By Dorothea Belanger
This blog was originally posted on January 24, 2016.
Psst, have you heard? Sitting is the new smoking and it’s killing us! Studies show that sitting a mere three hours a day shortens life expectancy. Then there’s the chronic injury and pain degrading that quality of life. I experienced this first hand when I cut back teaching to two days a week to write a novel, [no pressure there, ha]! White Flowers was inspired by stories about the 400 German Prisoners of WWII who’d been interned on Lake of the Woods and a trip I took to visit cousins in Berlin.
In my 40s, I started having brief bouts of back pain. A physio diagnosed unstable ribs, taped them in place every now and again and told me to remain active. I carried on fine with my full life: family, work, writing, yoga, swimming and walking.
As I began to write more, I knew that sitting in front of a computer didn’t feel good so I invested in a highly rated office chair. The accompanying DVD illustrated how to adjust the arm rests, the lumbar and the seat pan to support me. I was sure this chair could launch me into the galaxy of novel writing for many pain-free hours!
Unfortunately it was all for naught. One day I leaned forward to get out of the car and blew a few discs. I spent the next few months lying on the living room floor in pain. When I became mobile, I was limited and needed carry out at the grocery store, couldn’t put on my socks and was unable to read let alone write.
What followed was years of trying different ways to write. Initially, heating pads and lumbar supports on the chair were my best friends and enabled me to put together a grant proposal. I sent a chapter of White Flowers to the Northern Arts division of the OAC and was successful. This bought me more time to write and was an affirming boost.
After brief sessions at the computer, I’d continue working by walking and talking into a hand held tape recorder. In this way I modified an excerpt of White Flowers for The Writers Union of Canada Short Prose contest and made the short list!
Icy roads made walking in the winter treacherous so my husband rigged up an old treadmill to fit under a table. I could walk at a slow speed and type or write with a pen but not for hours. I set a kitchen timer and alternated between the chair and the treadmill every 30 minutes.
But I was still fragile and watching out for what might set me back was utterly consuming. Riding my bike over a little bump the next summer caused my spine to lock up and I walked around like the Tin Man for a week. Someone suggest a chiropractor. I don’t understand how the cracking of my neck, mid back and and sacrum works but this weekly 10 minute treatment was a turning point. Between cracks she explained that given the right cues, your body will heal. The following week I told her swimming, my old standby for staying in shape, was causing arm pain. She told me to try a mask and snorkel to keep the neck neutral.
Body in neutral, three natural curves in the spine. I’d heard that often in yoga classes and decided to take it seriously. I placed a full length mirror against the wall to check how I was sitting in the chair. I looked a bit hunched, I certainly felt sluggish. I tried a stability ball and on it I could sit taller, there were three curves in the spine and I felt perkier! By alternating between the ball and the treadmill every 30 minutes, I could write for two energy-filled hours a day.
Charles Wilkins presented a writing workshop at the Word on the Water Writing Festival in Kenora. Not only had he rowed across the Atlantic, he’d taken notes and written a book about it! I was in awe of that physical feat and inspired by his thoughts on a sense of place in writing. To test them out I wrote an article about how stories can deepen a connection to place which was published in Canada’s History.
I decided to put White Flowers on hold in favour of shorter articles. I needed to have a sense of completion. Figuring out how to chop carrots and vacuum with out seizing up was too consuming alongside the scope of novel writing. [Now I can chop carrots indefinitely at the kitchen table, it’s lower than the counter. Vacuuming is still iffy so I break it up over several days or let the house get dusty.]
I’d been a member of NOWW for many years. I enjoyed the writing by others who shared the same geography of northwestern Ontario in the NOWW HEAR THIS magazine. Meeting them at workshops in both Kenora and Dryden was like an invigorating transfusion of fresh ideas to take back to my own writing.
I attended the Sleeping Giant Writers Festival in Thunder Bay. While reading a new excerpt of White Flowers out loud in Miriam Toew’s master class, I immediately sensed how it fell flat. Miriam made polite suggestions but at lunch I got the best feedback from another participant: try putting the scene in the present tense, to make it more immediate. I met Miriam in the hallway that evening and babbled on about the difficulty of making historical material come alive. She listened, paused and said: just think really hard.
I drove back home fired up for another year of writing. Now I allow time for “just thinking really hard” while writing, after all, it’s what I did to heal and strengthen.
And when I read, I ask myself, how is the writer making this scene more immediate? These tips mentioned in passing have pushed me forward to better writing. I can’t emphasize enough how instructive it is to belong to a community of writers. The only time I use my office chair now is for the monthly NOWW board meetings I attend via Skype. I don’t want all the movement on the ball or the treadmill to draw attention and after all these years, I can sit there once a month without atrophying, it’s no problem!