Why Butt-In-Chair Is a False God

I’d like to do my best to destroy yet another writing myth, one I consider to be dreadful, deleterious, and downright dangerous: the so-called "butt-in-chair" mantra. According to this principle, only those writers who grimly force themselves to joylessly stare at their screen/notebook while feeling the synovial fluid around all their joints gradually congeal, hour after hour after hour, are proper writers. Before you object, I will say that yes, it’s important to actually write if you’re a writer. But the whole butt-in-chair thing usually does more harm than good. Here are some reasons why.
  • A fit writer is a better writer. Writing requires physical and mental stamina, which in turn requires moving your meat-self around in a way that feels vigorous. Professional martial artist, multi-published and award-winning writer, and general-purpose badass Alan Baxter says:

    "The sedentary lifestyle is trigger for most morbidity, and few lifestyles are more sedentary than writers’. Sitting literally kills us, so the longer we sit the less healthy we are. Our bodies are made to move. They function by moving. Your legs are literal pumps for your blood, backup to the heart itself. So we need to move to function properly. We also need to move to be emotionally and mentally well — the correlations between exercise and mental health are legion, and backed up by numerous studies. Given writers (artists in general) are often prone to mental-health issues (for where does art often grow from but pain?), movement is essential. AND, writers are solitary and exercise will often get us out and about among other people."

    It’s important, of course, to find an activity that brings you joy. I have Xena, Warrior Princess aspirations, so anything that puts me in the middle of a good swashbuckle will make me happy: fencing, horseback riding, climbing, hiking. A good story attached to what you’re doing can make everything more fun, actually. I utterly hate to run, but it’s becoming something I actually enjoy because I listen to the Zombies, Run! stories when I head out, and they’re pretty immersive. (I also got a lot of exercise playing Ingress for a while, and I’m told some writers find Pokemon Go (which is essentially the same game) to be useful.)

  • Shame shuts down creativity. You can’t disinhibit the inner editor if you’re already in a judgy place, hating on yourself to humiliate your dusty ass into that chair. Researcher Dr. Charles Limb has been studying what actually happens in the brain during times of creativity, and he can show you which parts of your brain light up when you’re in "the zone" and which when you’re discriminating and judging — and they are different. (Here’s the hardcore version, and here’s the TED talk.) "But what about self-discipline?" I hear you wail. Okay, yes, of course, there’s a place for pushing yourself. But if butt-in-chair starts to be a fetish, it starts usurping the place that rightfully belongs to the joy and commitment you feel as a writer.

  • Not everybody creates in the same way. I write slowly. I pace. I juggle (yes, literally, see this video). I pace some more. I go grocery shopping or fencing or whatever. When I literally can’t sit still anymore, I know that lots of words are about to come out, and they’ll be good words. Keepers. The words happen in different ways for different people. If I, for example, forced myself to sit still in the chair every time I needed the words to happen, they wouldn’t. And I’d be miserable and fidgety. Who needs that?

  • You are the captain of your own starship. Anyone’s absolute rule — no matter how attractive it seems, no matter how much you hope this one will fix everything — erodes your own agency. Own and trust your gift! Experiment! Find out what works for you! Apologize to no-one for it! You are the adamantine Captain Janeway, you are the roguish and iconoclastic Han Solo, you are the brave and resourceful Debbie of Maddox!

Butt-in-chair, butt-out-of-chair, these things are irrelevant. Do you write with joy? Do you honor your uniqueness? Do you cherish your gift and seek to use it wisely and well?

All right, then.



At 10:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love it. Nailed those points like a nail gun. You could nail jelly to the ceiling!

(My butt not in the chair enough, recently. Been getting ma exercise by fixing all dashit around the house. When doctors ask "Are you getting enough exercise?" I just laugh hollowly.

At 9:55 PM, Blogger zerohitwonder said...

I agree with everything you've said, but I do have to admit that for me, at least in this beginning phase, I owe everything to butt-in-chair time and the Magic Spreadsheet motivating me to write every day. I can't say that these strategies will always work for me, but I think the old "butt-in-chair" shtick can be helpful for writers who are just starting to take their writing seriously!

I think for every mention of butt-in-chair, however, we should also hear that there are now absolutes. It's so true that every writer—every artist—has to find what works for them!


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