Writing and Running

I taught myself to touch type as soon as I started taking writing seriously. My handwriting is largely illegible to other people and after a few days, when I’ve forgotten what I was saying, to me as well. Learning to type was straightforward. I didn’t like the look of the exercises in the typing guides so instead I found out which finger was supposed to operate which key on the typewriter and made sure that’s what I used. After a slow start things improved quickly.  Before too long I was able to type faster than I could write.

But sometimes speed isn’t the problem. If things aren’t going well writing faster isn’t going to help. Sometimes the words won’t come at all, sometimes they come easily but don’t seem to count. It’s at moments like this I tend to reach for my pen. To explain why I need to talk about running.

At school I was a sprinter. Fast over short distances, hopeless at anything over 200m. Sprinting is not a good idea when you’re middle aged and over-weight. So I’d largely discounted running as a way of keeping fit. Then I discovered Park Run – a free Saturday timed 5k run which happens in parks all over the country. It’s informal, friendly and beyond a pair of running shoes doesn’t require any special gear. You run with people of all shapes and sizes, some with dogs on leads, others trundling pushchairs or being dragged along by eight year olds. A couple of hundred people turn out on the cliffs in Gorleston. If you run it in nearby Norwich the pack can often be 500 strong. It isn’t a race, it’s simply a run against your own best time. Inevitably there is pressure to get faster and strive for that elusive PB. Initially I pushed myself a little harder each week  but as my times started to come down I began dreading the next run.  (No pain/No gain has always seemed trumped by No pain/No pain.) Clearly if I was going to run long term I needed a plan.

So instead of trying to run faster, I decided to concentrate on running more smoothly. At once things got better.  I started looking forward to pulling on my running shoes again, and strangely my times didn’t suffer. Something similar happens with writing.

When I pick up my pen I’m forced to slow down. Especially if I take care to form letters on the page properly instead of dropping straight into my usual scrawl.

If my hand slows down then my brain has to slow down too. Because that’s the way writing works. We don’t assemble words in head, sort them into sentences and then write them down.  Writing is like speech in that words are formed (as the linguists have it) at the point of utterance. When you start a sentence you don’t usually know how it’s going to end. You set out on a journey and trust your experience of language – it’s vocabulary, rhythm, and cadence –  will get you safely to where you want to go.  It’s  a creative act with a mechanical component – they physical act of transcription, hand and brain in sync. A good pen makes transcription like painting words onto the paper. It can introduce a meditative element, smoothing out the transcription process. It’s therapeutic. For me this slow, deliberate, hooking up of the writing arm to the writing brain has a way of removing obstacles. Of freeing me up.

There’s something else. Word processing can be undone by a couple of clicks. So there is no real need to commit yourself. If everything can be changed, why worry? But handwriting is indelible. It’s much harder to scatter words in an approximation of what you want to say and edit them into shape. (Though you will anyway.) Somehow with a pen in my hand the temptation to approximate disappears.  Don’t sketch, says the voice in my head,  get it said.

So when things aren’t going well this is what I tell myself.  I can write faster with a keyboard. But I can write better with a pen. Some days it’s even true.

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‘Elf and safety for writers

Some recent research has suggested that sitting is as dangerous as smoking. (Smoking and sitting at the same time is clearly a bad idea.)  This comes as no surprise to most writers. Put two writers in a room and it won’t be long before the conversation turns to backpain.

On a building site there are invariably brightly coloured posters offering advice about hard hats and the importance of not standing under falling hammers.  This is my version for avoiding the hazards of life at the desk.

Obviously evolution has carefully designed us not to sit at desks. So the first thing my poster would say in big letters is THIS IS RIDICULOUS GO AND DO SOMETHING ELSE. This advice is likely to coincide with what friends and relatives have been telling you for years and is something you can safely ignore.

Sitting position. You don’t have to buy a £900 Herman Miller Aeron. But you do need to be able to sit with an open hip joint. That is, your hips should be higher than your knees.  A cheap foam sitting wedge will convert most dining chairs into a back-friendly work chair. This might seem a poor substitute for the all-embracing leather fantasy chair but see below.

Screen position. The top of your screen should be just below eye level. Adjust the font size so that the image comes to you. The resolution should allow you to sit back rather than hunch forward. Your elbows should be at 90 degrees, your wrists relaxed.  Notice this combination of seating and screen position is impossible to achieve with the laptop that everyone uses. Ideally you should plug your laptop in to an external screen, and probably an external keyboard. Or just yourself get a desktop.

Writing slopes. Even if most of what you do happens at the keyboard you will still need space to read scripts, scribble notes, and doodle. So get yourself a writing slope. The sort medieval monks used. Your back will thank you. You can pay proper money for these or you can knock one up out of blockboard. You might find they even encourage you to try using a pen.

Use a pen. All right, you don’t have to use a pen.  But when things aren’t going well I don’t know a better solution than turning away from the screen and picking up a pen. This also allows you to indulge your stationery fetish and your fountain pen fetish at the same time.

Standing. It worked for Philip Roth. Standing to write has a good pedigree. You can buy desks with adjustable heights or you do what I do and stand your writing slope on top of a chest of drawers.

Think movement rather than stillness. The big message here is that you should not be aiming for the perfectly supported position where there is no strain on the body. Because that means you are still and being still is a bad idea. You have to find a way of making your work practices dynamic. The body needs to move. Galen Cranz in a wonderful book called The Chair argues that your workspace should be thought of as a gym rather than somewhere you can support yourself in immobility. It should have a variety of places to work, sitting and standing as well as room to lie on the floor.  Lying on the floor, head slightly raised on a paperback, feet flat on the floor, knees pointing skyward is what you should do when you’ve ignored all of the above. It’s a life-saver.

Schedule breaks. At least every hour. Get up, walk around, take some deep breaths. A view is a bonus for any workplace. Let your eyes focus on the horizon instead of the screen. At low tide I can see seals on Scroby Sands. The seals aren’t essential but the view probably is.

All of this might seem obvious. But it’s easy to lose sight of when you’ve got a deadline looming.  A laptop in bed might work in the short term. But the thing about writing is it’s a long-term game.