The Worst Mistake a Writer Can Make

The Worst Mistake a Writer Can Make

Author’s note: I wrote this post while picturing James Chartrand leaning forward, squinting into a computer, wondering when all the aches and pains would go away. As always, I swooped in to rescue someone who probably doesn’t want my help.

Editor’s note: At the moment of reading this post, I was actually sitting casually (meaning, slumped, not straight), leaning to the left with my elbow propped on the chair, my shoulders forward, and my head tilted. It doesn’t sound comfy… I swear it was.

There is no off switch to adaptation. Our bodies are pretty smart and they’re always getting better at whatever they’re doing. If we teach our bodies good habits, adaptation rewards us. If we teach our bodies bad habits, adaptation is a punisher.

This is usually bad news for writers, or anyone else who spends a lot of time typing. When was the last time you were with a bunch of writers and thought Wow, everyone has such great posture!

Nope. Our heads are usually too far forward on our necks. Our shoulders slump forward. When we stand at rest, our hands don’t fall naturally to our sides, but they rotate internally to the point where our palms face the wall behind us. Not good. We have gotten better… at getting worse.

So what does this have to do with writing?

I work with people on their strength, body awareness, and writing every single day. It’s anecdotal evidence, but I have every reason to believe that the better we move, the better we think. The better we think, the smarter and more creative we become.

I can’t know what summons your own personal muse, but I can say with 100% certainty that my own creative bursts are slaves to how good my body feels. My clients say the same.

If I have aches and pains, part of my focus is on my aches and pains. Have you ever had a severe toothache, a sore eye, a stuffed nose or a horrendous headache? In those situations, there are very few distractions that actually provide relief.

It’s nearly impossible for me to pretend it isn’t happening when I’m in pain, but the best writing comes when you lose yourself in the work. Immersion is impossible when there’s pain you can’t ignore. Inviting a distraction that you can’t get rid of is the worst mistake you can make.

It’s hard enough to tune out the distractions we can control.

It begins with modern life in a box.

Modern life for the writer or office worker has shrunk to the equivalent of a three-foot box. In that box, you answer the phone, type on your computer, write your masterpiece, and lift food to your mouth. Most people’s jobs don’t even require them to go outside that box.

The longer we ignore it, the less range of motion we eventually have. The box shrinks and then bam! We’re shuffling down the street, old before our time.

So what’s a writer to do?

Relax: this is not the point where I ask you to start walking around with a book on top of your head.

It’s simpler than that. I’ve become very good at getting people out of pain, and I do it with movements. The movements that get people out of pain are often the reverse vectors of the movements (or postures) that put them in pain in the first place.

For that head that sits too far forward:

Every 15 minutes, stand up, relax your body, and slide your head back onto the top of your neck where it’s supposed to be. If it hurts, don’t go too far. Go to the edge of the pain without going into it.

If you take periodic breaks to put your head back where it should be, it eventually reverts to sitting there more often.

How about those slumped shoulders?

Every 15 minutes, stand up, relax your body, and pull your shoulders back to the point where your shoulder blades get close to each other. Don’t move into pain, just move as you’re able. You’ll incrementally undo the damage.

By the way, if you’re a gym rat like me, spend some time in the gym performing some sort of rowing motion.

What about those hands?

Every 15 minutes, stand up, relax your body, and if you can do so without pain, externally rotate your arms so that your palms face forward. The more often you do this, the more natural it becomes.

Remember: pain and discomfort are signals

The signals say one of two things:

  • Stop doing this movement
  • Keep going through the movement so the pain stops

You may not think any of this is relevant right now. If you’re not in pain, I’m thrilled! But more of our lives are being consumed by electronic screens. If 80% of your workday is spent at a computer, you need to spend some time with your limbs in opposite positions.

Either way, whatever you are doing right now will catch up to you. That can be a good thing or a bad thing. Your choice.

If you develop better body awareness and intervene periodically on behalf of your posture, you’ll think better because you feel better. It’s all connected. If you are better, your writing will be better.

Or at least all the pain and angst will be mental, but that’s the stuff of great literature, right?

If you ignore your body and your posture, your writing suffers because you suffer. Maybe not a lot. Maybe not all at once. But eventually. If time is our only limiting factor, we owe it to ourselves to ensure that our bodies and our writing are as good as they can possibly be.

If you have any questions about pain, let me know. If I can get you out of it, I will.

About the author: As always, Josh Hanagarne has been writing about whatever he wants. Lately that has meant strength training and chasing the one-armed pull-up.

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