Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The Adventure of the Novelist’s Back

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If alcoholism is the greatest occupational hazard of a novelist’s life, back trouble can’t be too far behind. As my doctor—not named Watson, unfortunately—reminded me last year, anyone who spends most of his time at a desk is going to have back problems, and the issue is especially pronounced for writers, who may need to work intensely for hours at a stretch. (This is less of a problem, of course, for those of us with writer’s block.) I’ve had back pain on and off ever since starting to write for a living, five years ago, and while I’ve managed to address most of the issues that were causing the trouble, it’s something that still bothers me from time to time.

Really, though, I have no one to blame for myself. I wrote most of the rough draft of my first novel—not The Icon Thief, but its unpublished predecessor, a long novel about India—while seated cross-legged on a couch in the living room of my old apartment, hunched over the laptop beside me. This position was comfortable at first, but after writing a quarter of a million words, it blew out my back in ways that I’m still paying for. I learned two things from the experience: 1. Don’t write a first novel that is 250,000 words long. 2. If you’re going to write anything at all, do so at a proper desk.

Since then, I’ve done my best to develop better habits. The first step was the purchase of a good chair. My luxurious old Aeron was, alas, a casualty of my move from New York to Chicago—although my brother is hopefully putting it to good use—and I’ve since replaced it with a less expensive but still pretty functional alternative. I’ve spoken before about the Symphony pillow from Tempur-Pedic, a must for anyone with back trouble, which I’ve since supplemented with a contoured pillow for my knees. As a result, I sleep much better, even though the combination sometimes makes me feel like an old man.

Finally, one needs a properly elevated workstation. After checking my own posture, I determined that my laptop had to be raised by about four inches to allow me to work comfortably. I could have invested in an expensive laptop stand, but casting an eye around own my bookshelves, I determined that the one-volume edition of William S. Baring-Gould’s Annotated Sherlock Holmes, elsewhere acclaimed on this blog as the best book in the world, fit the bill admirably. Ever since, I’ve been writing on Holmes, in more ways than one, and I’d like to think that my work is better for it. My back certainly is.

Written by nevalalee

July 28, 2011 at 9:41 am

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