RSI and when your books come back to haunt you - by Roz Morris
It's final revision time on my latest novel, Life Form 3. I've been living at the computer, desperate to spend every moment with it. And yesterday morning I woke up unable to move my right arm.
To be truthful, I could move it, but it hurt so much I preferred not to. Reaching for my glasses left me a gasping wreck. Keeping still wasn't much better. I’d felt it nagging the previous day, but never thought it could turn into this.
The repetitive strain injury was back.
In a way this seems like divine retribution. In my first novel My Memories of a Future Life, I inflicted a cruel case of RSI on a concert pianist. I imagine some deity that sits on the interface between art and life has thought it would be very fine to dump the same fate on me - and right when I need my fingers most.
In my defence, I haven’t used the RSI device glibly. Its details didn’t come from comfy googling, they were earned.
My RSI journey began when I became a sub-editor in the 1990s, when desktop publishing loused up a lot of limbs and livelihoods. I’ve battled this keyboarder’s curse ever since.
In some ways, I was kind to Carol, my concert pianist character. Although I gave her my gruesome medical tests, I spared her the acupuncture.
Wait, are you thinking acupuncture is benign? Perhaps like being stroked by a healing Chinese butterfly? No. When they needled my painful nerves, they hurt even more. (The therapist was perplexed, though, and probably suspected I was a wuss.) I also spared Carol the buzz needles - acupuncture jollied along by voltage from a car battery. Meanwhile my journalist colleagues told (tall?) tales of being put on racks to pull their necks straight. But buzz needles trumped traction, hands down.
After a year of this I said stop. The company paid for ergonomic chairs and such, and I think these have kept me typing over the years. This is what I'd pass on to a fellow sufferer.
- Posture and straightness are important - I got a kneeling chair, because it makes you sit upright as though poised on a horse.
- I learned to touch type, fluttering across the keys instead of stabbing them in my own peculiar pattern.
- Some RSI is caused by wasted muscles pressing on nerves, and I found relief by lifting enormous weights in the gym. After a bad bout two years ago I got a split ergonomic keyboard and joystick mouse.
- Screen breaks are sensible, if I remember them. I’m not always sensible.
- It helps to put the strain on different muscle groups. If my neck starts to rebel, I jack the monitor up to a different height.
Some people use dictation software. As a sub-editor, that was never an option for me. As a writer, it might do for drafting, but the vast majority of my work is done in the edits. Like a person kneading bread, I think through my fingers. I can’t imagine editing hands free.
I also can’t imagine how people write lolling at their laptops in bed. But sometimes all the ergonomic goodness in the world doesn’t help me, so I go to the bad side. I get my notebook computer, put it on my knee and hunch over it. A few days like that gives enough respite for the tender muscles to recover. Or it has so far.
So these are the ways I can carry on. But a musician, like Carol in my novel, has no other way. It's piano or nothing, and the pain of that is worse than anything physical.
We novelists have a cruel side. Ruthless enough to create exquisite tortures - and sensitive enough to know what they are doing. When I was writing that novel I would wake at night, telling myself these questions were not to be treated lightly, asking how I would feel if I had to face them. I must be earning more bad karma for what I’m doing in Life Form 3.
I soldier on, bludgeoning the RSI when I have to. I hope I never have to be really brave, the way I force my characters to be.
Thanks for the pics Lizspikol and Marc Falardeau
Roz Morris is a bestselling ghostwriter and book doctor. Her novel, My Memories of a Future Life, is pick of the month on Multi-Story.com.You can listen to an audio of the first 4 chapters of the novel here.
She is also the author of a writing book: Nail Your Novel - Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence.
She blogs at www.nailyournovel.com and has a double life on Twitter; for writing advice follow her as @dirtywhitecandy, for more normal chit-chat try her on @ByRozMorris.
And I would encourage every and any writer out there YOU MUST LEARN TO TOUCH TYPE. I have no idea how anyone can write without this skill. I learned in a 2 week course the summer I left school aged 17 'shut in a room with keyboards with no letters on an a screen which ran at speeds in front of you' it was 2 weeks of hell but it has been the best money ever spent on my career! You of course all suffer that I can type at lightening speed, means I can write much more, much faster.... this took no time at all!
But, like Cally, I want that next novel!
I hope your RSI improves soon.
I also find mouse clicking bad for my RSI so I use a touchscreen mouse (from Cirque) and a piece of software called Mousetool that makes the mouse click automatically everytime it stops. I turn it off for Internet banking and other situations where mistakes can be awkward but it saves lots of strain on my fingers at other times.
Well, I got through two books that way. Towards the end of the second one, 'Telling the Sea' I began to realise dimly that I was in pain. You know what it's like. It's hard to notice these things when you're absorbed in writing.
Well, I paid a high price for the swinging about. Yes to everything you, Roz, and everyone else has said about sitting straight, taking breaks and using ergonomical chairs. For six months I couldn't type, and my only respite from pain was swimming - ironic considering I'd just brought all this about by writing a book about a girl who'd tried to drown herself.
And the acupuncture? Didn't use it for RSI, but gave birth to two children with acupuncture for pain relief and compared to my other three births, it was a walk in the park!
I use a split keyboard, which I won't change from no matter how gunky it gets. :) It really helps with my hands and wrists not needing to move around.
I have to focus on keeping my shoulders back. I get a knife-stabbing pain in my shoulder blade if I do too much mousing, so I've learned lots of keyboard shortcuts.
As for my characters? Yes, I'm extremely cruel to them. I'm hoping fate doesn't have a plan to get back at me for it. Does the excuse "They asked for it" work with imaginary people? :)
It really is all about 'tricking' your body into thinking you're not going to use that muscle anymore, followed by using it differently went you do again. You sound like you've got that game down.
Here's to speady healing...
Glad the novel is coming along so well though!
As to the characters, Jami has hit it on the head. When we're at our most dastardly as writers, we should look at Jami's phrase 'they asked for it' as the missing piece!
I have a separate keyboard which rests on my knees, and my screen is at eye-height. Using a keyboard at desk-top height is instantly uncomfortable.
Imagine what it used to be like, hammering away at a manual typewriter ...!