Monday, February 9, 2009

Fix your writing space

Camy here, and I’m going to sound weird here (nothing new), but the next time you have writer’s block, ask yourself, “Have I checked my writing space?”

I’m serious. Many times when I’m just staring at the blinking cursor (whom I have named Evangeline), I can’t move forward on the story because I’m simply uncomfortable, and it’s nagging at my unconscious.

I have battled ergonomics for most of my adult life (when I was a teen, I was stupid and am paying the price now). I can’t seem to get the right chair, the right height for my chair, the right back angle, and let’s not even start on my desk height and my monitor height.

My solution was to have a stand-and-sit situation at my desk, where my monitor, external keyboard, and external trackball are elevated on cardboard boxes at just the right height. No chair to mess with.

When my legs get tired, I simply move my monitor, keyboard, and trackball off the cardboard boxes (those get tossed on the floor) and sit at my desk for a few hours. This system has done wonders for my back (I have an old work-related injury).

Anyway, my point is that sometimes you can’t write because you’re ergonomically uncomfortable. There are several things you can do:

1) Get a new chair (this option is pricey)

2) Get an ergonomic keyboard and/or different mouse/trackball (not as pricey as #1, but not cheap, either)

3) Move to a different room with a different chair. My friends often talk about how they sit in a recliner with their laptops or Alphasmarts and write. Others sit at the kitchen table or on the couch.

4) Use an exercise ball as a chair. This is an ergonomically good and less pricey option, but be careful to get the right size ball—size depends on your height.

5) Stand at your desk like me. Cardboard boxes are cheap.

6) Go for a walk. Friends of mine who suffer from back problems say that no matter how expensive their chair, they have to go for a 10 minute walk every hour to loosen up their back. Then they can go back to work. This keeps them pain and tension free.

Another thing to think about your writing space is:

a) Is it too cluttered? I am one of many people who have a hard time writing if my desk is too messy or my office too cluttered. A few minutes cleaning could help you break past a writer’s block.

b) Are you too cold/hot? Often I won’t even realize I’m too cold and that’s why my brain has frozen, too. For summertime, I have a small fan that I turn on in my room to keep me from sweating into my keyboard (oh, is that TMI? Sorry)

c) Is your workspace too dark or too bright? Artists are often sensitive to light, and a dark room can often send your creativity into hibernation, or an overly bright room can fry your brain.

d) Is there too much or too little noise? Or maybe the wrong kind of noise? Some writers like music, some don’t. Some like music without words, some like music with words. If you don’t know your preference, figure it out—it might help boost your creativity and get you out of a writing slump.

Also, if you need silence, it might be worth it to invest in some sound-canceling headphones. Compare the price of the headphones with the counseling bills for your sanity and/or the nice advance you’ll get for the brilliant novel you crafted in perfect silence.

Any other ideas?

Camy Tang writes romance with a kick of wasabi. Her novel Single Sashimi is out now, and she runs the Story Sensei critique service. In her spare time, she is a staff worker for her church youth group, and she leads one of the worship teams for Sunday service. On her blog, she gives away Christian novels every Monday and Thursday, and she ponders frivolous things. Sign up for her newsletter YahooGroup for monthly giveaways!


  1. Camy,

    Thanks for the great suggestions. I had some wrist problems and the doctor recommended I get one of those gel strips to put in front of the keyboard to rest my wrists on. I was also given exercises to do. Both helped. (Actually, when I quit yanking on my big dog's leash using my wrist strength, I was cured :)

    But I like to move locations with the laptop or Alphasmart, either to a coffee shop, or around my home. So wherever I am, I try to pay better attention to how my hands are positioned, which helps.

    BTW, did I miss the announcement on who won the Amanda Cabot book?

    I whipped up a big batch of scrambled eggs today. There's plenty of catsup on hand, made by Red Gold with tomatoes grown here in my state of Indiana. Is anyone still eating the incredible, edible egg these days?


  2. I always shift places (#3) and that gets me writing again. However, I should probably worry about back trouble because it hurts when I rise from the chair sometimes.

  3. I also do the sit and stand method--an old back injury makes it difficult for me to stay still for any length of time.

    One thing I've found that really helps me out is to leave my house and go to the library. Our local library has private rooms away from everyone that are wonderful for writing. And if I work at home, the phone rings, someone is at the door or (more likely than not) I stare at all the things that need to be done and cave in to cleaning.

    I'm drinking a yummy glass of grape juice, holding off breakfast until I go through my emails. Anyone care to join me?

  4. Sound canceling earphones. They are also a DO NOT DISTURB sign in disguise.

    I use an ergonomic key board and never have wrist issues. But the neck. Camy I am going to try some monitor moving and see if that helps the neck.

    Hiya Cathy. I don't know about the Amanda Cabot book..qood question..will ask Audra.

  5. Hi Camy, I absolutely love the standing idea. I used to do that at work but never thought to figure out how at home. Boxes are easy. Great idea.

