Features Essays Published 27 August 2014

Don’t Take It Sitting Down

How do you write? At a desk? In bed? Lydia Thomson explores the creative benefits of not sitting still.
Lydia Thomson

What are the common issues that writers face? Writer’s block, not enough time to write, not enough money to write, distraction, procrastination. What I struggle with, is the chair. I hate sitting down to write, and historically, I am not alone in my preference to work while standing up. Thomas Jefferson, Ernest Hemingway and Charles Dickens apparently all worked from a standing desk.

“The chair will kill you”. Whether you believe the arguments that sitting down increases the risk of diabetes, kidney disease, cancer and generally shortens your life expectancy, there is no doubt that a mainly sedentary lifestyle can’t be good for your physical health, let alone mental health. My response is indeed, to work standing up, but it is not long before I get bored of existing in one area of space and simply have to leave my desk, and go for a walk.

“I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absoutely free from all wordly engagements. You may safely say a penny for your thoughts, or a thousand pounds. When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shop-keepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them — as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon — I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.” Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walking’

I generally go for a walk twice a day. I take thirty minutes in the morning and an hour in the afternoon. And actually, thankfully, what I’ve experienced is that this is not time away from writing at all. It is headspace to think through an idea while my body moves, oxygen floods through the brain and I return to my laptop with either a clearer decision or new inspiration. There is a power to the act of walking, in leaving the work behind and returning to it physically stronger and mentally clearer.

“Every morning I go to Hampstead Heath [in north London], and I often also go for a wander in the middle of the day to think through a character or situation. I listen to music as I go. Again, it’s about occupying one part of your brain, so that the other part is clear to be creative.” Polly Stenham, The Guardian

Having taken action against the physical effects of sitting down, while out walking I began to ponder the mental effects. If writing, and writing for theatre, are vessels through which a writer expresses their view of the world, endeavours to provoke social change and say something about society, isn’t it strange to do so from a position of physical weakness? That’s not to say we should write while balancing on our heads, but if, for example, the work is provoked by a situation that makes us angry, why do we take it sitting down?

Think of it in terms of children at school. At break time, to sit down means you’re out of the game. You sit out of P.E when you’ve forgotten your kit (or worse, wear the spare kit). You sit in the nurse’s room when you’re unwell. You sit and wait, watching everyone else pass through the day. But if you’re in the rounder’s game, you’re standing and hitting the ball and running and winning the match for your team. You’re walking from class to class and soaking up knowledge from a day’s worth of subjects. Most controversially, if you’ve misbehaved, you stand outside the class. Although you have caused a disruption and will inevitably end up sitting in the headmaster’s office, at least standing is a declaration that you’ve done something different.

“Enough. 7:30 a.m., Wednesday 29 November 2006. Coffee drunk, cigarette smoked, bowels evacuated, and I’m off, tiptoeing from the Victorian house in Stockwell where my wife and children are still abed….I’m keyed up as I head off along the road; the sky behind the block of flats ahead is cloudless and still a paving-stone grey; yet it brightens from pace to pace – the day will be clear. I’m conscious that even if I’ll only be gone a matter of days I will not return from the walk to New York the same man. I shall have learnt something.”Will Self, ‘Psychogeography’, 2007.

I am not suggesting that we should rebel against the system, like the petulant teenager in an English class, and desert our desks for the sake of muscle tone, clearer heads and healthier  kidneys. Of course, if you did want to take this seriously, standing or treadmill desks are vialable solutions. And actually, a treadmill desk is the first thing I’ll buy if I ever have enough money to throw at my writing pursuits. Alternatively, an article by Luisa Dillner for the Guardian encourages office-workers to simply find every opportunity to get up from their chair and move around.

What I am asking us to interrogate is the contrast between sitting still and the physical power of moving our bodies through the world. In walking, we discover things and feel things that no amount of internet browsing can compensate for. I guess what we need is a healthy balance, like meat and two veg, and it’s just a question of how we organise the position of our bodies through the hours of the day. If that means sacrificing some time scrolling through Twitter or BuzzFeed, then fine. I would trade some of the intellect of the sitting reader for all of the drive of the life- affirming walker in a heartbeat.

“But when the door shuts on us, all that vanishes. The shell–like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughnesses a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye.” Virginia Woolf, ‘Street Haunting – A London Adventure’

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Lydia Thomson

Lydia writes about theatre for her own blog and reviews local work for the Basingstoke Gazette and the Hampshire Chronicle. She was also a member of the reviewing team for LIFT 2014. As well as arts journalism, Lydia is a playwright and performance artist working in Hampshire and London. She is an associate artist of Proteus Theatre Company in Basingstoke and is part of the artist's network at the Nuffield Theatre in Southampton.

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