Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Pen is Your Friend

"A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people." - Thomas Mann (1875 - 1955)

People often ask whether I write by hand or on the computer. I do both. But there was a time when ninety-five percent of what I wrote was by hand. Page after page in a spiral notebook with either a ball point or rollerball pen. I can go for an hour straight without stopping. In my class, when I explain this, invariably someone will say, "That's impossible. My hand is killing me after one round of ten minutes."

In Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones, best-selling author Natalie Goldberg lists several rules of writing practice: "Keep your hand moving. Don't cross out. Don't think. Go for the jugular. You're free to write the worst junk in America." But there's one rule she didn't mention. The pen is your friend. It is not a dagger. You don't need to grip it as if you were trying to stab someone. And you're not clinging to a life raft even though it might feel that way emotionally.

The idea is to write continuously. It's not a race. Most people find it difficult to keep up with their thoughts, but you don't have to grip the pen tightly to keep it from flying across the room. Slow down. Let the words roll off. Relax your hand and shoulders. Also, try different types of pens. Sometimes the barrel of the pen is too fat or too thin. Switch and see what happens. But for goodness sakes, let the pen go. Try holding it so loosely that it does fly across the room. Calmly pick it up. Sit back down and begin again. Don't worry if you can't read your handwriting.

These techniques work at the keyboard too. If you can sit up relatively straight and relax your neck and shoulders, your fingers can move more quickly. Position your keyboard so that your elbows hang comfortably at your sides with your wrists slightly lower than your elbows so that your wrists do not need to bend. Keeping your shoulders back and your back straight adds to the relaxation. It's like sitting meditation. Posture is important. Your body wants to keep working for you for a very long time. Do what you can to help it along.

The other secret about pain is that sometimes it is simply resistance. The mind creates pain in the body because it is afraid. This type of pain provides a way for the body to work things out at a muscular level. In meditation practice a teacher will ask you to sit through the pain, to observe it with awareness and equanimity. When you get up from the cushion, the pain goes away. This is true in writing as well. Only be alarmed if the pain continues beyond your writing session.

The ex-lawyer in me requires that I tell you I'm not a doctor and that this little essay is not intended as medical advice. I learned these tricks by trial and error. I want you to know that you can do writing practice forever. You can do it under all circumstances. You can do it for an hour. You can build up muscles in your arms and shoulders and can continue even when you are certain you can't.. You can write like a samurai. And you can be kind to you body in the process.

Do you experience pain when you write? If so, how do you deal with it? If you like, leave a comment and let me know.


Martha said...

Thanks so much for this! I definitely find that my mind races when I write, and I fall into the problem of writing as if it's a race,whether I'm at the keyboard or writing freehand. I'm going to try to think about your essay as I'm writing in the next few days, and try to slowwwww down.

ChefDruck said...

I know that pain is actually a good sign, your body's way of telling you that you're getting to something meaty. When I'm really in the writing mode, I crave that pain, the thrill of pushing beyond it, just like a good hard run.

Lately though, I've been lazy and dodging the discipline of daily writing, ignoring my notebook in favor of blogging.

Recently moved to Columbus and so thankful for all the writing resources you've published here. I'm hopeful that some community will help me get my writing discipline back.

Anonymous said...

I loved the quote. So true! I also loved the essay. Practical issues are important. I try to remember to sit up straight when I'm typing. It does make a difference. I rarely write by hand anymore. If I did, I would have to start a work out program for my hand to get the muscles back in shape.

Tania Casselle said...

Excellent newsletter! Love that line "The pen is your friend. It is not a dagger." Not that I go near a pen these days, it's all keyboard. I've been on a book deadline with long hours each day at my desk and find the only way to avoid body pain is to switch regularly between various seating and typing arrangements, any one combination hurts after a while no matter how well aligned. Bodies just aren't built to be sedentary for so long. Stretching/yoga regularly helps too. Thanks for the always interesting essays.