    I never thought of the lighting thing either. Sometimes my office can get dark. I get to writing and forget to turn the lights on when it actually does get dark out. I'll pay more attention.

    Tina, great idea about the earphones cluing hubby into the fact I'm actually working.

    Cathy thanks for the eggs. I can't believe I finally found another person who loves to smother them with ketsup. yumm

  6. Camy, thanks for great ideas for fixing our writing space. Can you give the basics for determining the best height for your monitor? The proper position of your wrists? I tend to have more neck than back issues as long as I don't sit too long without moving around. Since I have bad vein standing for long periods wouldn't work for me.


  7. You know what aches on me? My knees.
    That's weird, huh? I sit down and just don't move for HOURS, then finally I do move and my knees ache. I can definitely see arthritis in my future.
    Getting up and movie once and hour should be a requirement. I'm going to try and do better.

  8. Ever since I read about how standing burns more calories than sitting, I've endevored to do as many chores as I can standing up. Like folding laundry and helping the kids with homework.

    Yet I'd never thought about standing when using the computer. Hmm.

    And since Tina mentioned the neck, I'm going to find something to put my monitor on. That way instead of looking down at it, I can look parallel to it.

    On a sorta side note, hubby took me out on a date to the local Theatre Xtreme shop to see their home theatre systems. Oh. My. Gosh golly. Once I settled into the comfy chairs, I didn't want to leave.

    Anyhoo, one product they had was a plasma tv behind a picture/painting that was placed above the fireplace mantle. Yes, the product was amazing, but who wants to crank their neck to look up to see the TV. Eye level, people. Eye level.

    Oh, another thing I've been working on is sitting up straight when I'm at the computer. Because I tend now to keep my back straight, I also tend to sit straight when I'm eating dinner or at church.

    Sadly, good posture is a lost art these days.

  9. Oh, thank God, Camy, I thought it was just me who was high maintenance when it comes to writing!!!

    Like you, I absolutely have to have the right work environment or I stare at the curser too. For me, that's a cup of cinnamon hazelnut coffee, a lit candle, a space heater, my feet tucked in a foot warmer and ABSOLUTE silence.

    Unfortunately, my artist husband works right behind me at our back-to-back computers a lot, which can be challenging as he requires music and I require silence. The sweet man does wear earphones for my sake, but when he drums on the desk to the rhythm of the music, it drives me absolutely CRAZEEEEEE, along with the constant squeaks of his chair.

    Sigh. It's a good thing he's the inspiration for most of my romance, or I'd send his butt to the basement ... :)

  10. Camy, I've seen your workspace and am amazed at how you stand to type. When I was at Camy's house, I got a big kick out of taking my shoes off and squishing my stockinged feet over her ergonomic has bubbles! Way kewl.

    I have a yoga ball for an office chair. Hate yoga, love the ball. But didn't know what else to call it. LOL! It helps me to do isometric exercises as I type. Don't ask me about the time I shoved back on it though, thinking I was in my chair...I took a backwards header...not a pretty sight. LOL!

    I have a hard time working if there's clutter. I get easily distracted by that and noise. So I try to take ten minutes a day to straigten. It makes a huge difference in my productivity.

    I also have a wonderful set of noise-cancelling headphones that I use when I'm doing something that takes intense concentration.

    Great tips, Camy! I'd love you to post a picture of that rug sometime and tell folks where they can purchase one.


  11. LOL, Camy!! YOu named the blinking cursor!! :) I love it

    I'm one who sinks into the cozy corner of our sectional sofa to work on my laptop. I just have to get up and move every so often or I get stiff. But I've been doing this for several years and haven't had any trouble.

    I love to hear all the different ways people do things!

    I'd love to hear more about your rug that Cheryl mentioned!

  12. I have small children at home, and a husband who farms, so I have a lot of interruptions every day.

    I have noticed getting stiff and sore with long spells at my desk.

    I changed chairs recently which helped a lot. It was serendipitous -- DH bought a bunch of stuff at a recent household auction and one chair was just perfect.

    Our cat has decided that the space under the desk, on top of my feet, is perfect for sleeping. So she keeps my feet warm.

    *waving to Cathy ...*

    We still eat eggs. If my family is on a roll we can go through a dozen in one meal. If we have a spell where no one comes out to the farm to buy eggs, we eat a lot of them! I like mine scrambled with cheddar cheese and topped with Tobasco sauce.

  13. I like to sit on the couch, prop my feet up, put a pillow on my lap and the laptop on my pillow. It seems to work out nicely. :-) I can't imagine typing my stories on the desktop pc anymore. Too uncomfortable.

  14. Cathy--I'm glad your wrists feel better! I have a slight wrist problem that flares every so often, but the ergonomic keyboard helps. And I loooooooooove eggs!

    Walt--get that back pain taken care of! I go to a chiropractor when I can afford it, and it's done wonders for my back.

