Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Writer's Pains

Image by Paul G Neale, artist
by JJ Marsh

My arm hurts.

Between the fingers, across the wrist, up my forearm and elbow, and into my shoulder and neck. The first signs of RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) and a major wake-up call. All those little micro movements on the keyboard, mouse clicks and scribbling by hand have added up to a massive great impediment to a writer.

The effect makes other activities painful. For the first time, I’m grateful that my left-hand drive car is an automatic.

RSI is not the only occupational hazard for your average wordsmith. 
Matt Haig, in 10 Reasons Not To Be A Writer

They have bad backs. Maybe not the debut writers, but by the time of their third or fourth novel, they can hardly walk. This is why Margaret Atwood has to be winched everywhere with the aid of a helicopter. It is why Salman Rushdie is eight inches shorter than he used to be. It is why Julian Barnes always clenches his jaw.
I’m not alone in facing physical aches and pains, (check out Jane Friedman’s great post on back problems) so I asked others about the challenges of writerly pain and how they dealt with them.

Swiss ball

Joanna Penn, www.TheCreativePenn.com
I had increasingly bad back pain for around 9 months in 2012, to the point of waking me at night and I often slept on the couch with extra back support. I had a lot of tests but the doctors couldn't find anything wrong. The physio suggested sitting at my desk on a Swiss ball in order to foster micro-movements. I was only able to sit on it for an hour at first, alternating with my office chair, but within 6 weeks, the pain was practically gone and I always use a Swiss ball at my desk. I find myself bouncing on it sometimes as well as rocking around, plus I can just roll it sideways and lie backwards for a stretch while I'm thinking. It's a cheap and easy solution to the writer's bad back - perhaps not for everyone, but well worth trying!

Room, room, if, if, if, if

Iida Ruishalme – writer from Finland – who suffers from hyper-mobility

I had RSI when I was 15 years old from writing stories by hand. When I got older, I worked in a lab, using microscopes and computers, and the pain came back. So I experimented with speech recognition software for my writing. Both Mac and Windows have inbuilt voice to text systems, which are worth trying, but now I use Dragon software to write my first drafts, emails and so on. It took a while to get used to the commands and learn how to pronounce certain words in English, but now it’s second nature. One thing freaked me out at first – sometimes when I paused to think about what to say next, the computer typed room, room, if, if, if, if. Finally I realised my hypersensitive microphone was picking up the sound of cars passing my window.


Roz Morris – http://rozmorris.wordpress.com/

I'm rather well acquainted with RSI. I crippled myself at the start of the 1990s, doing typesetting and layout on computers. I developed a gnawing ache in my arms and hands that was impossible to escape – even when not at work. Acupuncture erased it – but only lasted a couple of hours and cost an arm and a leg. Since then I've relied on ergonomics.

I learned to touch-type, which keeps the hand in an efficient position. I banished the back and shoulder pain by switching to a kneeling stool, which you can adjust so your hands fall into a natural position. Building the muscles in the back and upper body makes a difference - one theory is that RSI can be caused by wasted muscles pressing on nerves. If you can't abide weight training, swimming is good. Wrist rests didn't make any difference except to press on already sensitive nerves, but an ergonomic keyboard worked miracles. I found the curved ones weren't much help, but I discovered a hinged keyboard made by Goldtouch, which you fit to your shape. If you're having a painful day, you can adjust your typing position by changing the angle in the keyboard. 
Standard mice are agony for me, as are those little laptop tracker pads. The 3M joystick mouse has made life a lot more comfortable. I still get breakthrough pain, so I use books to jack my monitor up to a different height. If none of that works, I go to the bad side. I have a notebook computer which is ergonomically awful, but a few days typing in that position gives me enough of a rest to return to the proper set-up. 
Oh, and screen breaks are supposed to be important but I always forget to take them. Guess I could be more comfortable still ...

Making the Break

Ben Myers – author of Richard & Pig Iron – http://www.benmyers.com/

Ernest Hemingway famously wrote standing up, on a Royal portable typewriter. So, it seems, did Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf and now Philip Roth, who suffers from arthritis in one shoulder. Victor Hugo meanwhile wrote in the nude, Edmond Rostand, author of Cyrano de Bergerac, wrote in the bath to avoid interruption and Marcel Proust and Mark Twain both wrote in bed (though not together).

Personally, I’m still suffering, so painkillers, massages and many breaks are the best I can come up with ...

Libby O ­– Narrative Ninja from Australia ­– http://rowinggirl.com/

There’s no quick fix. I’m doing physio and limiting my screen time. I also use a software program which enforces breaks – see five free alternatives here. The screen fades and shows a picture of someone meditating. Drives me mad, but seems to be working.

So, whether you use balls, dragons or adjustable mice, there are remedies. But damage takes time to repair. Prevention is better than cure. Take your breaks, move your muscles and above all, protect the instrument.

That’ll be you.


  1. I'm a writer and an Alexander Technique teacher. That means I spend a lot of my day working with people who have back, neck and shoulder pain, including RSI. You are absolutely right, prevention is much better then cure, and all the ideas mentioned here can help prevent problems before they arise. These problems are wholly avoidable with some education and basic self-care strategies. Human beings just aren't designed to spend hours hunched over a keyboard, and we suffer in all sorts of ways if that's what we do. Taking breaks and moving are hugely important. Getting a reasonable chair and sitting on your bum (ie sit bones) not rolling back onto your lower spine also makes an almost revolutionary change for most folks. As does learning how to let go of deep-held patterns of postural tension. I haven't tried writing in the nude yet, though - one to road test before the weather turns chilly.

    1. Thanks Sarah - great advice. I'd love to hear more about your tips. Want to do a blog post on the educational tips you mention?