On sitting, standing, walking, and Tim Parks

March 30, 2013 at 5:41 am | Posted in Books | Leave a comment
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We sit too much, those of us who write for a living. Or use the computer for a living. Hmmm, that’s a lot of us. Some health writers are even suggesting that we stand at our desks. But long ago I read that the best thing we can do for our legs is walk with them and the worst thing we can do is to stand on them.

I write for an NGO four days a week – to leave one day a week for my own writing, which would normally be fiction. But now with a non-fiction commission I spend the time on that – and towards the end or even before that I know I’ll be spending three days on that. It will be like a mini-PhD. I must be mad.

But it’s what I wanted – to make the leap from editing for a living to writing for a living. I’ve made that leap and I’m happy with it. (I used to love editing, when it was playing with language and ideas, and getting inside the heads of some very smart writers. But it changed, the technology changed and I changed. All that’s another story.)

I’m happy writing all the time, but yes, it does involve an awful lot of sitting. One of my English Literature lecturers at ANU told us that Charles Dickens used to write for one hour then walk around London for an hour, write for an hour, walk for an hour … imagine him coming back and scribbling down some of the conversations he’d overheard in the London streets – no wonder they have that authenticity and immediacy and wit. A later English writer, the very witty and very prolific Tim Parks, wrote a book called Teach Us To Sit Still – a memoir about writing, illness and meditation. He had developed a strange, embarrassing, seemingly-undiagnosable, painful ailment, and tried everything to cure it – and that journey he recounts is fascinating. It’s in the ACT Library system and it’s worth reading so I don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s worth reading anything Tim Parks writes – novels, essays, memoirs.

Now, in the light of this new concern about sitting shortening our lives, it’s tempting to think that Tim Parks was simply sitting too much. But a lot of people do that, some of them nearly as prolific as Tim Parks, and not everyone gets sick from it in the prime of life.

In any case, I’m trying to get up from my writing more often, and on Saturday morning I walked around the lake with a friend. It’s about five kilometres. It was 8.00am and exceptionally calm, the sky brilliant blue and the white oblongs of the carillon reflected in the water perfectly still like an abstract painting. We walked, talked and watched the cormorants drying their wings and the black swans gliding along leaving pale ripples behind them like ruffled satin.

Then we saw two wildlife officers fetching a sturdy cotton bag, something struggling and obviously heavy inside, out of the lake.

‘That’s a big fish,’ said my companion. ‘What sort of fish is it?’

And the man said, ‘It’s a kangaroo fish!’

A kangaroo had jumped into the lake. A fisherman had seen it – and rung them. They must have been close by. The kangaroo was shivering. Imagine what a shock it had – hopping along, Boing-Boing-Boing – then suddenly Splash! I don’t even know if kangaroos can swim.

So that was a diversion from writing. I’d like to do it every day. But isn’t it a contradiction to have to drive somewhere to walk? If I lived near the lake sure I’d walk around it every day. Easy to say, I know. I went back refreshed and invigorated and wrote for hours. But I get into that world and forget to have a break.

My breaks are to read some of the dozens of fabulous books I’m desperate to read but don’t have enough time for. I’m sure lying on the sofa is a good break from sitting. I’m reading Maggie O’Farrell’s latest novel, Instructions for a Heatwave. If you haven’t read her novel before this one, The Hand that First Held Mine, just go out and get a copy – or get it on Kindle or from the library – it’s riveting and humane and wonderful. This latest is very good but I’ve only just started.

Of course there are other breaks: domestic ones plus Argentine tango lessons plus doing yoga plus drinking wine plus going to films and plays – and haven’t there been some good plays and films on lately?… But if I do any more stuff I’ll never get that book written.

To conclude, and keeping somewhat within the theme of this piece, although obviously going way beyond it too, one of my favourite quotations is by Antonio Machado (I discovered it in Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken, also available in the ACT Library):

‘We make the road by walking.’

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