Friday, January 12, 2007

Fitness For The Art & Craft Of Writing

from Jacqueline

I've never written on this subject before, but I thought it might be a good idea this morning, one reason being that I think it's an oft-ignored essential consideration for anyone who writes seriously, and secondly, the subject will stop me writing about the fact that two juxtaposed television news segments last night demonstrated the utter craziness of this world, yet again: On the one hand, the plight of Iraq veterans - the quadriplegics, paraplegics, amputees, facially disfigured, the "PTSD" sufferers - who are in a struggle with the Veterans Administration to get their due benefits, many of them facing financial ruin, and on the other hand, a bit-past-his-prime British soccer player in a $250 million deal to play for the LA Galaxy Soccer Club. They don't call it La-La Land for nothing - Bend it like Beckham takes on a whole new meaning. But, anyway, I'm not going to talk about that, so back to the fitness issue - and if you are a writer, you should be paying attention.

A couple of years ago, at the Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference - a terrific event if you haven't attended - I was on a panel with Lee Child and Halle Ephron, and happened to mention, as an aside, that I thought it was really important to bear in mind the physical strain on the body that can be caused by writing. Open up a can of worms? You bet it did. I'd mentioned the arthritis in my finger joints, then Lee weighed in with the story of his cortisone shots for shoulder pain, and Halle spoke eloquently about her back and wrists. It was more like the annual convention of the AARP. So, I thought there and then, that if I wanted to be a professional writer for the rest of my life (it being that no one will be able to retire in a bankrupt country) I had better take care of my body.

There are many parallels between horseback riding as a performance sport - especially dressage - and writing. I think about it every day, especially as I tend to use my dressage training sessions as a break in my daily writing schedule. Training for riding as a sport is extraordinarily physically and mentally demanding. In any other sport requiring equal commitment, you see the athletes warming up before even the most limited training session, but do you see that in riding? Hell, no. Yes, there are books out there - Pilates for Dressage Riders, Yoga for the Performance Rider - but I don't think many people read them after they've been purchased. You see riders turn up, grab their horses, groom them, tack up, warm up the horses so that they don't get injured, and yet there they are, asking their Achilles heels to extend where no Achilles heel was supposed to go, using their stomach muscles to effect smooth transitions, their glutes for direction and pace - betcha didn't know that - and never so much as a pre-ride hamstring stretch. Writing's the same.

You're at your computer for most of the day - did you think about your hands, even though the heating was off all night and your office is like the Antarctic on a winter's day (don't worry, the Antarctic won't be like that for long now)? Did you pay attention to that twinge in your back, or that niggle in your shoulder as you raced towards that deadline. No, you didn't.

Here's when I began paying attention - and it took more than that panel to do it for me. A couple of years ago, I began having sharp pains in my finger joints while I was sleeping. So sudden were these pains, that they would wake me up immediately. Then, on my book tour that year, I met up with an old friend of my husband. I'd never met her before, but she and her husband had known John at college in Boston - she's a physical therapist, so (not wasting the opportunity) I mentioned this hand thing. "Oh, I'm not surprised," she said, "I saw the arthritis in your fingers as soon as I sat down."
ARTHRITIS IN MY FINGERS??? I imagined myself as an old lady, unable to write, my fingers bent and twisted, pain writ large on my face, begging in the streets. "What do I do?" said I.

So, the first important thing here: Take care of your hands and fingers. Here's how you do it. If you can, find a book or go on the web for hand yoga exercises, because I can't describe them here. Before you go to your computer, or write anything, do about five minutes of hand/wrist warm-up exercises - it will stand you in good stead. Second, buy a topical herbal remedy for joint health, such as Trameel, or any lotion will do, but whenever you stop to think, or take a break, massage those finger joints - keep the blood flowing. And here's what my husband's friend suggested for me, when I said to her, in a panic, "So what do I do????" She suggested I buy a paraffin wax bath. Don't worry, this isn't a huge item, in fact, it sits on the counter in your bathroom - I had to move clutter to make room, but it was worth it. When I'm working on a book, I use it every day after I've finished writing for the day. They are not expensive - mine cost $40 online - but they are oh, so soothing, and they encourage circulation in the finger joints. The ladies may have seen them at a beauty salon, but they were actually invented as a theraputic remedy for arthritis and other joint conditions. My friend, Cara Black, who writes those wonderful novels set in Paris and featuring Aimee LeDuc, bought special stirrup attachments for her desk - they're for her hands, silly. I've tried them, and I think I might buy some myself, because they ensure your wrists and hands are supported while you're writing - check them out.

The back and neck. For heaven's sake make sure you've got a good chair, and you are ergonomically up to snuff in your work space. If you are a professional writer, this is an investment in your key set of tools - your bones. I am dreadful at this, I confess, but at least I have a good chair. There are back shops - stores that specialize in ergonomically correct furniture - who will appraise your workspace for free. I was so embarrassed, I didn't take advantage of the service, but I did spend ages speaking to one of the experts, and you can also get information online. But, that's all very well, you must stretch and keep that back and neck mobile. Do some stretches before you sit to write, and anytime you stop to think - stand up, walk around. In fact, that walking around has a direct impact on your writing - a still body can lead to a stagnant brain, so move those limbs of yours. And make sure your screen is at a level so that you don't have to crick your neck to see - unless you want to walk around like a gone-to-seed rugby player in your dotage.

