Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Stand up for yourself, playwright!

In Mat Smart's post about emerging playwright laziness, he offers a portrait of the non-lazy playwright:
"Every day you spend six hours writing, eight hours temping, three hours sending business emails and you know it’s not enough."
I'd like to point out something about this ideal day of "work".

It's all sitting down.

Although I haven't heard anybody talking about it, there's a serious problem here. It's a problem for our whole society built around white collar desk jobs and blue collar automation-monitoring jobs, but it is also a problem for writers. Apparently, in order to make it, we have to spend 5 days a week sitting for at least 17 hours (plus sitting on our hour-long commutes to and from work). On the weekends we'd only have to sit for 9 hours each day to write and email, but we'll probably spend the other hours relaxing by watching a movie or some television or reading a book, also while sitting. We also sit while we eat our meals, we sit at meetings of our playwriting groups, we sit at the theater, and we sit at bars and restaurants to socialize.

The British Journal of Sports Medicine recently published an editorial linking prolonged sitting to increased risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other health problems such as cancer, obesity, and early death. There is an Australian study that came to similar conclusions, and a great Olivia Judson article about the molecular machinations at work in your body while you sit. Essentially, sitting for long periods of time shortens your life expectancy and your quality of life while you're living it. Even people who go for a run every day but otherwise are sedentary are screwed. Thinness doesn't indicate healthiness either.

I know, I know. Playwrights are indoor children. We had our periods every single week in middle school so we wouldn't have to play dodgeball. These days, as adults, we tell ourselves we live in New York, so we "walk all the time" and eat organic vegetables so therefore we don't need to actually exercise. These are lies. Face it. A couple blocks to and from the subway is not "all the time."

Do we really need to kill ourselves to prove our dedication to our work? Certainly, you have to put in quite a few hours writing if you want to be a writer. And you have to work a dayjob, to pay the rent. And the best paying jobs, the most buck for your hour, if you will, are usually sedentary office're not going to find some gig digging ditches for $20 an hour.

There's no simple way to change this, as it's a problem deeply ingrained in our current cultural and economic identity. But it's also a problem in our professional identities as writers. We're told that we are lazy if we don't chain ourselves to desk chairs for our entire lives, that our failings are our restlessness and interest in the physical world beyond the office. Is it really a surprise, then, when we go to the theater and see lots of plays about people sitting in chairs and talking about stupid, internal, neurotic, naval-gazing bullshit? Does playwriting really have to be such a prison?

I'd like to advocate for balance, for remembering that we are bodies as well as brains, for caring for ourselves as physical beings. Stand up for yourself! Take time to walk, run, or bike around, be in the world and in your musculature, and do it regularly. Get up from your desk for a few minutes every hour and take a break. Even if that means taking an extra few days to send those "business emails." Even if it means only writing for a couple hours each night instead of six. (Uh, by the way, six? Maybe I'm just a lazy piece of shit, but I cannot write for six straight hours every day. And I feel good about the rate and trajectory of my career. Smart must be winning Pulitzers every week or something.)

This week I'm getting rid of my sitting desk and chair and building a standing desk. I've been trying it out on my kitchen counter piled with books, and I find I am more productive, less likely to get distracted, and more likely to notice when I do get distracted, so I can walk around, refocus myself, and get back to work sooner. Hopefully I'll be able to have a career, an apartment, and a long and healthy life. Because I sure as hell don't have health insurance. But that's a topic for another blog post.


joshcon80 said...

You are the healthiest, most balanced playwright I know. You might be the only one I know.

Interesting thoughts though.

I actually find that doing something active- from taking a jog to washing dishes- helps me clear writer's block. It's my meditation, sice I can't fucking stand to sit still.

Monica said...

Yeah. I've been in residence for the past month at the Vermont Studio Center, following that "perfect schedule" (about three hours reading/emailing, six hours writing) and I've noticed my whole back is killing me. Very painful when I get up in the morning. I try to do yoga counterposes, which alleviate the effect somewhat. But long-term physical working patterns are something on my mind, now. I might try the stand-up desk!

Anna said...

Sounds like an awesome residency! If you want to try the standing workspace out, it's easy to prop up your laptop on pile of books or something. After getting hooked on it, I've made the decision to make a more permanent set-up. I'm building a standing desk from used filing cabinets and about $30 worth of wood and materials. Once it's finally finished I'll post a photo!

Monica said...

Please do! This could be a paradigm shift... :)

adrienneclark said...

You could get a job where you stand. I work in food service and make way over $20 an hour.

However, be careful what you wish for. Working a standing job will leave you too exhausted to write afterward, guaranteed, so make sure you do your writing before you go to work.

Libby said...

You can also try using one of those big roly balls as chairs at a desk. My hippy boss advocates this at my desk job. It keeps your back straighter and you're constantly moving around. Try it!