A Simple Lesson on Writer’s Block, Sadness, and Back Pain

Inspired by Augusten Burroughs’ talk on writer’s block

Mr. Burroughs said the worst thing you can do for writer’s block is similar to the worst thing you can do for back pain. Laying in bed all day, waiting for it to subside is usually not the best therapy; you’ve got to get up and stretch it out. It’s called physical therapy and it is without a doubt the key to a healthy and wholesome recovery.

The same advice can be applied to writer’s block. Writing itself can be exactly the therapy you need. Mr. Burroughs said, “Writing can be like a corrosive acid”, dissolving away your afflicting writer’s block. What’s the alternative? You sit for weeks with this idea in your head that you have writers block. As you sit around and lament this idea, it becomes fact, concrete, inescapable. Your potential masterpiece looms over you, omnipresent, unfinished, and leaking anxiety into your brain. The only way in which writer’s block can be overcome— or anything for that matter — is by action. You must continue to write, even if it’s just a journal entry a day. An exercise like this does not require lofty, intellectual planning, and requires zero imagination.

Keep in mind that writing does not have to have a tangible outcome and it sure as hell doesn’t have to meet the unrealistically high standard of quality you have set for yourself. Some of the best writing is the kind that never sees the light of day, those incomplete fragments in your notebook that are just for you. Writing to overcome writer’s block might sound counter-intuitive but its benefits are tangible and real. A leisurely writing session can be a simple reminder of the fact that you can, indeed, write. Sometimes all we need is a reality check. So keep writing, even if it’s just basic exercises. Don’t be the stubborn out-patient who doesn’t do her prescribed physical therapy — you’ll just end up prolonging the pain.

The same philosophy can be applied to emotional obstacles. I’ve found that when sadness strikes — it can and it will — the best thing to wholly recover my well-being is to stretch out via experience. You don’t need to do anything fancy; exotic does not equate to pleasurable and sometimes the simplest of activities are the best. Go see a movie by yourself, go for a walk in an area you’ve never been before, find a museum to visit, and when friends invite you to go out, turn off Netflix, put away the Nutella, say goodbye to your cat, and just go. Every experience, even if you don’t notice at first, will slowly help restore balance to your mind and expand your perspective.

The mind can only hold on to so many emotions at once. By doing exactly nothing, your mind has no problem holding onto sadness and thus you are surrounded by it, like a sadness echo chamber. And if you’re sad and a writer — who would have thought? — a new experience can solve two problems at once, giving you both an escape from your wallowing sadness and a new source of inspiration for your writing. Worst case scenario: you absolutely hated that party you went to and everyone there, but at least you have something to write about now.

Just like writer’s block, just like back pain, alleviation comes with action.