Are You Sitting Comfortably?

Consider it a metaphor for reading …

The seven wonders of the world he’ll lay before your feet,
In far-off lands, on distant shores, so many friends to meet.
Are you sitting comfortably?
Let Merlin cast his spell….

~ The Moody Blues, “Are You Sitting Comfortably?” Threshold of a Dream

(the aforementioned song on YouTube)

Here’s a little-known bit of writing trivia: yes, Virginia, you CAN injure yourself writing.

I know. I’ve been offline for a week and more with severe lower back pain — caused by NOT sitting correctly. Trust me: when your lower back muscles collapse in utter exhaustion, there’s not a lot that you can do in life. It’s astonishing just how much of our motion is directly related to the back, as a few days in this condition will show you — although it’s better that you just take my word for it.

So, no blogging, or much in the way of walking for the past week. Still, by way of explanation, it’s a good time to deal with these issues, which I’ve never seen discussed in any writers’ fora.

There is a physical aspect to writing, and, while most people generally never think about it, it’s well to keep this stuff in mind, lest you end up flat on your back for a week.

This is the second time this has happened to me. The first time was in 1980, when I was working on my first novel in Glendale, California. It was my first thirty-page day — which, for those who still remember physical manuscript form (double-spaced, pica type) comes to 6,000 words @ approximately 250 words per page.

To really WRITE in that manner, it always takes me about ten pages just to get fully into the waking trance state that writing requires.

Light Reading

Those who have done this generally take it for granted, and those who have not never think about it, but think for a moment:

It’s not an easy thing to balance the three worlds of writing: you have to imagine the dream. Then, you have to describe that dream using words (with the subroutines of using the best words, and the most elegant sequence, which entails a lot of self-editing choices on the fly). And, finally, you have to TYPE those words.

In order for that delicate Rube Goldberg Machine to work, the dream must be slowed, the lickety-split choice of words has to be efficient, and the physical typing skills have to be up to snuff. The three timings have to be in synch, and that is not an easy task, as any who have assayed the discipline will attest. It is not an easy task, however simple it might appear. It takes an almost superhuman ability to concentrate to the exclusion of all else. My parents used to tell me that when I was reading, “the whole house could fall down around you and you wouldn’t notice!” (This was meant pejoratively, sad to say.)

If you don’t have that knack, I don’t know what to advise, except that you seek your vocation or avocation in some other, less focused pursuit.

Let’s define our terms. Wikipedia defines “writer” thusly (this week, at least):

Profession The word is almost synonymous with author. Skilled writers are able to use language to portray ideas and images, whether fiction, non-fiction or creative nonfiction. A writer may compose in many different forms including poetry, prose, or music. Accordingly, a writer may rank as a poet, novelist, copywriter, composer, lyricist, playwright, mythographer, journalist, screenwriter for film or television, etc.* (See also: creative writing, technical writing and academic papers.) Writers’ output frequently contributes to the cultural content of a society, and that society may value its writerly corpus – or literature – as an art much like the visual arts (see: painting, sculpture, photography), music, craft and performance art (see: drama, theatre, opera, musical) [...]

[emphasis added.]

* Guilty as charged on all counts.

Imagine the story (fiction or nonfiction), choose the words, write them down.

Simple, sounding but difficult as hell to get into synch. It’s like a Formula One racer: if any party of the system is out of sync, or fails, the car is out of the race. The “emotional body” dreams the dream, the “mental body” processes the dream into language, and the “physical body” types or scribbles the words that the mind dictates to slow fingers and arms. No matter how fast you type, the mind runs a lot faster, and the dream much faster than that. And, in that process, a LOT of words must be discarded.

I don’t know any other way to perfect the process than through constant repetition and practice. I can face the terror of the “blank page” much better now than I did thirty-eight years ago, but it’s still hard work, and a circus trick akin to spinning plates on thin poles, or juggling — if the timing gets the slightest bit out of skew, the balls come bouncing to the floor, and the plates crash to the ground. Simple to explain; tough to do.

When we talk about “writing” we are generally focused on those first two aspects — imagining the story and choosing the words — but rarely on the third: the PHYSICAL mechanics of writing.

Which is how you can injure yourself writing.

My first thirty page day was enacted from a bad chair.

It was an almost Day-Glo orange armed office chair, with a high back, and just the proper amount of padding. But I had salvaged it and the central rolling structure (the bad old four-roller style with a swivel center pole) had gone bad and been removed. I had a “temporary” fix, of a short wooden bench underneath it. Which seemed a good idea at the time.

When you write, you sit. And if you write for a long time, you sit for a long time. So, posture becomes very important. As you focus your concentration so tightly that your environment completely dials out, you “leave” your body, and it needs to be sitting comfortably. Which is what happened on that thirty page day.