    Anonymous--WOW your library has private rooms? How cool! Mine only has one large room, and then smaller desks all around the outside edges, but they're definitely not private (it gets annoying to listen to a teen girl angst about boys at the table next to me, or a teen boy talking about his Xbox exploits).

    Tina-- good point! Better than a sign on the door!

    Sandra--I've discovered there are actually lots of things I don't even realize influence my writing, so see if you can boost your creativity by getting more comfortable!

    Janet--the top half of your monitor should be at eye level or lower. You don't want to have to look upwards to see your monitor. That's helped my neck tension. My monitor is actually a little low, but I like it that way, so I've kept it. Keyboard should be at elbow height so your arms are at 90 degrees and wrist is neutral.

    Thanks, Melanie! BTW it was nice seeing you at Janet's chat the other night!

    Mary, my knees are exactly the same! It's due to my knee surgeries. It's also the reason why I can't go to movies very often, b/c it's too painful on my knees. My standing has actually helped, but when I was working biology, I'd walk 10 minutes every hour and that helped, too.

    Gina, my friends have said that using an exercise ball as a chair has helped them improve their posture, so that might be an option for you. And I agree with you on the elevated TVs--I hate those! My neck gets stiff.

    Julie, even though your husband is a prince, it might be worth it for you to look into noise cancelling headphones. If the price concerns you, think of how much MORE you'd be able to write with them!

    Cheryl--thanks for reminding me! I forgot about that. Yes, I have an Ergomat, basic bubble, that's fantastic for relieving the stress on my feet from standing. I used Ergomats when I was doing biology work, since you sometimes have to stand for hours at a workbench. It's great! Actually, right now they have a clearance sale going on:

    Missy--I thought it was you who mentioned sitting on your couch! I think Robin Caroll is someone else who does that.

    Ann--a portable foot warmer like that sounds wonderful! Actually, I tend to get cold extremities so I wear wool socks and wool fingerless gloves during the wintertime to keep myself comfortable. If my feet or hands are cold, I have a hard time working.

    Jessica--I like your pillow on your lap idea!


  15. Ah, and excellent post. I can't work in too much clutter either. It is so distracting.

    If I get really stuck on something, I find a change of scenery works best. I pack up and head to the library or Caribou Coffee.

    Silence to write in at home, and noise when I'm at the library or coffee shop. Weird.

  16. Camy, I love these ideas. It's hard to focus if your joints are aching and your cat is yowling and harlequin beetles invade your office from the crawl space above and drop into your hair.


    My kids bought me a great chair a few years back, wonderful, cushy and adjustable.

    I used it for a few months and had killer leg/hip pain from the way I had to perch in this big, comfy, wonderful thing so.....

    I picked up one of those kneelie-chair thingies at a garage sale. You know the kind, they've got knee rests, and you perch your butt on the seat, and there's no back.

    What an amazing, wonderful thing it is! No more pain, whatsoever. And now with my new laptop (Present from a kid. Have I mentioned I love having grown up kids???

    Loving this thing even though I swore I'd hate the keyboard because, like usual, I formed opinions while knowing nothing...Sigh...)I'm portable and like Jessica, I love lugging it around, working wherever I am.

    So Cam, hats off to you. The mechanics of writing are important to us.

    Which gets us into inactivity and weight gain for authors, but we'll save that for another day while I grab some eggs and toast (great toast by the way, I love sesame seeds) and this coffee is great. I need a mid-afternoon pick-me-up and I brought some amaretto creamers to share.


  17. Great post, Camy!

    As a "sensitive" artist, I can relate to this topic.

  18. OMG, great topic.

    I actually sit on an exercise ball all day long. Let me tell you, when I'm stuck, frustrated, totally psyched....I just bounce like crazy. I know, sounds freaky, but it totally works.

    Oh, and I stop and clean my area, like dust it, pick up the clutter, it's like my brain declutters. It's crazy!

    If I blare some serious tunes for a while, like Adie Camp or 3 Doors Down, that always helps too!

    Fun topic

  19. Camy,
    I like to stand and luckily have a large kitchen island that's a good height for working on my AlphaSmart. I stand for the first couple hours each morning. Then move to my desk later in the day.

    Yes, I need a new chair. Right now I use two pillows to prop me into the right position. A blanket covers my legs in winter, and my desk's a mess. It's a wonder I get anything done!

  20. Erica, if it works for you, don't question it! LOL I personally have a hard time working at coffeeshops, I really need the quiet. Sometimes I can work if I listen to music in my iPod that doesn't have words, but in general, quiet does it best for me.

    Ruthy, those kneelie thingy chairs are so fun! And how awesome you got a laptop computer! You raised excellent kids!

    Pam, sensitive is not a bad thing! It's what makes us creative, I think.

    Lynn--OMG I totally bounce around on mine, too! LOL I don't know why but sometimes it helps me think.

    Debby, a kitchen island is a great idea! I have to remember that. Even if it's a little too low, a book or cardboard box can get your Alphasmart to the right height. And I think the standing for an hour or so helps circulation--more blood to our racing brains, right?