I finished my book the other night. 2:30 in the morning, after days of almost solid typing. And then I got down on my knees (ok partly in gratitude and relief)...to do some yoga stretches. I knew from previous experience that if I stumbled from the keyboard to the bed, as I wanted to do, being exhausted, after a marathon typing session, I was really gonna feel it the next morning. So I stretched out the kinks, and then stumbled downstairs to watch a little mindless middle-of-the-night tv, knowing that my brain wasn't ready to shut down yet from all those words, words, words.
Jo sparked a great discussion yesterday about writing, including page counts, and I started thinking about a related aspect of the writing habit and the writing trade: writing can be very physically demanding.
Whether you’re a hare or a tortoise, whether you crank out 5,000 words when inspiration strikes and 500 another day, or if you produce 1,000 or 2,000 at a steady pace – all that typing puts stresses and strains on the body, especially hands, wrists, shoulders, neck, and back. Not to mention eyestrain. While we’re racking up those great word counts, we’re doing it because the body is cooperating. If a joint, a tendon sheath, or a spinal disc decides it doesn’t want to cooperate, the writing goes nowhere.
I'm one of those roller coaster, seat-of-the-pants, flying in the mist, leaping from one cliff to the next at a moment’s notice, sort of writers. I’m not a tortoise, I’m a hare. At first, my process goes at an unpredictable pace: 1,000 words, 500 there, 5,000 great pages out of nowhere, maybe nothing for days (figuring 250 wds = 1 page, so 1,000 words = 4 pages, approximately). Somewhere along the way I hit my stride. Then I can crank with the best of ‘em–- 5,000 words a day, twice that, three times that as I get closer to the finish line. My record on a weekend, I think, is 20,000 words (easy enough to do when the book is due on a Monday *g*). When I start cranking words like that, it’s generally pretty clean, publishable stuff, and requires far less editing than that sloppy 5,000 I wrote back in the first few chapters.
I may stay up into the wee hours, I may skip decent meals, I may eat at the keyboard while reading (email counts!). I can plow through writing the second half of a book in record time...and boy, does the body feel the effects of those mad typing sessions. Writing hangover, bigtime. Aches, pains, foggy head, all that stuff.
After years of this, and I’ve learned some tricks that work for me. I tend to feel writing hangovers in the back, neck/shoulders, and wrists. Though I’ve been lucky with no major problems, I’ve had moments –- like a cervical disc problem that showed up not in the neck, but as numbness in arms and hands while typing or handwriting. And I’ve had years of little lower back problems that made long typing sessions very difficult. Since I don’t do well with medications (being one of those super-sensitive sorts with a long list of reactions to medications and drug groups, like prednisone and ibuprofen, which fixes stuff related to writing hangovers), my little body glitches aren't easy for docs to solve. Fortunately my oldest kid is an M.D. now, so I have a ready resource of advice. And he has learned to accept that the mom solves problems in her own way.
What has worked wonders for me are tricks that fall into certain categories – ergonomics, exercise, and a little assistance from chiropracty.
I’m not keen on exercising, and that's an understatement. But I need to, not only as I get older, but because I'm sometimes a Mad Typist. I’ve adapted and accepted the inevitable, and now I do forms of exercise that I can enjoy, like tai chi, qigong, yoga, and walking. These have helped me enormously to shake off the aftereffects of all that typing, all that sitting, all those fingers flying. When I’m deep into a book and the writing hours are really demanding, I have to stretch and balance the body, or I’m gonna feel it later in aching and stiff muscles. So just about every morning, and most afternoons, I do some form of tai chi, qigong, and stretching. I’ll go for a walk if there’s time. Walking helps the brain--the same part of the brain that handles walking also handles problem solving. When I can get out for a walk (or do a walking exercise, like treadmill or elliptical), it works not only muscles, but that part of the brain that needs to figure out that next chapter. Oh cool! I can still work on the book and exercise! This is a great advantage for writer-holics.
Sometimes I see a chiropractor, who does a few gentle and mysterious tugs, and the alignment that he re-establishes helps keep my neck and back from tripping me up on marathon typing days.
Bless the chiropractors of the world!
When I’m deep in a deadline mode, I’ve got to be careful how I eat. Being a sensitive sort, too much of the stuff I love -- dairy, sugar, gluten, and other yummy things -- will turn me foggy, tired, and achy...and that can mean 1,000 words out the window right there. Water, water, water, also helps the brain.
Carbs and a little sugar are necessary for a madly thinking brain. It doesn’t do well on a lot of protein, at least mine doesn’t, so if I want to think clearly, I have to go with good quality, light foods and a lot of water or tea at deadline time. If I did the pizza and coffee thing for days running...I would do less work, not more. So I save the pizza for the celebration after a book is done, so I can be miserable at my leisure.
And for me, ergonomics has worked wonders. Since I started using an ergonomic keyboard years ago, some nagging wrist pains cleared up, only to return when I use a regular keyboard (like long sessions on a laptop).
I had some lower back flare-ups that were awful, and occurring more often. The problems, I found out later (through trail-and-error, as well as the chiropractor) were related to proportion: Me vs. Furniture. Being 4'11" on a good day, often regular furniture just doesn’t fit me, and this includes regular office furniture: chairs are too big, the desk is too high, my feet don’t reach the floor, I need pillows and props everywhere just to do my job. And my back was talking, almost daily. Oww. (Tall people can have just as much difficulty with chairs and desks, too–it’s the average size person who does better with regular furniture).
A writer friend recommended an ergonomic chair, a Herman Miller Aeron Chair. I tried one of these in a store, and fell in love with it on the spot. It felt like heaven, after struggling with a high-quality but common design office chair. The Aeron is a mesh ergonomic chair that comes in 3 sizes. I got the smallest size for shorter people (the guy in the store said, You need an A; I’ve never sold an A before, we have to special order). What this chair did for my back was like magic: virtually overnight, the problems began to vanish, and haven’t come back (unless I spend long work hours in big people furniture). Then my husband got out the saw and lowered my desk several inches, which helped a lot too.
So between the daily stretches, the ergonomic keyboard, the munchkin desk and the magic chair –- I can handle those 20,000-word weekends without the writer hangover!
How about you all, what have you discovered that works for you?