Dickens’ Thumb

How writers should take care of their health

Writer’s block is often mentioned and is a topic much discussed, but I want to discuss something I think is more important and that is a variant of writer’s cramp whose latin term  is : mogigraphia, now that really does sound worthwhile suffering from! It has another historical name that is also evocative: scrivener’s palsy.

In the old days when acres of classroom time was spent copying endlessly from the board pupils would often complain of writer’s cramp and shake their wrists dramatically in the hope the teacher might leave off such a pointless exercise, but to no avail. I think that may well have been forf effect but real writer’s cramp causes a spasm or cramp and it can spread to muscles both in the hand, wrist and fingers.

‘Focal sysonia of the hand is task specific and is usually confined to a particular spot and feels inflamed when a person does something specific like write or play the violin for example. Not everyone suffers from this cramp but normally it is associated with ‘excessive fine motor activity, complicated by a tense of otherwise inappropriate writing technique’ (Wikipedia)

 It has recently been decided that focal dystonia such as writer’s cramp are a result of what are termed ‘basal ganglia’ and even sensorimotor cortex malfunction which occur in the brain. I write this blog as this is exactly what Ia m now beginning to experience.

I am totally fascinated by handwriting and bemoan the loss of handwritten missives, not that I am a Luddite you understand but there is something about a page of handwriting I love: its indiosyncracies of style, ink, colour and its intimacy. Whenever I see someone handwriting in films I watch very carefully as I am besotted by the act and imagine having to write with a quill; how that would have felt like.

Victorian Copperplate script, which I was taught at school is beautiful and I find it interesting how the way we are taught to write tells a reader something about our nationality, or age and all this is lost when pages are composed electronically. Will handwriting die out totally? There can’t be many people who write two hours plus by hand every day amongst the under 35s and that is a conservative age.

So, struggling with my ganglia and now having to take anti-inflammatories I am highly aware of my writing action. I know exactly how I hold a pen and I watch my thumb moving rhythmically and it really is no wonder it is suffering from some kind of repetitive strain injury. So it got me thinking, did Dickens, Hardy, Trollope, Eliot or Austen have this problem? Is there any historical evidence? Exactly how much time would have Dickens spent writing would you imagine? He must have had indents on his fingers at least, surely?

How did hand writers manage? What about those who earned a living transcribing papers, paid scriveners such as the character of Nemo, the law writer, in Bleak House and Mr Guppy who worked as an article clerk? It is hard to imagine the sheer drudgery of copying that must have gone on. There are stretches of the Thames where many writing implements are dragged up and are reminders of Roman script houses where documents were copied; when your nib was no longer useful you might have tossed it over your shoulder and into the river!

I wonder how many people suffer the affliction of some variant of writer’s cramp nowadays or are they keyboard RSIs? Wikipedia cheerfully states: ‘Early symptoms may include loss of precision muscle coordination (sometimes first manifested in declining penmanship, frequent small injuries to the hands, dropped items and a noticeable increase in dropped or chipped dishes), cramping pain with sustained use and trembling. Significant muscle pain and cramping may result from very minor exertions like holding a book and turning pages. It may become difficult to find a comfortable position for arms and legs with even the minor exertions associated with holding arms crossed causing significant pain similar to restless leg syndrome. Affected persons may notice trembling in the diaphragm while breathing, or the need to place hands in pockets, under legs while sitting or under pillows while sleeping to keep them still and to reduce pain. Trembling in the jaw may be felt and heard while lying down, and the constant movement to avoid pain may result in the grinding and wearing down of teeth. The voice may crack frequently or become harsh, triggering frequent throat clearing. Swallowing can become difficult and accompanied by painful cramping.’

Thanks for that, I shall keep going and see what transpires, wish me luck.

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