Thursday, September 06, 2012

When Writing Hurts: Some thoughts on the physical challenges of writing

By Linda Hall

I write by hand. I have the dubious distinction of having written twenty books in twenty years all by hand. I get big piles of scrap paper from the university and write with sharpie pens. Fortunately, I know shorthand, and use it. (I’m from the times of the dinosaur when journalists - which is what I started out as - needed to know shorthand. We all learned it back then.)

My process is this: I take my notebook with my colored sharpies to a coffee shop. I let my mind go and simply write - what I’m aiming for is the broad outlines of a chapter. Then I take that home and get it up onto the computer. I print that off - again on scrap paper - and take the works back to a coffee shop where I make color-coded corrections all over it. Then it’s back home to my computer. 

And on and on the process goes until I have a book of 90,000 words. 

But the physical aspect of so much writing by hand is taking its toll. In June I finished a manuscript and by the end of it my right hand and arm ached from shoulder to finger tip. I could barely grasp a pen. I took a couple of months off to rest it and read (by the way, I love my Kobo for aching arms. It’s as light as a feather.). 

A few days ago I picked up my pen, but after just a few hours of concentrated writing, that ache was back. 

This has depressed me mightily, of course. Are my writing days over? But I have so many more stories to tell. But of course, I realize that the stories are in my head, not my fingers. People with crippling disabilities have learned to write using specialized keyboards with wheel chairs. And we all know the story of Joni Eareckson Tada who taught herself to paint by clasping a paint brush between her teeth. 

If you struggle with the physical pain of writing, here are some of my thoughts. They are by no means exhaustive, I would love to hear your suggestions.

  1. When I broke my right arm four years ago (and I am right handed - get your mind around that for awhile...), I invested in voice recognition software. I use Dragon Dictate for the Mac, and it works quite well. You can ‘train’ it to recognize your voice and even your style of writing. I am trying to get myself to write that all important first draft this way. I think in the future I will be relying more and more on dictation.
  2. If you have a smart phone, Dragon has a free dictation app. Just look up Dragon Dictation and download. Because it’s free it’s not as perfect as the purchased program, but it doesn’t do a bad job. What I do is to email my dictation to me and then lift the works into my manuscript. The one drawback is that you need to be connected to wifi. I’ve tried using it in the car with 3-G and it doesn’t work. 
  3. Develop your own shorthand system and use pens like Sharpies - which are easier to write with. 
  4. Make sure your computer, desk, keyboard and mouse are perfectly set up for you height, etc. If you don’t know what is right, there are many websites which can help. Or, as my physio-therapist said once, if you do something and it hurts, then do something else. (I marvel at people who can sit in Starbucks with their laptops on the tables, typing happily away. If I try to work with my laptop on a desk, both shoulders hurt within seconds.)
  5. Generously use the auto-correct feature in Word or Pages. I have hundreds, no thousands of these, most taken from my old Forkner Shorthand days. For example, when I type the word 'crc,' it automatically turns into church. 'Ppl' turns into people. Develop your own system and have fun.
  6. Rest and medical attention. This goes without saying. 
  7. Of course, I’ve googled repetitive stress injuries and warm Epsom Salt baths is the new cool thing I’m trying. Who knew? But Epsom salt is cheap and baths are nice. Candles, too. 

11 comments:

Carolyne Aarsen said...

When I had to write my first book under contract I was so stressed at having to write to a deadline that I ended up with muscle spasms in my neck and arm so painful that I couldn't even sit up for more than twenty minutes. Which meant I couldn't write. This was pre-Dragon Dictate. That experience was so debilitating and so frustrating from that day forward I have done a number of very important things for my writing health. Stretches. Every morning. Regular weight lifting and exercise to get the blood flowing. Visits to a massage therapist and chiropractor. I bought an ergonomic keyboard and good chair with good back support. My body does fail me from time to time but I have had to learn that I keep up regular maintenance on my car, my body deserves no less. Writing is very hard on your body though it seems very passive - which is part of the problem. Anyhow,that was my experience and how I handle it.

Lina Gardiner said...

Hi Linda,
I agree with you about having your desk and chair height set appropriately. Also, for me (I have carpal tunnel) I have to make sure my wrists are at the right level so I don't do any damage. This is a timely email because I've been writing a lot and not exercising enough. It's a push for me to get moving, as well.

Linda Hall said...

Good advice Carolyne! I need to remind myself that weights and stretches are so important! I have hand weights plus my athletic daughter bought us a book on stretching.

And that is true, too Lina -I need to exercise more and strengthen my wrists for the task at hand.

Grace Fox said...

I, too, struggle with health issues due to sitting/writing for long periods of time. Mostly Achilles tendonitis (obviously I need to do more stretching). This fall, I've committed to treating my body with greater respect because my health comes before my call to write. I will visit a women's gym or take a walk 5 mornings/week before sitting down to write.

I can last 2-3 hours at my desk before my neck begins to hurt, so I've had to try other options. I've found that I can sit in a recliner loveseat with feet elevated and laptop on (where else?) lap for long periods of time with no back or neck issues whatsoever. This week, I'm on a writing marathon and am doing very well.

Linda Hall said...

Grace, I find my laptop works well on my lap, too. Sometimes I sit on the couch with my feet up, and laptop on my lap. But my physiotherapist did tell me that if I'm comfortable, and nothing hurts, then that's my body telling me that things are ok. If, on the other hand, you read somewhere that 'People Should Always Sit in Straight back Chairs', and when you do so, all you get is pain, then that's your body telling you that that regardless of what the Expert Advice on the subject may be, that's not the way you should sit.

Linda Hall said...

Grace, I find my laptop works well on my lap, too. Sometimes I sit on the couch with my feet up, and laptop on my lap. But my physiotherapist did tell me that if I'm comfortable, and nothing hurts, then that's my body telling me that things are ok. If, on the other hand, you read somewhere that 'People Should Always Sit in Straight back Chairs', and when you do so, all you get is pain, then that's your body telling you that that regardless of what the Expert Advice on the subject may be, that's not the way you should sit.

Peter Black said...

Linda, as a chronic tendonitis and muscle spasm sufferer, I identify to quite an extent with you and the ladies who've commented.
The approach as suggested by your physiotherapist seems to be generally good advice.
On the writing aspect, I found your hand-written and ms marking practice quite intriguing.
Thanks for the info regarding voice recognition technology, etc.
~~+~~

Barbara Phinney said...

Good advice, and I didn't know about the Dragon app. I find getting up every so often and doing something mindless helps me. My legs ache and my feet ache if I sit for too long.

Kimberley Payne said...

Wow, thanks all for sharing your wonderfully creative ways to get and stay healthy as a writer.

My daughter, Kristen, and I made a video and posted it on YouTube.

It's 17 exercises you can do in 10-minutes right at your computer. Most stretches focus on shoulders, wrists, and back...just what the writer needs.

Come check it out and if you like it, you can bookmark and do the exercises every day.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bN5IG4tuLSM&feature=plcp

To your health!
Kimberley Payne

Linda Hall said...

Peter, Barbara - Yes, I find the free Dragon app very good - or good enough in a pinch. They probably have it for Android, too. Kimberley - I expected to hear from you! I know this is sort of your speciality! Thanks for the link. I watched it and did the whole thing!

Kimberley Payne said...

Linda, glad to know that you watched and did the exercises! I hope you enjoyed them and felt better afterwards. Ideally, you could do them once a day and feel super :)

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