Legs and feet: Bet you didn't think they mattered? Those two feet are your balance, so keep them planted on the ground, not up under the seat as you write, or one across the other. If you are not in balance, how can you expect to write a balanced book, how can you expect to write anything at all, if you are all lop-sided?

Sustenance: This does not mean tea and coffee. Writing takes energy, so eat welll, and do not fall into the cookie jar at any sign of a bit of a block. Eat your veggies, get your protein, and nurture yourself. You are a creative athlete, so think like one and you will be doing it for a whole lot longer. Of course, that goes for the actual writing itself, but this post is all about the physical, not the craft.

Watch what else you do: Before I go into this one, I confess, I'm a worrier. If you love your writing, professional or not, you have to look after your body. I do not jump horses any more. Dressage is not risk-free, but it's safer than flying through the air on a horse the size of a mechanical digger - and I love the sport. But I can remember that riding accident five years ago (the one that led me to finish my first novel, so it wasn't all bad) - I heard this almighty crack as I landed. I moved my hands, arms, legs and head, and thought, "Thank God, I'm not paralysed." I was more worried about my arms and hands than anything else, because I like to write with my hands - I'm not a voice-recognition person. I could live without riding again - luckily I didn't have to - but not writing. So, when it comes to sports, I think twice. I might still go ahead and go skiing this year, but at least I think about it these days.

I'm not a fitness professional - this would have been a lot more informative if I were - but, seriously, you writers and artists out there - you love what you do, even when you hate it, so look after yourselves. Don't start work in the morning before warming up. Think about how you sit. Remember to move. The world needs your words, so don't put yourself in a position where you end up in pain. Think of Reacher and cortisone shots in the same sentence - it's as bad as Daniel Craig and that defibrillator!

Right then, that's all from me. Have a great weekend.

PS: And as for Posh and Becks over here - oh, Lord, save us from the ultimate chavs (common Brit-slang for people who are blinged and designer-labeled up to the eyeballs). $250 million for a guy whose performance at Real Madrid was less than stellar. And those poor kids, back from Iraq, waiting for their disability pay ... ay-ay-ay ....


  1. Excellent idea for anyone who works at a desk or computer. I use a foot rest that looks like something you'd find on an old treadle sewing machine. I move my feet back and forth and exercise my legs while I'm typing.

    I also get up frequently to walk, mostly to the refrigerator—but only for veggies. I swear. (heh-heh)

  2. Good advice here, Jackie. And I want that wax finger bath!

    My bow to good writerly-health is the Tai Chi CD I work to when I'm stuck on an idea and need to move around.

  3. I have been woefully neglectful of all fitness stuff for far too long, and have been coping with my first back pain ever, recently (mostly new too-fluffy futon, I think, but also age and slackercom no doubt). This is all excellent stuff to consider, and thank you so much for writing it all up so well.

    And if we move to San Diego (may become my reality in a month or so, though I'd stay up here until the end of the school year), do you think we can avoid BeckPosh? They just sound ewwwww-y.

  4. You do dressage, I do Tae Kwon Do.

    Often we do a small warm up in class, but never before sparring. Right now, I'm taking a few weeks off because of a small back injury. What this has taught me -- along with the constant sitting in writing -- is that I have to stretch daily, preferably several times a day, in order to stay healthy.

    If I could just discipline myself to reliquinsh a bit of writing time in order to do it. I'd be more productive and would feel so much better.

    Thank you for the reminder.

  5. from Jacqueline

    You see, all it needs is a little reminder ...

    Thanks, all, for addng your tips. I have a great DVD from the UK on Dru Yoga - it's not quite hit over here yet, but it's a yoga practice that was developed by a man who is not only a yoga expert, but an orthopedic surgeon - there are various work-outs on the DVD, but I like that "5 minute" stretch to get me started on my day.

    Oh, Cornelia, the south's gain will be the north's loss - and Posh & Becks are a bit yewwwww.

    Lovely to see you here, Pari!

  6. Hi Jacqueline!

    Wonderful wonderful information. It applies to artists too, you know! :-D

    I'm thinking about that parafin bath. Sigh. I have some joint pain in the knuckles, and I'm constantly massaging and stuff. Bob and I work out a couple of times a week on walking and resistance machines, as well as walking as much as possible. Gotta start somewhere.

    PS: BTW, my new little blog that covers my painting a day project - is up and running. It's kind of my equivalent to you writers writing several pages a day. :-D Also, Banana Bread recipe is up on my Muse du Jour site, Patty! :-) Sorry for the shameless plugs...nah, I'm not. :-D

  7. from Jacqueline

    Louise & Marianne - those paraffin baths are wonderful, really soothing for the hands. It's a bit of a treat at the end of a hard-writing day.

    And Marianne, I'll check out your blog again - thanks for the heads up.