The old joke is about not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time, but here’s a takeoff that questions our work as writers: Can you write and breathe at the same time? I ask because I think that we tend not to breathe much when we write.
“Of course we breathe,” I can hear you respond. “Otherwise we would die.”
True, we do end up breathing about 20,000 times a day. I’ll wager that most of us hold our breath while we write and edit, and often, while we read. Or, we breathe so shallowly that it barely counts. The result is that we aren’t nurturing our bodies as we write. We aren’t getting enough oxygen to our lungs, blood and cells, including our treasured brain cells. That makes the physical act of writing is less comfortable and nourishing and flow-inducing than we would want it to be.
That’s a lot to put out there, and it’s not the usual way we talk about writing at SheWrites, so let me back up and tell you how I started thinking about how our bodies are integral to the brainy, word-wrangling work we do as writers. Hold on through that, because after it comes an exercise for reflecting on our breath as we write.
I wrote much of The Daring Book for Girls with ice packs plunked langorously over the backs of my hands and over my wrists. Every hour or so, I would trek down to the kitchen (my office is on the third floor of my tall, narrow house). I’d pull a new round of frozen ice packs from the freezer and replace the ones I’d been using onto their special shelf so they’d be ready for the next cycle. I would do this all day long. At night, writing done, I’d massage my hands some. I would worry about the middle finger on my right hand that seemed to be numb. Then I’d put the pain out of my mind and go to sleep. That was it. I had a deadline, and I just kept going. I didn’t make an appointment to see the doctor. I didn’t go the acupuncturist. I just kept writing. With the ice packs.
When the book was done, my hands still hurt. I took myself off the computer for a month, and that helped some. Several of my fingers were still numb, though. Still, I confess, I didn’t get it checked out. We writers tend to be a disembodied bunch. (I know, what gives with the stereotype that men don’t go seek medical help? I think that just protects us women from confronting our own bad habits!)
Besides, I had kids, two of them, who hadn’t seen their mom much while I was under deadline. September was filled with back-to-school events. In October the book launched and that was rather hectic.
You get the idea. Busyness came before taking care of the pain in my hands. I worried about my hands, definitely. Writing had become my livelihood. I needed my hands. Still, for several months I was caught between angsting that I’d caused irreversible neurological damage to my hands, and being in denial about the whole thing.
Enter Hilary Beard, author and friend, who heard my story one day at the coffee-shop, Infusion, that we frequent. “Go see Bill,” she said, pulling a card out of her large purse. “He’s a rolfer. He’ll fix you up.”
I made the call that started me, unknowingly, down a path of learning a great deal about my body, and my breath, and how both matter so much more that a thought to my life as a writer.
Bill, the rolfer, welcomed me into his office. At one corner hung a human skeleton. Across the room, a desktop was covered with books about stone circles, and human anatomy. Bill pointed me toward the massage table, and there began an excruciatingly hour in which he prodded and pulled up and down my arms. My gritting teeth and yelps were met with philosophical discussions about pain being an opinion, and the frustrating albeit truthful rejoinder that my hands and arms had been gripped up tight for many months, and that it would take some energy to get them to normalize.
At the end of the hour, Bill told me to go home and wait three days. “Nerves are pissy,” he said. “They don’t like to give it up right away.” He also suggested I see a neurologist to make sure I didn’t have carpal tunnel syndrome, which I did (consult) and which I thankfully do not have.
Here’s the specific thing I learned about my body. When I typed, I rested my forearms on my desk, and used that as a fulcrum to raise my hands over the keypad (because isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? Not rest on our wrists?) The result: I was pushing hard against the ulnar nerve, just in front of my elbows. That pushed and pinched nerve was causing my hands to hurt and my fingers to be numb.
Anyway, long story short, I returned a year later to get some more rolfing work done, figuring it was time to address those classic hunchy-writers-shoulders. I also started a body training program in which we did things like walk around the room with rock-filled orchid pots on our heads (that’s to activate our core trunk muscles from the top of our heads). We learned to sit forward on our thighs and not on our butts (and of course, typing these words was a good reminder to me to get my laptop off my thighs, sit forward, and align my spine so my head can rest right on top). We also got to experience what it feels like to breathe with our pelvises; I’m not making this up, but I won’t go there now.
In class, we were asked one day, as homework, to pay attention to our breath. We were especially to notice when in the day we stopped breathing.
It turned out that the resounding answer, for me, was no, I wasn’t breathing so well, especially while writing. With a startle, I understood that not only had I written a book with icepacks on my hands, I’ve written all sorts of things under relative oxygen-deprivation!
This process changed the way I write. It changed my willingness to write from within the achey pain many of us put up with. I started to breathe more consciously.
That brings me back to the question: can you breathe while you write, and to an exercise that we can do together.
For the moment, pay attention to your breath. It may be that as you pay attention, you will start to breath deeply, taking in good nourishing air that will get your blood flowing and pour creativity-inducing oxygen into your heart and brain. It’s likely, though, that at some point your attention will waver (say, when you start to read or write again). That’s when you’ll get some real information about your breathing-and-writing habits.
Here’s what usually happens when I try to take stock of my breath/writing connection.
At first, I take some awesomely deep, air-filled breaths. I inhale and exhale. I do it again, nice and slow and from my diaphragm. My belly rises and falls. Then my eyes get distracted by some words on a page, or my fingers start playing on the keyboard. I focus on that, and pretty quickly my breathing shallows out. All that sweet big breathy stuff vanishes.
If I can pull my attention back to my breath, I’ll find something like this: I’ll realize that I am holding my stomach in, which means I have exhaled, and then stopped breathing well. Or, I’ll realize that my stomach is pushing out, and staying there. That means I have inhaled, and then, well, sort of stopped.
That’s when I know once again how hard it is to breath and write at the same time.
Now you try it. Notice what happens to your breath when you write and when you read.
After we realize that we’re holding our breath, we can start a process of checking in every so often while writing to see what’s going in. It may be that at the end of every paragraph we check in with our breath, and get it going again, or after each page, whatever works for you.
Whatever the gentle process is, the idea is to start breathing again, until our bodies come into the normal state of full breathing. Changing habits as profound as breathing can take a while, but this is how it starts. Better breathing can produce the creative flow we seek as writers. That’s why this breath and body stuff matters. Far from being something that disappears in our heady, wordsmithy acts of creation, our breathing, self-nurturing bodies can become that which supports our writing, part of what encourages and enables us to write.
Thanks for being part of my this exploration of what it means to be an embodied writer. I deeply appreciated the generous comment love for last week’s column. Your words were so inspiring to me, and they helped me get back to work on a project I’ve been stalled out on. I’ll be more active in the comments this week.
In upcoming Daring Writers Guide segments there will be more on whether we are in bodily pain or comfort as we write. Next week’s topic: my take on the classic “I Have No Time to Write” frustration, what with kids, jobs, and all that. If you can’t wait, leave comments here, or send your thoughts to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For now, breathe, write, and let’s hear your wisdom on your body and the writing process.