By the time Constance Fenimore Woolson ended her life at the age of fifty-four, she complained that her entire right side was deformed from writing for nine to ten hours a day. Over the years she had learned to use a stand-up desk and write with her pen between her third and fourth fingers. And she had endured countless remedies, including electrotherapy.
By the time I’m finished writing Woolson’s biography, I’m afraid I will be in similar shape. It’s been three years and counting of sitting at my desk for many hours a day and typing. For the first year I sat in a chair that looked something like this:
Thankfully, it had a cushion and a pillow for my back. But of course it was murder on my back. What was I thinking? It took me a few months to realize that the increasingly severe pains in my lower right back were a problem.
I got an ergonomic chair when the pains started really bothering me. But that wasn’t enough. They continued to worsen. Turned out I had a bulging disk. Muscle relaxants, chiropractic manipulation and fifteen weeks of physical therapy helped, but the problem is now a chronic one. I do exercises most days and have made a long walk part of my (almost) daily routine. And I stretch all the time. If I stop any of this, I’m in trouble.
Then last week, as I left the grocery store, I felt a sharp, sudden pain in my right shoulder. I had done nothing more strenuous than pushing a grocery cart. But something had snapped. Over the next few days, tears would well up when I moved my arm the wrong way. Shifting into reverse, drying my back off with a towel, or reaching behind me for just about anything were suddenly painful tasks.
This time I didn’t wait to go to the doctor. I found out yesterday that I have shoulder impingement, something that athletes usually get. Apparently using a computer mouse over and over all day is as strenuous as being a professional tennis player. Who knew? So it’s back to physical therapy.
I had no idea when I started this project how hazardous writing could be to your health. As I researched Woolson’s life and saw how much the physical act of writing took its toll on her, I was amazed. I also figured that the hazards were confined to the laborious act of writing everything by hand. People don’t get writer’s cramp anymore, do they? It seems working on a computer has its own perils.
My husband has joked that I’m identifying too much with my subject. I’m not sure if my pains have brought me closer to Woolson. But they do make me appreciate the physical sacrifices that the writing life requires. If the first rule of being a writer is to sit down in your chair and stay there, then it seems as if writing a book makes you as injury-prone as someone who is actually doing something.