The enormous tragedy of the dream in the peasant's bent shoulders Ezra Pound
Every now and then, my right arm bothers me and I seek help from a physiotherapist. The last time, I was told that, having been less than disciplined in retraining my arm after I broke it (a decade and a half ago), my brain had rewired itself to avoid the pain, and now I had to train it carefully back to its natural range of motion. At that time, I immediately saw a connection to writing style, which is sometimes contorted by our desire to avoid the real difficulty we are facing. We develop a “workaround” that lets us go on without actually saying what we need to say. More recently, I sought out a physiotherapist again and I was sure that the problem would be similar. I was wrong, but the experience was just as instructive.
This time it was simply my posture that was wrong. I had developed a slump, my head bent down, my right shoulder bent forward, and the first order of business was to get me literally straightened out. The physiotherapist diagnosed the pain I was feeling as an inflammation that stemmed from the unnatural, cramped way I was moving my arm, the humerus pinching the muscle under my clavicle (or something like that, which I may be remembering imprecisely). She taped my shoulder back and after half a day I was already feeling much relief as my arm was now forced to move in a natural way.
She told me to stop doing pushups and start “rowing” instead. When I got back to the pushups, she said, I should balance them with rowing exercises (I use an elastic for this). The pain is long gone now, and I also feel much more, well, upright. I have been walking and sitting up straight. And I regularly pull my shoulder blades together. (An embarrassing detail: she asked me to turn around and pull my shoulder blades together. I didn’t know how!)
What does this have to do with writing? Well, I have long argued that in addition to making a particular claim, a paragraph has a rhetorical posture (supporting, elaborating, defending, sometimes motivating). It addresses itself to the reader in a particular way. It comports itself discursively. And, like our bodies, our prose can suffer from poor posture, which becomes painful if we start trying to say things from an inapt position. That pain eventually leads to inactivity (to not writing), which only makes the problem worse, harder to solve.
Just as I had to learn to move my arm in a natural way in order to complete ordinary tasks without pain, we sometimes have to remind ourselves to face our reader squarely. This may involve getting ourselves out of a number of bad habits (we might have made a habit of writing defensively, when we supposed support or elaborate or claims). And that can take some time, doing light, deliberate exercises. That is, we have to take our prose “through the motions” without loading them with a lot of “weight”. And, when using it for “light” chores (like writing an email or a blogpost, we have be mindful of our posture, slow down a little, and do it right.
What I’m trying to say is that if you are worried about your style, or writing has become a pain, give yourself a few minutes every day to write some sentences that are well within your ability to say. Keep the grammar simple and the content familiar. Describe facts that you know well; prescribe actions that you yourself master. Work from the center of your strength and stay within your reach. Remind yourself of the ordinary range of motion of your prose. Every day, add a little more weight, write a few more sentences. It will be good for your posture, your style.