off and go for a walk because a/ it’s wasted time away from the keyboard and b/ you live in Britain so it’s probably raining.

The above chart is designed for writers who need to take a break. Having sat on a chair all my working life,I realised I had terrible posture and started working out an hour a day at around 27 years of age. I still do, except these days I skip Sundays. And I still hate it.

To see just how much your desk job squeezes out the air from your chest, try this: Take a foam roller and lay it in the floor at the height of the base of your lungs. Now lie on it, relaxing so that buttocks and shoulder blades touch the floor. Slowly raise your hands and place them flat on the floor behind your head. Stay there, relaxed, for twenty breaths.

Now try to stand up. The first time I did this I thought I was going to die. You need to counteract the all-day hunching with opening-out exercises.

To jump-start ideas, get some exercise and speed up your metabolism. When you return, take the first three books you reach from your shelf and open the first one at a random page. Read from it, then use the other two books to find links to what you’ve just read. Much of writing is about building the kind of connections we don’t make in daily life.

The other day I read about the Proud Boys, the neo-Nazi American movement who have adopted Fred Perry shirts as their uniform. There was something about the story that bothered me, and after a quick rummage through my books I found that Perry had done an Ali and changed his name to devote himself to the nation of Islam. If you’re in the right state of curiosity, it’s easy to make connections the press can’t be bothered with.

If you find yourself losing concentration and falling asleep over keyboard, try this. Warm the palms of your hands and place them over your eyes. As you do so, imagine you are plunging your head into a dark pool of water. Start breathing more deeply and slowly for between five and ten breaths. The water is warm and aerated, so you can breathe. With each intake of breathe you draw in energy that you save for when you emerge. Imagine suddenly raising your head from the pool into the light, and remove your palms. You are now full of energy. It’s simple and actually works to freshen you up.

To keep fresh in the afternoon, have a very light lunch or no lunch at all. Set yourself a false time deadline and you’ll speed up as you head toward it.

Every writer gets moments where they think their book is no good. Meet a friend who’s a good listener or find someone you can call, and describe the plot succinctly. It’s amazing how many flaws you can get rid of by hearing yourself describe the book back. There should be service that offers to listen to writers untangling plots!

10 comments on “Writers’ Physical Problems Solved Here”

  1. Rachel Green says:

    Some really good advice, there. Thank you.

  2. Richard Burton says:

    How about an ‘Author’s Exercise Video’ instead of the next BoFA?
    More seriously, I’m quite taken with the image of slumped and broken Guardian staffers at their desks. No wonder it’s so hard to find an uplifting article in their daily ‘we’re all doomed, doomed I tell ye!’

  3. Brooke says:

    “…service that offers to listen to writers untangling plots!” We might miss a lot of good books. Or perhaps someone would have stopped Christie before she did so much damage. And isn’t this service called “editor?” And you’ve given me a business idea.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    I do calligraphy. I am 5ft 1/4 inch tall. Nothing in this world suits my legs and I have gone through life twisting my feet around chair legs.
    I took a course one summer during which we were helped to adjust our chairs/drafting boards so that when sitting our feet were flat on the floor and our knees formed a right angle. Did you know that handwork is done from the soles of your feet? When my husband looked at what I had done in that class he said it was the best he’d ever seen me do. Not only was my work better but I wasn’t as tired. I often forget the necessity but I do push students to assume a useful posture.
    Those exercises up there work for the reasons you’ve cited, but you’d need those breaks less often if you started from a useful position.

  5. Ian Luck says:

    I have never bothered to learn to drive. I cycle everywhere. Just cycling to and from work means that I cycle 80 miles every week. Here’s the thing: I have several friends of a similar age to myself, and all of them drive – and all of them have diabetes, to varying degrees of seriousness. I hate all sports, but find that walking and cycling everywhere keeps me fit. Probably helps that I only eat when I feel hungry, and don’t really like sweet things anymore, too. Modern newspaper reporters would have appalled old time reporters, whose office was the pub, and to whom Port was considered a viable breakfast option. Maybe those in the office across from your home, Chris, are hunched over, sulking, as they aren’t allowed to go out at lunchtime and get hammered anymore.

  6. Eliz Amber says:

    I’m definitely going to try your wake-up exercise – I tend to get very sleepy at my desk. Often, I pick up some of my paperwork and take it to a place where I can stand and sort it, but that only serves to keep me from actually falling asleep.

    Just reading this made me realise I was sitting hunched over, compressing my lungs. Sat up and pulled my shoulders back – ah, I can breathe again.

  7. SimonB says:

    I can let you have my phone number if you want someone new to call and describe plots to. Could be a good excuse to get up and walk away from the desk while listening too.

  8. Bee says:

    Please sir, pick me! I volunteer to be the listening service for your plot disentangling. I’ll do it for free. No sod it – I’ll pay you a small fee.

  9. Ian Luck says:

    The new RONCO ‘Plot Disentangler’. Runs on coffee, cigarettes, and 2 ‘AA’ batteries. A ten minute application of this to the works of John Le Carre rendered them as easy to read as a Ladybird book. Scanning plot devices scribbled on the back of fag packets, tablecloths, and passing tourists, reassembles them into a cogent, easy to read, yet clever, plot. It’s the future! And it’s only £2.4/ 6d. If you order now, Right now, we’ll throw in the novelty item that made the headlines last Christmas – The RONCO Moses Red Sea Parter. Works on faith and a car battery. (Due to a misunderstanding at the factory, the item is moulded in the shape of a pink duck. But it still works, as long as you’re ten miles from any houses when you turn it on)
    NOT FOR USE IN VILLAGE PONDS

    If you send off

  10. Ian Luck says:

    The new RONCO ‘Plot Disentangler’. Runs on coffee, cigarettes, and 2 ‘AA’ batteries. A ten minute application of this to the works of John Le Carre rendered them as easy to read as a Ladybird book. Scanning plot devices scribbled on the back of fag packets, tablecloths, and passing tourists, reassembles them into a cogent, easy to read, yet clever, plot. It’s the future! And it’s only £2.4/ 6d. If you order now, Right now, we’ll throw in the novelty item that made the headlines last Christmas – The RONCO Moses Red Sea Parter. Works on faith and a car battery. (Due to a misunderstanding at the factory, the item is moulded in the shape of a pink duck. But it still works, as long as you’re ten miles from any houses when you turn it on)
    NOT FOR USE IN VILLAGE PONDS

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