Monday, April 1, 2013

Writing May Be Hazardous to Your Health

If you've ever read one of my novels, you know that I tend to put my characters through a lot.  To put it bluntly, their life expectancy isn't the greatest, and finding yourself in an Ilsa J. Bick novel may be quite hazardous to your health.

Well, it turns out that my characters might be returning the favor because here's a news flash for you: Writing is hazardous to your health. 

Let me rephrase.  It's not that writing per se is bad; it's the sitting all day that will kill you.  No joke.  NPR did a piece on this a couple years ago that's worth reading and/or listening to.  According to numerous studies (including a relatively recent study in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise), excessive sitting--say, up to 23 hours a week--increases the risk of heart disease in young men by as much as 64%.  I'm sure it's comparable for women.  The kicker is that all those guys?  A lot of them routinely exercised. 

So what the heck is a writer supposed to do?  From personal experience, I can tell you that I'm easily sitting 9+ hours a day, and I do that every day.  I also exercise 90-120 minutes a day, every day.  I'm not overweight, although--you know--once you're past a certain age, things that used to defy gravity don't. 

But I'm a doc.  So I know.  The less you engage major muscle groups, the lower your metabolic rate.  It's one of the reasons why people can become quite obese even if their total intake is low.  Their metabolic rates slow to a crawl.  A slug is faster.  It's one of the truisms of weight loss, too.  If you want a kid or adult to lose weight, you have to kick up the metabolic rate first by getting moving--and then you zip your pie-hole.

So if I believe the stats, and I do, then all this work?  All these stories?  These characters?  There are a lot of days when I think a story's going to kill me, but the reality is that they really might be the death of me. 

Well, the solution is to get moving, right?  Or moving even more than I already do?  The problem is that the more time I spend doing that, the less time I have to write.  There are a couple solutions out there; in the current April issue, there's a fine article  by Susan Dawson-Cook, "Better Health for Writers."  The majority of the stuff she mentions you already know: the importance of proper ergonomics, ways to reduce discomfort while writing, and all that.  (Another news flash: I have NEVER had as many problems with my arms, hands, and--strangely--feet before I upped my writing time.)  If you want to fork over the money for a treadmill, you can build yourself a treadmill desk (or buy one).  Me, I actually considered that, but it seemed kind of criminal to buy a machine when I have access to plenty of them at the gym.  I also wonder how effective I can really be trying to both walk (even very, very slowly) and compose at the same time.

Yet, there is a long tradition of writers walking as a way of clearing out the cobwebs.  Thoreau once wrote: "Me thinks the moment my legs begin to move, my thoughts begin to flow."  We all know some of literature's famous walkers--Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf, and--my personal favorite--Dickens, a man who routinely walked over twenty miles a day.  (Of course, he was also an insomniac and died early of a stroke, but who's keeping score?)  I know that I can write all day long, get my pages in and all that--and still I've done my best thinking while walking or working the machines.  (Swimming . . . not so much; I think it's because I have to both count laps and breathe.  When I let my mind go, however, I do think relatively well . . . although I seem to end up swimming the same lap over and over again.  Same problem with spinning: if I'm listening to music to keep a cadence, there's no way I can think about a story.  I love to bike, but I find it tough to sit for even more hours after I've been sitting all day.)  When I go for long walks, I always bring along an iPod to listen to an audiobook . . . but I've also noticed that when I'm deep into a story, I might plug in the earbuds but never turn on the iPod at all.  Or I'll listen to the story, but my mind wanders because I'm very wrapped up in my own work.  So I lose track and finally turn the silly thing off.   I just don't want any distractions.

So walking works for me in terms of freeing my mind.  (Ditto hiking; my husband once turned to me at the end of a fifteen-miler and remarked that I hadn't strung together more than ten words the entire day.  He wasn't miffed, but it's a good thing he knows me so well, or else he'd think it was his breath.)  The question is . . . do I really want to take time away from writing to take a couple walks during the day?  Say, before I get started and at the midway point of my day, half hour at a pop, and in addition to the workout at the end of my workday I already do?  We're talking about another hour, minimum, and more likely an hour and a half by the time you do the shoes, wash the hands, get a drink of water, blah, blah.  You know how time dribbles away.

Here's what I'm really concerned about: breaking my rhythm.  Yes, yes, I often realize that I'll have to kill the work I just did or change things in those last five pages just as soon as I've turned off my computer and walked away because that's when it hits me that <DOH>, you idiot, that wasn't the right place for that scene.  But it is just as true that I have a tough time getting back into writing after a break.  I can do it and certainly have done.  When the husband's away on a business trip, then it's not unusual for me to either work 12+ hours and then exercise, or work, break for my workout, and then slide back into a few more hours at night.  But that second chunk of time often feels less focused, quite possibly because I'm . . . well, tired.  I mean, I've been hunched over the keyboard all bloody day; I can tell I start to lose focus roundabout the 5th or 6th hour, but I also know that if I just keep going, that seems to diminish.  At any rate, I'm a little concerned that I'll be shooting myself in the foot, work- and production-wise, on the outside chance I might live longer or, at least, as long as I might have if I'd never begun writing and sitting for such long stretches in the first place.

On the other hand, for my poor characters?  Given all the tsuris I put them through?

I'm sure they'll think it's poetic justice.

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