Red Light, Green Light: how to actually listen to your body while writing
By Leah Horlick
It’s the last week of Careful Inventory! I’m very grateful to Open Book for all the time they have afforded to me in this residency. Today is the penultimate post, building on last Friday’s piece, in case you missed it. It was a sheer joy to ask for insight from so many tremendous artists in disciplines other than writing. Besides the fact that I learned a colossal amount from each of the artists highlighted, I was reminded that nearly all of the mediums represented do a much better job of acknowledging the physical demands of their practice than writers do. The visual artists are not to touch the resin! The sculptors are not to inhale the fibreglass! The dancers are not to rehearse cold! There better be water in that green room, if not pizza! It’s probably in the rider or the contract!
Unfortunately, writers’ eyes tend to glaze over when you say things like “perhaps we should talk to ACTRA about this, I bet they have a good solution” or “occupational health & safety.” I have tried to present the content of this particular column as a module in retreats or residencies elsewhere, and it’s been dismissed as even more pedantic than my previous piece on money and taxes. But I am not to be deterred! (Thanks, Open Book!) If you’re a writer, you have to be your own union rep monitoring your own day-to-day workplace, as it were. In many respects, writing is one big OH&S fail waiting to happen. I think I’ve already illustrated a number of our collective disasters-in-waiting in my previous posts, but for today I will focus specifically on our bodies.
In case you are beginning to have very sensible worries, this post is not going to be an admonishment, a reminder to exercise, a patronizing “temple of the body” ode, or a further contribution to the abyss of individualized “wellness” in the midst of a catastrophe. Did you grow up with this idea that your head and your body are two separate things, working independently of each other? Do you ever get hard on yourself for being tired and sore after “doing nothing” all day, when nothing is in fact sitting for long periods of time making tiny repetitive movements from the neck and shoulders down? This post is especially for you. (For us!)
What follows are some brass tacks, based on the fact that the content machine will happily chomp anything you throw its way and then some, without regard for the fact that you are a body with limits, feelings, and a need to eat. There are people out there who are going to shame you for “sitting all day” and then shame you for the repetitive stress injury you got from putting that manuscript together, which was what you were doing all day. There are people out there who are going to shout “so raw! so necessary!” at you until you fry your nervous system writing about the worst moments of your life, and then they will ignore you when you can’t get any writing done because you are in recovery. And I do not want any of that for you. You have to take breaks.
The writing is coming through your body. It cannot happen without it, because you are your body. You are using your whole apparatus to get the job done! Holding your body in a sitting position for hours at a time, hunching over your phone, hitting your word count—all of this is active. If you are not taking breaks, you are going to hurt yourself. It is very, very easy to get completely checked out into the stratosphere while you are writing and forget that you have a physical form that needs to be loved and cared for and is working very hard while you fix that line break. I’m very grateful to the many extremely patient RMTs who have given me a much-needed variety of talking-to’s about this, and to my indexing professor Max McMaster, who included the prevention of RSIs and other injuries in our professional training. I would love to see more writing resources include this kind of information.
But if you are a person who has a hard time interpreting signals from your bod (like me!) or applying blanket “listen to your body” advice, you might be wondering When am I supposed to take the break, Horlick?! A good day is many hours of writing, nonstop, at the computer! (While we’re here, I think this is imprecise, especially if you’re a poet and you’re not dealing in word count: the length of time spent at a computer is not necessarily reflective of a good day.)
I am not a doctor of anything, not even poems. The following suggestions should be adjusted for your own individual context. It will not reflect everyone’s reality. Those of you who are intimately familiar with an injury or chronic illness probably learned this a long, long time ago and don’t need to hear it from me—feel free to skip ahead. We have very little control over what happens to us in this life and no "prevention" is ever guaranteed. With all that in mind, here are some important times to take a break while writing:
- you have sharp, shooting pain in your fingers, hands, or wrists (anywhere! red light!)
- you have to go to the bathroom (don’t hold it! talk to a teacher – this is so bad for us!)
- you have been sitting for anywhere from half an hour to an hour, max
- your eyes feel strained or fuzzy
- your forehead or your jaw hurts
- you are hungry or thirsty!
These aren't the only feelings I'd like us to pay more attention to while writing. The other issue that I wish we attended to more as a discipline is that the emotions you feel while you are writing have an impact on your body. If this sounds very straightforward, skip this exposition and meet me at the next list, if you’d like. But I have paid a lot of money to learn this in professional therapeutic setttings and so perhaps it will be useful to you. What I’m trying to deconstruct here is the valorization of writing sessions that take an exhausting emotional toll on the writer. We have some terrible stereotypes that haunt us in this industry (normalization of alcoholism, glorification of dudes whose work was only ever enabled by women’s domestic exploitation, etc.), and this one is among my least favourite. You need to take breaks for your emotions, too. Your emotions are a part of your body.
Your body can only interpret the world through you. If you are feeding your five senses extremely challenging content or difficult memories all day, the body doesn’t really draw a distinction between what is happening now, what is happening there, and what happened then. In some ways this is a superpower for us as writers, but it absolutely comes with consequences. (Once upon a time I needed to learn this the hard way, and so I spent six years writing a book about the Holocaust.)