What you want, obviously, is a seat that’s as stable as a church pew. (Some padding is nice, of course.)

But I hadn’t connected the chair with the stool, and all day long, my back was unconsciously shifting to maintain the overall balance of the two hunks of wood I was sitting on. Now, those back muscles have been doing their job every day of our lives, and we almost always get to take them for granted. A thick, elastic skein of them are tightly attached to the shoulder blades, the ribs and the pelvic girdle, micro-managing our moment to moment balance, and as seemingly effortless as it is — nothing to ever think about — it is also extremely complex and requires a lot of tension to keep everything calibrated. Like a suspension bridge, but with moveable cables.

And that unconscious process will continue until the back muscles are completely exhausted.

Then, they will quit.

bad writing posture

Which is what happened on that thirty-page day. The alarm went off , telling me it was five O’clock and time to pick up the Redhead at Warner Brothers Studios, and I stood up … and fell down.

My entire spine was like jelly. I could barely pick myself off the floor, make it downstairs, making ample use of walls and handrails, and swing into the car, where I could simply melt into the seatback.

There wasn’t any pain … yet. My back muscles had simply done that constant reshifting of weight all day, moment by moment, and had exhausted themselves.

Long story short: I was in bed for two days.

My wife thought I was nuts, and perhaps I was, a bit. I didn’t have any painkillers other than aspirin, so I took those. But those back muscles put me into an interesting vicious cycle. They would spasm from the top and bottom of the spine, at the same time, and it felt for all the world like my back was trying to bite itself … backwards. As though the entire spine wanted to bend at a right angle BACKWARDS from the middle. It was a unique sensation, which was FUNNY, and so I’d laugh.

The laughter brought on another spasm, which brought on another laugh, and so forth. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But what others heard was roughly this: OWCH! HAHAHA! OUCH! HAHAHA!

I am certain that this sounded nuts. I later confirmed my suspicions with those within earshot those two daze.

And I resolved to never let this happen again.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Generally, I had. I learned early that to spend a lot of time seated, your spine needs to be straight. GOOD POSTURE while seated.

I had a bit of an advantage over the years, having done Tibetan Buddhist meditation for nearly thirty-one years now, and having been explicitly instructed on how to sit in meditation, the posture part was easy. Not a problem.

Keep your spine straight.

And there was another important thing I learned, while studying Aikido for about a year: we hold our tension in our shoulders. Relax your shoulders.

That’s a crucial part of sitting. While writing, there is a tendency to “act out” with the shoulders, and fill them with tension. No need: it takes some training, but you don’t type with your shoulders. Y0u type with your fingers, and you can type just as well if you relax your shoulders while writing.

When I was a kid, I took piano lessons for five years. And I used to get blinding pains in my upper back and neck. It was, I realized later, because of putting all the tension and concentration into my shoulders. I had been getting that in my first few years of really serious, hours-in-the-saddle writing, and when I learned to relax my shoulders, it went away for good.

That was three decades ago.

As was the infamous “backbiting” incident of the Thirty Page Day.

Thereafter, I’ve been careful in my choice of writing seats.

Good writing posture
(bad laptop, though)

And I’ve had many more Thirty Page Days (and some Forty Page Days and more than a few Fifty-Plus Page days. I once wrote a complete book in six days, but that’s beyond the scope of this piece.)

I finished the novel. And, after harassing a few publishers with it, realized that it really DID suck, and burned it. But the mountain had been climbed once, and that was worth the price. I never looked back.

The chair I’ve been using for the past ten years had been going bad, evidently, for some time, but the center strut finally REALLY lurched out of true last week, and the Thirty Page Day incident was repeated , more or less for the first time in a few decades. Because of the lower center of gravity of my current writing setup, it was only my lower back that took the brunt of the constant balance shifting, and when THAT went, well, I’ve been more or less incapacitated for a week or so.

The results don’t speak for themselves. Or, rather, they do. Or something.

No funny back spasm stuff, but a reminder of pain in places that I only ever felt pain once before.

You guessed it.

And, if I might: OWWWWWWICH!

I finally just got on a reclining chair and refused to leave it until I was better. That worked. Just took some time and an awful lot of really bad TV.

So, my chair is ready to be carted to the dump and my back has progressed to the point that I can write again. Imagining stuff, putting it into words and typing it out.

It was that last part that’s been the problem.

Because you CAN injure yourself writing.

But you don’t have to, if you take some precautions and learn good sitting habits.

Which just might then transmute this lost week into something useful. A form of auctorial alchemy.

Back to work.


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2 responses to “Are You Sitting Comfortably?

  1. Oh Gawd! I feel your pain.