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.

Uh-Huh. Sure.

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.


AlisonH said…
Yup. Absolutely. And I couldn't hold a pen for longer than writing a get-well card without having my hands hurt, and I have only a smidgen of arthritis these days. I had to learn to have that same flow of words onto a screen as I used to need paper for. Sounds like you've found a good spot, too, with Dragon.

I'm picturing the Tinks as adults, reading what you've written, marveling at being able to get to know you even better.
Wren said…
As a journalist and writer I know how valuable your writing advice is, Lene. Writing every day, even if just a little, absolutely builds skill and, over time, speed, clarity and conciseness.

I've gotten out of practice since I've been caring for my Mom these last couple of years. I can come up will all kinds of excuses, but I know that's all they are. My writing has suffered for it--and so have I. I MISS the magic of writing.

So, you've given me food for thought. Thanks so much, Lene--you always manage to put a smile on my face. Write on! And, oh! I can't wait to read your book!
Anonymous said…
I'm so glad that you push through the limitations caused by RA and write, write, write. The amount you write with Dragon at your blog, at HealthCentral, and now your book amazes me! Thanks for the inspiration. Andrew
Diana Troldahl said…
Lene, I needed to read this, on this day, in this hour.
Thank you :-}
Remicade Dream said…
It's great to hear someone else talk about this. I read "The Artist's Way," where the author described the same process of writing longhead every morning - she called it "morning pages". I bumped up against the same problem as you - there is no way I could write three longhand pages every morning. So I wrote to the author to ask for a suggestion for adapting this exercise. I never got an answer.

One of my resolutions this year it to write, and I'm still wrestling with how to work this into my life. I like your suggestions a lot. I have Dragon too, and should be using it. I wrote my dissertation with it, and it's just been sitting there ever since. (I'm typing this comment.)
Remicade Dream said…
P.S. The process of "ass to seat" applies to the piano too - we call it "butt on bench." Butt on bench is another of my resolutions this year! With this, too, I am coming up with ways to work around my limitations. If I have a lot of wrist pain on a given day, I either practice in relaxed slow motion (this is very good for the brain as well as the body), or I spend some time doing mental rehearsal or watching another pianist on YouTube. Doing something is better than doing nothing - I think I am gradually coming to realize this.
Carrie Beth said…
The timing of this article was perfect as I find myself struggling to continue to write despite having added on another chronic illness that is stripping away so much of me, including my "brain power". But I refuse to give up and I will continue to write, even if it means a ton of garbletygook comes out before anything useable. LOL. Your info and tips and thoughts on the subject were well receive by this aspiring writer. Thank you.
I notice that if I don't write/type on a regular basis, I get rusty. The "oil" is the actual process of writing, whether it is one paragraph, a page or a lengthy article.

It is also helpful to regularly fill up on the authors/writers I admire. (You're in that group, Lene!)