Tunnel Syndrome

Deranged Tweety BirdI’ve struggled recently with two different sorts of tunnel syndrome. The first type is affecting the nerves in my elbows and hands. My husband, not a doctor, says it’s carpal tunnel syndrome. Symptoms include numbness, tingling, stiffness and a sensation that feels like a subcutaneous carnivorous worm is nibbling its way up my ulna and down my radius. I suspect the condition was brought about by several factors:

  • Chronic scrolling for celebrity dish on Yahoo!
  • Chain-checking email, Facebook and Twitter, waiting for “something to happen.”
  • Leaning on my elbows, heavy head in hands, wondering how it is I’m going to revise my novel manuscript in time to meet the flimsy deadline (“by fall”) I set for myself last May.

Number 3 leads me to the second type of tunnel syndrome from which I seem to be suffering. I like to call it no-light-in-tunnel syndrome or NoLiT. Symptoms include ceaseless navel-gazing, bouts of hot weeping, Bilbo-style hissing ring-rage when well-meaning friends ask how the novel is coming along, failure to complete simple novel-related tasks, eating instead of writing, talking on the phone instead of writing, even cleaning instead of writing. I believe NoLiT was brought about by several factors:

  • The end of the Novel Incubator which meant the end of deadlines and obligations, the end of anyone at all waiting for me to produce a single line of worthwhile fiction.
  • My narcissistic belief (which led to obsessive worry rather than productive work) that, despite conventional wisdom, I did not need to put the manuscript away—not work on it, not even think about it—for at least a few weeks.
  • A severe and compounding case of “Imposter Syndrome” documented recently in this article in The Atlantic.

As my NoLiT intensified, so did the pain in my hands, until I realized in a eureka! moment that I had scrolled and clicked and procrastinated myself into a case of carpal tunnel as a way of self-handicapping to mask NoLiT.

Now, I know if I don’t do something to combat these tunnel syndromes, I risk permanent damage to the nerves in my arms and hands and to the nerves in my gut which make me think I can write a novel worth publishing and reading. So, rather than throw my wasting hands up in defeat, here’s what I’m doing for the carpal tunnel.

  • I got wrist braces that I wear during the day and sometimes while I sleep to keep from curling my wrists over like a deranged Tweety bird.
  • I made my workspace more ergonomically friendly. I switch out keyboards and work on different computers so my typing is less repetitive. I raised my chair up with a pillow since the height of my vintage teacher’s desk is less conducive to typing than it should be. I vary both my position in the chair and the placement of my laptop. I hover my hands above the keyboard. When I’m not typing, I rest my hands on bean bags so the hard edges of my keyboard and desk don’t stress the nerves in my wrist. (The bean bags are nice worry beads, too.)
  • I take an ibuprofen before I start working if my hands hurt at all. I get up from my chair every 45 minutes and stretch.
  • Now that my children can get themselves downstairs by 7 a.m. and out of the house without nagging-mom trailing their every move, I will get back on my morning gym schedule.

To combat NoLiT, I’m returning to advice from master teachers—Michelle Hoover, Jenna Blum, Matt Bell, and Ann Hood—who have provided me with tools to work on individual elements of the manuscript which is much easier than staring down 350 pages of “it’s just not working.”

  • I limit my social media checking (for the most part) to the coffee hour. This will actually help with both carpal tunnel and NoLiT.
  • Once again, I broke up the manuscript into scenes—something we did early on in the Novel Incubator—and killed some darlings I never wanted to see dead.
  • I built a scaffolding for this revision using Jenna Blum’s outline technique.
  • I’m retyping the entire manuscript a la Matt Bell and taking other pieces of advice from his GrubStreet workshop including considering whether backstory could be better revealed in exposition.
  • I’m listening to the rhythm of sentences as I type and watching for the way scenes begin and end on negatives or positives, the way Ann Hood does.
  • Finally, a bit of advice from David Mitchell who read from his new book The Bone Clocks last week in Harvard Square. I’m going to write myself a letter from my protagonist Wes Ballot and have him remind me why I decided to tell his story in the first place. He and I used to be so close and maybe losing touch with him has contributed to my NoLiT as well.

Loose deadlines have made me lazy and that laziness has allowed me to create an environment friendly to both kinds of tunnel syndrome. So I’ve set two hard deadlines—one in late October to have this revision complete, the other in early December, to make one final pass—to put real pressure on myself to get the work done.

Hey! Is that light I see at the end of the tunnel?

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