Writing with a Chronic Illness: Chronic Pain and Writing Practice
After my big flare eight years ago, I decided it was time to do something about that lifelong dream of being a writer. To stop being practical and having a day job and throw it all into getting off the pot, so to speak. Never mind that I hadn't had a day job for quite a while at the time. The point was that I had gotten a second chance at life and when that happens, you stop procrastinating and get serious about honouring it.
So. There I was, set on being a writer and wondering how to do it. Naturally, that meant research. I read books about writing and over time, I noticed that everyone talked about two things as being essential to the craft.
The first was journaling or freewriting. In her excellent book Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg recommends that you start each day "writing your pages." This involves sitting down with a notebook and a pen and writing without stopping for a set amount of time, such as half an hour. This helps develop your writing skills without involving your inner editor. Many writers recommend this as essential to nudge your creativity — there's something about using a pen (as opposed to a computer) that accesses the subconscious soup.
The second was spending time writing, following the wonderful saying attributed to Dorothy Parker: "writing is the art of applying ass to seat." I read about Stephen King writing from 9 to 1 every day, someone else always writing 10 pages, another person never left their computer until they'd done 3000 words. Etc.
When you are a writer who has chronic pain, both of these recommendations are completely intimidating. I can still write with a pen, but not for very long — freewriting for half an hour every day would wreck me for the rest of the day! As for writing for four hours, 10 pages or 3000 words? Not going to happen. At the time I had yet to figure out how think creatively while dictating to Dragon and my daily typing limit was 400 words. Even now, when I am much stronger and primarily use Dragon when I write, spending that much time at the computer today would wreck me to the point that I wouldn't get anything done for the next four days. So what's a writer with chronic pain to do?
You mess with the rules to find a way that works for you. For me, freewriting isn't ever going to happen. I understand the principle and would love to be able to do it — I think it would bring out something very interesting in your writing practice. If you can write with a pen for a little while, try to spend 5 minutes meditating before you start freewriting. This can help you skip over the first 10 minutes that are about shutting up your inner censor. Trying some of the other writing exercises in Goldberg's book can also be really helpful. The woman knows what she's talking about.
Instead of setting a goal of writing a certain amount every day — something that will only lead to failure when you live with an unpredictable health condition — I set a different goal. At first, I made writing a part of everyday. On good days, it was actual writing. On days where I hurt too much, it was reading about writing or thinking about writing. Whenever I got frustrated at the slow pace, I’d remind myself of something I'd read somewhere: Laura Hillenbrand took 10 years to write Seabiscuit. I've since heard that it wasn't quite that long, but it was tremendously helpful at the time. Eventually, as I could spend more hours working and writing, I split up my workday into two and still do this. I work for several hours during the day, have my Mandatory Rest Period and after dinner, I work for another one and a half hours (or that's the plan, anyway. I've been exceeding that for a while). By breaking my work time in two, I work at a pace my body can handle, allowing for rest in between times at the computer. Over time, it's allowed me to to build strength and stamina and often gets more writing done than I realize.
The point is not how you write or how much you write. The point is making writing a habit. Creating the discipline to apply your ass to a seat every day to click into the place in your head where writing happens is the key. Even if you can only write 400 words a day, doing so for four months will give you a 48,000 words. That’s a good first draft of a book.