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.