The Physicality of Writing

Committee member Kate Holmes invites everyone to take a break and look after your body. If you want to know about Kate’s research, check out her eprofile.

Think: eyes look to the side slightly. I raise my right hand, push it and the mouse across the desk, finishing the action with a downward pressure to cause the mouse to click and to put the in cursor place. I lift my right hand so that it comes to meet the left hovering over the keyboard. The action facilitated by the light engagement of shoulder muscles that hold the hands in place. Now, I push fingers down, hardly noticing the link between movement and mind. Without thinking, I press the backspace, not noticing how the process of writing is also edited through the movements I make which track back from finger to shoulder.

I’m struggling to work through an idea. My immediate instinct is to reach for my notebook. I lift the notebook with both hands, and lay it on my lap. One hand rests on the left edge of the notebook, whilst the right hand lifts to pick up the pen and position it over the page. Again, the right shoulder facilitates the movement of my hand pushing from left to right across the page, stepping downwards to fill it with my script.

Until 8 April this year I hadn’t really thought about how I use my body when I’m writing. Instead I very much thought of it as an activity of the mind. What changed my perception was when I was involved in an accident that left my right shoulder immobilised. I had just entered the last six months of my PhD and was very much in writing mode and was suddenly brought face-to-face with how I use my body and mind together when writing.

As you can see from the description above, the shoulder muscles I wasn’t able to engage are used in most of the activities of writing. But, not only that, being left with just one hand makes performing a range of tasks associated with it really difficult. When I write I often have files open on the floor or pieces of paper on my desk, so I frequently find myself reaching, lifting, crouching and using both hands to flick through papers. Obviously these activities were no longer possible in the same way.

But for me, the hardest part of temporarily losing the use of my right shoulder, was the link between the mind and the physical acts of typing or putting pen to paper. I experimented with using speech dictation software – in fact this post was written using it a few weeks back. For anyone who has ever tried to use this, it is a really strange experience. In fact, you might notice that I’m generally using quite short sentences in this post which is as a result of dictating. This sort of software requires more thought because you need to speak a full sentence rather than being able to delete as you go (you also need to be really careful about using the word ‘delete’ because it can remove something unintended! Can you guess what just happened!) There are commands you can use to edit text, but you generally need to have got the sentence out in one go first. Credit goes out to anyone who uses this sort of software every day, because although it is great I find it a real challenge. Although I can see how it might help when suffering from writers’ block because it feels such a different way of working from typing.

But when my brain was fuzzy through painkillers and I wanted to think through the fuzziness by putting pen to paper I couldn’t. I couldn’t capture or clarify those things I thought I might forget when I got back to work. When I physically write with a pen I feel like I’m accessing a different part of my brain. And, to be honest that is something that I had to put to one side for a while, (alongside my timetable for completion). Technology has meant that I could have a Google document that I could speech dictate into on my phone, but it’s still not the same…

So, I suppose the point of this post is really to try and make people privilege the relationship of your body to your mind – because I was in danger of forgetting it. Despite the fact that my research uses my bodily understanding of aerial practice, I still didn’t value my body enough in the writing process. This experience has made me realise I need a healthy body to really write well. That means that as I re-approach the last six months of my PhD I need to look after my body, because I might well have put writing in front of exercising or eating as healthily as I should. For me this is going to mean putting my body first in terms of doing my physio and trying not to push my body too far by working at my old work rate, before I even get back to exercising as I once did.

For you, particularly if you’re in your last stages of your PhD I’d love it if this post made you finish work early on a day you needed some rest, or encouraged you to go to the gym when it was rainy and you felt like the exercising but didn’t want to get wet. Put your body first now because we all rely on it: the act of writing is a physical one that is assisted by a strong healthy body and mind.

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