The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Paul Bassett Davies Headshot

Fit to Write

Posted: Updated:

A writer is much like an athlete. Except that a writer sits around all day and doesn't get much exercise. Apart from that they're very similar, although athletes tend to be better company and nicer to look at. But now, in the wake of the Olympic games, it's amazing how many writers have discovered that they could have been world class athletes if only they were in slightly better condition.

The problem is that writing is essentially a sedentary occupation. Unless you do it standing up, which is how Anthony Trollope wrote around 70 novels, putting in a couple of hours every morning at a lectern before going off to work in his job at the General Post Office. Maybe that's what my postman is doing: writing a novel. He's certainly got something better to do in the morning than deliver my mail, which arrives between two and five in the afternoon depending on how things are going with his erotic BDSM blockbuster or gloomy Scandinavian police procedural knockoff.

In fact, being a writer and a postman is an ideal combination: a couple of hours of writing in the morning followed by a couple of hours of paid walking exercise in the fresh air while working on upper body strength by vigorously folding, mashing and stuffing large envelopes through small letterboxes. However, not all of us can hope to get that kind of job.

So, how can writers use the inspirational example of Olympic athletes to stay in shape? You might say the answer is simple: do some basic exercise every day. And you'd be right, it's simple, and that's what's wrong with it. Firstly, writers have notoriously addictive personalities, and a resolution to spend an hour in the gym every morning can easily turn into a raging habit that consumes every waking hour. Secondly, writers are always looking for displacement activities. Thirdly, exercise is really tiring. The solution is to combine the process of writing itself with some form of physical activity.

How about turning routine domestic activities into valuable physical exercise? For example, when you're watching daytime TV for research purposes, get up and walk to the television to change the channel instead of using the remote control. And even when you're having a cup of coffee at your desk, you can exercise your muscles by lifting the full mug up and down with one hand a few times while typing with the other. But be careful you don't spill it on your keyboarrrrx5jk$q§nnnggggg.

Okay, forget about the coffee mug. Ideally, what we're looking for is a way to keep fit by harnessing and transforming creative mental energy. Unfortunately, there isn't one. Mental activity exercises the brain, not the body. So, while your brain develops a six-pack, you're still sitting there in those elasticated trousers.

Another option is to do your writing while going for a walk. The difficulty with this, I've found, is that you tend to spill your drink and bump into people. In the old days, a major author could solve the problem by having an amanuensis. But for the modern writer, having an amanuensis raises questions like, "What is it?" "Can I plug it into a USB port?" and "Is it tax-deductible?"
However, once you know what one is, you'll see how unlikely it is you'll ever get a good one.

Boswell may have clambered around the Hebrides behind Dr Johnson, diligently noting down his every thought, but these days the only reason you're going to be followed around day and night by someone recording every word you say is if you're under some kind of surveillance. In which case your future will probably feature more time spent in a stress position wearing an orange jumpsuit than sitting at a desk writing screenplays in your pajamas.

The modern version of an amanuensis is the small, portable recording device, enabling you to dictate your work while doing the shopping. Now that the streets are full of people apparently talking to themselves as they use hands-free phones you won't stand out so much, unless you're cursing a lot and carrying all your belongings in plastic bags. Incidentally, it must be very annoying for genuinely disturbed people to see everyone else apparently muttering to unseen listeners as they walk along the street. If it was me, I'd always be stopping people and saying, "Hey, I'm not on the phone, you know, I actually am talking to myself. I'm the real thing."

But if you use a recording device your masterpiece will still need transcribing. If an agent or producer wanted to listen to a writer talking for hours, all they've got to do is answer the phone. Of course, there are some computer programmes that transcribe your voice. But the results always read like the instructions for a Korean washing machine translated into English by a Martian.

Alternatively, you could pay someone to do the transcribing. But it's expensive, and there's a good chance the person will be writing their own novel or screenplay, and they'll either steal your ideas or, more likely, give you creative critical feedback and try to charge you for it. Generally, the whole idea of working outside is fraught with difficulty. In the recent hot weather I decided to go and work in the park but it was a big problem getting my desk there, along with the window I look out of.

Which brings us to the heart of the matter. We like the familiarity of the place where we write, the devices we write with, and the patch of peeling wallpaper we stare at. Some writers like to have their pets around. Personally, I find it very disturbing when a dog just sits there all day, staring at you while you work. Especially if you haven't got a dog.

Basically, we're stuck at our desks, trying to resist the temptation to go online, where the ravening beast of social networking waits to gobble up your entire day. However, I've been inspired by the spirit of the Olympic games, and the success of British cyclists, to come up with an invention that could enable us to exercise in the fresh air while we write, without leaving the comfort and security of our workspace.

Welcome to The Deskycle. It's a kind of lightweight shed mounted on a bicycle. You pedal it around as you write or type, while steering with an armature attached to your chin. It's advisable to improve your touch-typing skills as you'll want to spend at least part of the time looking out at the road. The idea is in its early stages, and I'm seeking volunteers to test a prototype. It would provide a great research opportunity for anyone who happens to be writing about traffic, and especially road accidents. Get in touch if you're interested. Meanwhile, eat less, write more and think seriously about getting some exercise. Tomorrow.

My other blog is at:
www.thewritertype.com