I will just have to face the fact that my writing discipline has been mitigated by my constant physical discomfort. I have never sat quietly still in productive energy for very long—not to practice the piano or the French horn, nor now to power through my writing. I long for the 6 hour work day, or even the 2 hour focused sprint. I have made space and time in my life to implement the successful routine, but it has eluded me.
W. Somerset Maugham is famously quoted: “I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” But for me, sitting in the chair (another of the famous writing challenges) is always a struggle, but for reasons of the body, not just of the mind. As we know, body and mind cannot be separated anyway.
Since I was a kid, probably at least since puberty, I have been slightly-to-greatly uncomfortable in my body while sitting or standing still. Even as an amateur dancer, gymnast and athlete, I have been so agile that not even I have known I had scoliosis. After several years and more than fifty sessions of Rolfing—which took my body through amazing changes and massive release—I was left with a naturally crooked spine, and legs that behave quite differently from one another. Less differently than before the intervention, but still differently.
Often, periodic bodywork has been enough to grant me the most-free body I can have. But there is a second condition that compounds upon the first, which is that of “loose joints”. If I were a puppet, the strings holding me together can feel softer and longer than someone else’s. Instead of needing to stretch, there is a need to “pull myself together” all the time, which constantly requires my energy, if not my conscious attention. It is a drain of energy, this condition. It is not extreme, but comes and goes with nutrition, hormones, and my mental health. And it is not outright painful, unless I dislocate something, which I have done to both shoulders and one hip. My spine feels its wobbliness the most, and though it does not complain with sharp pain anymore, my vertebrae will tell me if I’ve been in one position for too long. It conspires with my brain when that childish lump wants to stir me out of my next paragraph.
So with that, I have described how my body intervenes in my discipline. How can one concentrate on the matter at hand, when there is this constant discomfort eating away at one’s attention?
Yet there is one more, less rare, distraction: I am short.
Shortness is not a problem, as long as your desk, your chair and your typewriter agree with your proportions. I am not of average height, (I am 5 feet) and therefore the “western” world cannot cater to me. The best benefit of being short is that I should be more comfortable in an airplane, because, except in the smallest craft, I can still tuck my legs up and shift position, compared to the taller people who can’t fit their thighs behind the back of the seat in front of them. I acknowledge this (though I’m still never comfy in an airplane, either) (And don’t get me started on what modern toilets are doing to my pelvic floor).
Even in my house, where I try to write, there are still shortages of short-people places. Standard desk height is 29 or 30 inches. Chair seat heights are about 4 inches higher than my shins, so I must sit at the very edge to reach the floor. If I sit “comfortably” back to help blood circulate through my thighs, the weight of my dangling legs pulls my knees until those tendons stretch… I have yet to find a good footstool that is only 5 inches high or less, and so I find that a dictionary or stack of books is my only hope. A child’s desk and chair are too small and affront my aesthetic, as I have outgrown wood furniture with bright blue painted knobs. [I feel like Goldilocks all of the time.]
So, I’m still not comfortable and I cannot sit still. With these seat and table heights, my elbows bend to a further degree than optimal for typing at length. My wrists hit the edge of the desk, and my hands are higher than my elbows, slowing circulation, and just when I hit the open field of a “hot idea”, my fingers start the telltale tingle of falling asleep on me. Then I notice my shoulders are now being worn for earrings, and I have to let them drop.
No, the desk will not do.
Maybe I’ll just tuck the laptop computer’s battery right against my ovaries. Shall I?
So I sit in an armchair with my legs tucked up, and there is no room for a computer. I take up the pen and notebook…My hand falls asleep because of the troubles in my shoulder position…and on it goes.
Pain as Motivation
So are all these excuses? Yes. Pretty good ones, some days. The War of Art (Steven Pressfield, 2002) says all of this shilly-shallying is resistance, and he’s right. But since comfort and writing don’t meet in me, perhaps there is a sweet spot of another kind? Where my complaints are extreme enough to feel justified, and not preventative? I remind myself that there are people out there pushing through real physical limitations to follow their passions. Real pain, real ailments, tuberculosis, consumption, for God’s sake. There are so many novels written from the fertile experience of misery.
To put a finer point on it, though, my complaints are just too mundane, and their relentlessness is therefore more convincing as a covert partner to my resistance, than, say, true disability. By contrast, you can REALLY hang onto the motivation of missing both arms! You’d get really pissed off and monumentally challenged—in a good way. If you have metal struts for legs, doesn’t that make you want to win the 500-meter dash more? We don’t wish ourselves or anyone else a true tragic circumstance, but…isn’t discipline easier with extreme motivation?
Just getting over my constant, niggling soreness is not a great inspiration. But perhaps if I were to play it up to epic proportion—maybe that’s the trick! Mentally ramp up the discomfort in my mind, until I’m truly afflicted! Imagine I have polio, which is why my knees are unavailable for coordination or support. Maybe my arms are artificial, and I’m learning to use them again, while battling with phantom limb syndrome, explaining the tingling! Perhaps that lower back pain is truly the tumor in my spine that is spurring the deadline of my masterwork—finish before I die!
Publish or Perish
Well? I’ve tried “ignoring it” already, and that hasn’t worked. I have done a version of that for 33 or so years. I’ve pretended I was invincible; I’ve pushed it aside; I’ve given in to the drained torpor of my meat suit and I’ve worked through it, too; I’ve gotten treatments and done Pilates and I’ve complained enough; I’ve done affirmations around how ‘perfectly comfortable’ I feel and even sometimes believed it for a few seconds.
Or I suppose I could acknowledge the combination of conditions that I work with, and give them all the customization they require. Get a 4 inch footstool or a 20 inch chair with cushion and lumbar backrest, a 25 inch computer stand that angles away from me at 7°, and an ergonomic split keyboard, while I have a 45 ½ inch high monitor stand. And then, maybe the chair can randomly shake me, so my ligaments wake up and do their job…
Maybe when I’m done writing my masterpiece, the publishing advance will be big enough to help me with all that. [What? You say publishers don’t give advances anymore?!] Well maybe, just maybe, my “writing about writing” will only take a few more moments, and when I get beyond that, I will click into the real writing space…if only I can sit here that long. Wish me luck.