It was final revision time on Lifeform Three. I’d been living at the computer, desperate to spend every moment with my book. And one 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 it seemed like divine retribution. In my first novel My Memories of a Future Life, I inflicted a cruel case of RSI on a concert pianist. And now it seemed that some deity that sat on the interface between art and life had thought it would be very fine to dump the same fate on me – and right when I needed my fingers most.
In my defence, I hadn’t used the RSI device glibly. Its details didn’t come from comfy googling.
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 protagonist. Although I gave her my gruesome medical tests, I spared her the acupuncture.
Wait, are you thinking acupuncture is benign? Do you imagine it’s like being stroked by a healing Chinese butterfly? No. It is not. When the therapist needled my painful nerves, they hurt even more. (He was perplexed, though, and probably suspected I was a wuss. I thought he was an idiot. If you poke painful parts with needles, don’t you expect they will hurt?)
I also spared Carol the buzz needles – this is acupuncture jollied along by voltage from a car battery. Meanwhile my journalist colleagues told (possibly tall?) tales of being put on racks to pull their necks straight. But in our gallery of horrors, buzz needles trumped traction; hands down.
After a year of these random tortures I said stop. The publisher paid for ergonomic chairs and such, and I think these have kept me typing over the years.
So this is the advice 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. (It’s good for horse-riders too, if lifeform threes are your thing.)
• I learned to touch type, fluttering across the keys instead of stabbing them in my own peculiar pattern. (I rather missed my invented fingering, though. It felt more expressive than the ‘correct’ way.)
• Some RSI is caused by muscle wastage, which means nerves aren’t as padded as they should be. I certainly found relief by lifting considerable weights in Body Pump classes. After a bad bout two years ago I bought a split ergonomic keyboard (this is the make I use) and joystick mouse (like this).
• 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. Hooray for Time-Life books.
Some people use dictation software. As a sub-editor, that was never an option for me and it’s no good for manuscript doctoring either. As a writer, it might do for drafting, but the vast majority of my creative writing is done in the edits. Like a masseur, I think through my fingers. I can’t imagine editing hands free.
I also can’t imagine how anyone can write lolling at their laptops in bed, as we see in the movies.
But sometimes all the ergonomic wisdom 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. A few days contorted like that gives the overused muscles a break and they recover. Or they have 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.
Back to haunt you
We novelists have a cruel side. We’re ruthless enough to create exquisite tortures – and sensitive enough to appreciate 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 know I’m earning more bad karma for what I’m doing in Ever Rest.
I soldier on, bludgeoning the RSI when I have to, so that I can continue to do my own version of playing an instrument. I hope I never have to be really brave, the way I force my characters to be.
(thanks for the pic Lizspikol. This post originally appeared on the Authors Electric blog)
Do you get RSI – and what do you do about it? How bad are you to your characters? Are you grateful you don’t have to live their lives?
PS Ever Rest is now finished and you can get a sneak preview in my newsletter here.