Butt on Bench

(This title will make sense to you in a little while, I promise!)

Today I read this great post over at The Seated View. Lene writes about her goal of writing a book, and how to balance that goal with the realities of chronic pain. One of the goals I’ve set for myself this year is to write more, so this post came at just the right time for me.

About a decade ago, I read the book “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron. The author talks about the practice of writing “morning pages” – three pages a day of free, uncensored writing done longhand first thing in the morning, a pure spill of thought/emotion onto the page. (Lene refers to a similar practice described in “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg, another book I’ve read.) This was before I had RA, so I was able to do the morning pages with no issues. A few years ago, I revisited “The Artist’s Way” and tried to do the morning pages, but found that there was just no way my stiff wrists would let me write three longhand pages first thing in the morning. The author was very clear on the importance of writing longhand, pen on paper, to activate the creative flow. So I wrote to her and asked if she had any thoughts on how to adapt this exercise for someone with a disability. I never got an answer.

Lene writes, “So what’s a writer with chronic pain to do? You mess with the rules to find a way that works for you.” And she’s right. I think this is something I haven’t always been willing or able to do. But I’m working on it now. When I set my writing goal at the beginning of January, I made a list for myself of different types of writing tasks and different ways to do them. This gives me options on days when I’m not doing as well, so at least I can do SOMETHING every day.

Lene also talks about the Dorothy Parker quote: “Writing is the art of applying ass to seat.” Which brings me to one of my other goals:

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The pianist’s version of Ass to Seat – what I like to call “Butt on Bench.”

Operation Butt on Bench has been going on for several months now. Before that, I was engaging in all-or-nothing thinking about my practice. I used to practice for at least three hours a day, and that hasn’t been possible for a long time – so I stopped practicing at all. For a professional musician, this isn’t acceptable.

So now my butt is on the bench every day, for ten-minute blocks. If it’s a bad day, I only do one block. Even on a good day, I take it easy – I am focused on building stamina slowly and carefully. What I do when my butt is on the bench also varies. For the first block of the day, and whenever I am having a bad day, I practice in exteme slow-motion. (This is good for the brain and the body, anyway – slow practice is highly recommended by a lot of musicians.) On a really bad day, I might study a score, watch YouTube videos of other pianists, or listen to recordings instead of playing. The point is to spend time being a musician every single day, for at least a little while.

It takes discipline for me to do this. It actually takes two different, opposing kinds of discipline. The first is the discipline of getting my butt on the bench when I don’t feel like it. The second is the discipline of getting my butt OFF the bench so I don’t injure myself or get into a flare. Both of these things are a real struggle for me.

Anyway, I’m grateful to Lene for sharing her thoughts. And I can’t wait to read the book that I KNOW she’ll finish.

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8 Comments

  1. Cathy says:

    Lene is pretty wonderful, isn’t she? I love your blocks of time and how what you do varies on how you feel but that you always do something. Very motivating.

    By the way, I have tried to post on your last few posts on the blog, without luck. Crossing my fingers this one works.

  2. Remicade Dream says:

    It worked – thanks for commenting, and continuing to read! Yesterday I really struggled with the motivation – it was getting late and I hadn’t even done one block yet. But I got my butt on the bench and did some slow-motion work, and I feel good about it!

  3. Lene says:

    When I was reading Writing Down the Bones, I thought of writing, Natalie Goldberg a letter many times. It’s unfortunate that you never got a response to your letter – when you’re a teacher, it’s important to provide different paths in the learning process, to help your students learn. Only presenting one way of doing things assumes everyone have the same way of thinking and learning. In this case, what about people with chronic illnesses, chronic pain, or learning disabilities? Or maybe you have to be a member of one of those groups in order to see the problem.

    Today’s post at A Rheumful of Tips includes a really interesting video on the link between imagination and action, which actually uses an example of practicing piano. I think you might find it useful http://rheumfuloftips.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/377-its-in-your-head-your-muscles-your/.

    I’m glad that my post answered a question for you and look forward to seeing the result of you applying butt to bench. And PS, if all goes right (knock wood) the book will be out at some point in the next two weeks!

  4. Carla says:

    It is so good to hear your “voice” in the blogoverse again. Welcome back, friend. Thanks for the words of wisdom. We all have our various benches we need to get our butts onto!

  5. RA Cellist says:

    I do the 10-20 min routine on a bad day, 30-40 on a good day. On rehearsal days, which means 2-3 hour sessions, I take a little extra Prednisone – and try VERY hard to stifle any sarcastic remarks that may wanna pop out. It is hard to not talk about this experience with my colleagues, those close to me think I am having a little “arthritis”. Good luck – and don’t miss out on those sessions – they are what keep us going.

  6. Remicade Dream says:

    Nice to “meet” you, RA Cellist! I hadn’t seen your blog before – I’ve added it to my blogroll and my RSS feed. It’s great to hear from other musicians dealing with this disease. Lately my “butt on bench” time has increased because I’m music-directing a show. It’s a real challenge not to overdo it.

    I know what you mean about the sarcastic remarks and the pred – this has been a problem for me too! It can go the other way, too. I once got all weepy with some singers I accompanied for a competition, telling them how proud I was of them, etc., while on pred! Kind of embarrassing…

  7. Rest. A rested writer is a happy writer. An unrested writer is a cranky, anxiety-filled disaster waiting to happen. Don’t buy into the old, stupid paradigm of the over-the-top writer staying up all night only to crash for days after. Rest–eight hours of sleep at the least–fuels a consistent writing practice. And that will make you happy.

  8. I ope 2014 finds you with butt firmly ensconced on bench, creating from the soul.

    Lene offers great advice. Rules are rigid. Those of us with rheumatoid arthritis have more than enough rigidity – in our wrists, our hands, ….

    If you want to do well with a chronic illness, it’s important to develop guidelines – think of guide ropes – there to catch you if you need it, also there to hold on to as you move through your life, adapting, adjusting and adopting.

    You do what you can, when you can.

    Speaking of pianos, you might like this post: http://rheumfuloftips.wordpress.com/2012/07/31/from-chopin-and-beyond-part-2/

    P.S. Lene, thanks for the link back to ART. :)

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