Keeping in mind that I am not a therapist, and that each person’s individual context is different, here are some further, perhaps less straightforward signs that you might be due to take a break. Consider these yellow or red lights, telling you to slow down and stop:
- you feel hot-cold all over at the same time
- your heart is racing, or your breathing is very shallow
- your legs and arms feel very tense
- your ears are ringing or roaring
- you feel nauseated, faint, or dizzy
- the edges of the objects in your line of sight are all fuzzy or have a halo
- you are crying or shaking (I know lots of us cry while we write and this can be cathartic. But please consider taking a break and devoting the fullness of your attention to crying, where you can.)
I could probably go on—you would not believe what writers will push through, thinking that we’ve struck gold. These are not necessarily the signs that you have hit your stride or found something powerful! I know that it can sometimes feel that way, because writing is about eliciting an emotional response in ourselves and the reader. But I personally feel that listening to your body’s stoplight system is more important. (If you are a practitioner or professional designation reading this, thank you for your patience with this broad oversimplification of the role of the sympathetic nervous system.) This is a powerful combination of very useful chemicals telling you to slow down! Whatever theme or idea or moment you’ve struck upon in your writing will be there later, if you want to come back to it. Please don’t flood your engine. (Look, the traffic metaphors are really useful in this context, and it is more important to me that you get this information clearly than in the most innovative way possible.) If you push through when your body is trying to get your attention, you will only hurt yourself sooner instead of later.
Every writer is different. I am conscious that for some people, creativity only happens in the emotional fast lane or not at all. That is fine! I am not telling you to change your process; many of us have radically different capacities for emotions and distress. But a big part of my life fried my nervous system, and then I fried it some more while writing about it because I felt a variety of pressures to do so, and I don’t want that to happen to you. If distress is a part of your writing process, please consider the duration for which you expect your body to tolerate it. Maybe ten minutes is doable. One hour of shallow breathing, sobbing, and hot flashes is probably not doable, and is going to affect you down the road. If you find it a challenge to worry about yourself, consider the impacts of this emotional racetrack on the people around you. Are you going to be too tapped out to enjoy whatever fleeting COVID-safe pleasure you have painstakingly engineered with the incredibly few people you can share it with? I sure hope not. (More about properly worrying about ourselves, too—and not making some kind of ‘selfless’ ‘sacrifice’ for the ‘art’—on Friday.)
In addition to the fact that some of us get launched into the stratosphere, can’t feel our toes, and forget we require sustenance and hydration while writing, I know some of you are probably saying Ok but like…what is a break? How do I take a break, Leah? Writing is supposed to be the break from the seventeen thousand other things I’m doing on this hellish timeline, like raising children and working six contract jobs and somehow caring for my aging parents while not being able to set foot into their house lest I give them a deadly communicable disease.
I know. It's really hard. Let me present to you
Leah Horlick’s Anatomy of a Good Writing Break:
- move away from whatever it was you were doing, phone or screen or notebook
- fresh air if you can get it
- something non-alcoholic to drink (I am not telling you what to do; this is what works for me)
- something to eat
- something warm or soft (blanket, scarf, toque, cat)
- something to listen to besides voice in your own head (music, friend’s laugh, at least one cat video)
- describe how you feel in the simplest terms possible, like you are a six-year-old, in the least writerly way possible, resisting any and every artistic or narrative impulse
That last one is a trick I learned in an old horoscope by Jessica Lanyadoo. An example from my own recent context: Instead of saying to myself, “Writing about the pogrom must have really activated my inner sense of injustice at the blah blah blah,” I boil it way down— “I feel sad! I feel cold. My neck hurts.” Then I start taking action in response to those actionable feelings. The inner MFA workshop or narrator's voice is only a source of confusion and a barrier to me here. I am not giving a talk or a reading; I am ideally going to curl up like an otter under a blanket for a while, and otters (hopefully!) don’t know anything about the banality of evil. I have to keep things as simple as possible.
Plan for at least twenty minutes working your way through the list above and creating your break, or take however long you need to return to what feels "normal" for you. That's your green light; then you can consider slowly starting to work again or switching to another part of your day entirely. You get to choose. No one has come down from the heavens or the Iowa Writers' Workshop and assigned you the task of articulating a collective or individual experience at the expense of your physical form and emotional form. Yes, many works of art do exactly this, and profoundly, and have enriched our lives for it. But if you are forcing yourself to write through it because you feel obligated, you are only going to hurt yourself even more. You can absolutely do what you want with yourself and your process is your own! But I don't want any more emerging writers and poets wounding themselves on other people's timelines, without some gentle preparation for the very real physical and emotional risks. I hope this post is useful to that eventual end, insofar as it's possible.
I'll see you back on Friday for my last post! Thank you so much to everyone who's been reading along; I'm learning so much from each of you through our conversations.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Leah Horlick is a writer and poet who grew up as a settler on Treaty Six Cree Territory & the homelands of the Métis in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Her long-awaited third collection of poems, "Moldovan Hotel," is available now from Brick Books. Her first book, Riot Lung (Thistledown Press, 2012), was shortlisted for a 2013 ReLit Award and a Saskatchewan Book Award. Her second collection, For Your Own Good (Caitlin Press, 2015), was named a 2016 Stonewall Honour Book by the American Library Association. She is also the author of wreckoning, a chapbook produced with Alison Roth Cooley and JackPine Press. She lived on Unceded Coast Salish Territories in Vancouver for nearly ten years, during which time she and her dear friend Estlin McPhee ran REVERB, a queer and anti-oppressive reading series. In 2016, Leah was awarded the Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers. In 2018, her piece "You Are My Hiding Place" was named Arc Poetry Magazine's Poem of the Year. She lives on Treaty Seven Territory & Region 3 of the Métis Nation in Calgary.