Writing to the point of pain

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If you’re not writing to the point of pain from time to time, you’re probably not pushing yourself hard enough….

My husband and I went to Phoenix the last week of January — our first get-on-a-plane holiday since the pandemic.

Part of the reason we’ve reduced air travel is not just the increased risk of getting sick or the financial cost, but more seriously, the environmental cost. It’s not something I want to do very often.

But we took this short trip and got as much out of the adventure as we could (despite unseasonably cold and rainy weather) until the very last day, when….

I was walking down a set of concrete stairs, missed the second-to-last stair, rolled my ankle and collapsed in a heap.

At least I didn’t break anything! Although I had a painful plane ride home, what with all the swelling, I was eager to return and get some helpful advice from a local doctor, who diagnosed me with a grade 1 sprain (the lowest level) and told me to expect a three-month recovery.

My big interest is to get back to walking as soon as I can. I have a treadmill desk where I normally log somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 steps per day, walking while I write and edit. People’s eyes often bug out when they hear this number. In fact, it caused the doctor to call me an “athlete,” a term that made me collapse into hysterical laughter. I may well be the least athletic, least coordinated person you’ve ever met.

But I can walk. Sitting all day not only bores me — it also aggravates my back. And it trashes my sleep (I’m not tired enough if I don’t get enough exercise) and affects my mood (exercise is a known mood elevator). No one designed the human body to sit in a chair all day!

Thankfully, I saw an excellent foot and knee physio about 10 days ago. He gave me some helpful (albeit boring) exercises to do every day and told me to return to my treadmill immediately, but in small chunks of time.

Before, I might have walked for 90 minutes without taking a break. Now, I need to sit for 30 minutes after 30 minutes of walking. My instructions were to work back up to 10,000 steps a day (which I’ve already done — woo-hoo!) and the physio thinks I should be able to get back to 20,000 steps with another month of slow and steady effort.

But here’s the interesting tip he gave me — and it’s something that might be a metaphor for writing, too.

He told me to take myself to the point of pain. Not to be scared of it. To monitor it and then back off if it gets to be too much.

Pain doesn’t always mean you’re hurting yourself. It means you need to be careful. Don’t ignore it — that’s how you can seriously injure yourself — but don’t necessarily give in to it, either.

And the same rule applies to writing. Recognizing that writing may sometimes be painful — and writing to the point of pain — will help you continue and improve. Many people don’t let themselves write because they worry that being bored, frustrated or uncomfortable means that something is wrong.

They might not even be aware they’re not letting themselves write and instead tell themselves that they’re too busy or too “stressed” or too preoccupied to write right now.

Aches and pains are part of exercising, according to Dr. Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine physician, author and triathlete, quoted in a recent article in the New York Times. “If it doesn’t hurt a little bit you’re probably not pushing hard enough,” he said.

And aches and pains are also part of writing.

The key difference between healthy and unhealthy discomfort when you’re writing is whether the discomfort is going to stop you coming back to do more writing the next day.

First, make sure you’re not giving yourself big, overwhelming goals. Just as I shouldn’t go back to walking 20,000 steps overnight, you shouldn’t try to write for 60 minutes a day right away. You’re not likely to make it, and that’s only going to make you feel inept and unhappy with yourself. Instead, start with a ridiculously small goal — writing for five to 15 minutes — and notice how proud of yourself you are when you achieve it.

And if you ever get stuck in a bad patch with your current work in progress, don’t sit and stare at the screen until beads of blood form on your forehead. Instead, take a break. Go for a walk. Listen to some music. Read a short piece of writing by another writer you admire. This isn’t procrastination. It’s just giving yourself a necessary “rest” before you return to writing.

Finally, don’t forget about rewards. If you achieve your writing goal, make sure you give yourself some sort of prize. It doesn’t have to be expensive. In fact, it’s far better if it’s just something you really enjoy doing. For example, take a walk in a nearby park, talk to a friend who lives in a different city or treat yourself to a specialty coffee.

Writing is not a punishment. And you should do everything possible to underline that it’s a friendly, enjoyable activity — even if you need to write to the point of pain from time to time.


My video podcast last week addressed how to become a better interviewer. Go here to see the video or read the transcript, and you can also subscribe to my YouTube channel.


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Do you ever try writing to the point of pain? What happens for you? We can all learn from each other, so please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. If you comment on today’s post (or any others) by Feb. 29/24, I’ll put you in a draw for a digital copy of my first book, 8 1/2 Steps to Writing Faster, Better. To enter, please scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join Disqus to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest. It’s easy!


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