Back pain and the Hemingway approach to writing
May 29, 2014 | 10:25 am
Courtesy of a rash moment over the weekend when I lifted both my daughters into a house through a window, I’ve picked up a nasty lower back pain – and a whole new stance towards writing. Literally. Because now that sitting down to the keyboard risks further discomfort, I am learning to stand up to write, evoking that great archetype of the writer erect – Ernest Hemingway.
Back pain ought to be a key concern for writers, no? After all, alongside alcoholism, nearsightedness, and visits from the secret police (or debt collectors), it’s the nearest thing to an occupation hazard that the profession has. Almost every other writer besides Hemingway has spent the bulk of their working life seated at a desk or table. Sedentary derives from sedens, “being seated,” after all, and writing is the most sedentary of sedentary occupations.
I can’t claim that writing while standing induces a sudden rush of ferocious concentration, or a more upright and responsible attitude to your work, or even concentration-breaking leg pains. What I can say is that the newer writing technologies, especially tablets and ultrabooks, make it easier and more comfortable than ever. Instead of needing a steady surface to put your weighty typewriter or earlier-generation laptop (or monitor plus keyboard) on, now you can park your writing tool almost anywhere. With a tablet, especially if you’re using handwriting recognition like I do, you can practically write at eye level. Certainly with far less stooping. And lifting a tablet or ultrabook into place is not going to strain anybody’s spine.
Hemingway would have probably dismissed such rinky-dink gadgetry as pansy stuff, though. Here’s the Paris Review description of his fiercely manly writing posture:
It is on the top of one of these cluttered bookcases—the one against the wall by the east window and three feet or so from his bed—that Hemingway has his “work desk”—a square foot of cramped area hemmed in by books on one side and on the other by a newspaper-covered heap of papers, manuscripts, and pamphlets. There is just enough space left on top of the bookcase for a typewriter, surmounted by a wooden reading board, five or six pencils, and a chunk of copper ore to weight down papers when the wind blows in from the east window.
A working habit he has had from the beginning, Hemingway stands when he writes. He stands in a pair of his oversized loafers on the worn skin of a lesser kudu—the typewriter and the reading board chest-high opposite him.
Hemingway doesn’t stand alone as an upright writer. Søren Kierkegaard did much of his work standing up. So did Vladimir Nabokov. writing longhand “at a lovely old-fashioned lectern,” and Winston Churchill. You can read way more about the practice here, courtesy of – no surprise – “The Art of Manliness.” But Hemingway remains the quintessential modern example. And if I need to replenish my machismo after that salutary comparison, I guess I’d better strap on the back brace and go shoot some marlin. Or fish for lesser kudu.