Reflecting on fear, back pain, new projects & the healing power of poetry

betty ming liu Health, Writing how-to's 10 Comments

Ouch. Ouch. Easy, girl.

Earlier this week, wrenching my back led to three, solid immobilized days in bed. Even though I’m up again, recovery is slow. The back is tender. So am I.

Three painful, prone, motionless days took me to a deeper truth. I had to deal with not just physical crippling but an emotional one. Lately, I’ve been stressed about writing. I want to write creatively, without fear, from a place of totally honest, unselfconscious feeling.

Of course, I’ve made tremendous progress. I’m like a reformed hoarder. In my case, shedding old rants, resentments and regrets opens up emotional space for new stories, new material. So, what next?

My back gave out during the struggle to answer this question. I’ve been enthusiastically taking on new writing projects and re-evaluating existing ones. There’s the book I’ve always dreamed of doing. And, an online writing course that I want to create. I’m also piecing together a very personal blog post about what writing means to me.

When my back collapsed, I totally understood the metaphor. This is about my inability to support myself. The fear was too much. For all my enthusiasm, hard work and genuine talent, there still lives within me a teenager shamed by parental criticism.

“You never finish anything,” my rageaholic father used to say.

As my father’s young daughter, I failed to meet his standards. The idea of a STEM career in science, technology, engineering or math did not suit my skills. I am also poor with learning foreign languages, and failed 4th grade Chinese school twice before dropping out.

These and other ghosts from the past still haunt me; I struggle to finish writing projects of my own choosing. I let destructive, crippling perfectionism knock me to the floor. That’s when my back gave out.

From there, I’ve been forced to finally nurture myself. Self-care, as always, is a great solution for slaying personal demons.

For three whole days, I laid very quietly on my side, body pillow tucked between my legs, buckwheat hull pillow under my head. In this position, I turned to a favorite childhood pastime: reading books. Real books, made of paper, with covers and pages to touch, smell and hold.

Finally, a chance to read the books piled on my nightstand.

Steal Like An Artist

I started with “Steal Like An Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative,” by Austin Kleon. This little paperback weighs barely half a pound (8.6 oz., to be exact) and fit in the palm of my hand. It was as much weight as I could juggle in my fragile state.

The 2012 bestseller’s title is a play on artist Pablo Picasso’s famous quote: “Art is theft.”

I felt especially validated by Kleon’s fifth tip. He says side projects and hobbies are important. They enable us to “practice productive procrastination” by bouncing between projects when we’re bored or stuck.

In the end, side projects often are the ones most likely to succeed because we enjoy them. “Take time to mess around,” he urges. “Get lost. Wander. You never know where it’s going to lead you.”

From there, I moved on to Kleon’s terrific “Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered” (2014). I am also inspired by his first book, “Newspaper Blackout.” The 2010 surprise hit features poems he created by redacting newspaper articles, which I was eager to try.

On the fourth day of my recovery, I was able to shuffle to the kitchen counter like a million-year-old invalid. Kleon applies a black magic marker to his newspaper poems; I enjoyed taking out my water color brushes and rich, black sumi ink.


As a former newspaper reporter, it felt wrong to to deface a story; underpaid, overworked slobs carefully craft these articles. I know because I used to be one of them. Yet, slashing black across their stories was very satisfying. Destroy to create. I forgot to title this poem but really like it:


This next poem describes how I feel now, nearly 60 and dealing with health/wellness issues:

experimentI also found more healing in a totally different book.The Body Keeps Score

Long ago, a blog reader recommended “The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma,” by Bessel van der Kolk, M.D.  This bestseller offers a riveting collection of tales about the author’s patients who are survivors of war, rape, incest and the most inhumane, violent forms of physical and emotional abuse.

Van der Kolk is a leader in treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Hard as we might try to push away or bury troubling experiences, they haunt us anyway, taking a toll on our physical and mental health.

Van der Kolk also explores the pain children suffer because parental trauma goes untreated. (The son of a Holocaust survivor, van der Kolk remembers the terror of his three-year-old self, locked up in a basement.)

His book filled a personal vacuum for me, providing insight on ways stress could lead to a bad back. I also have more compassion for my parents, World War II survivors who definitely suffered untreated PTSD.

So this is where I am now, gingerly walking around, learning to sit upright again. Breathing a little easier. Feeling a bit more playful. Plus, I’m more conscious of the dangers in being too hard on myself.

I’ll close with the last poem from my first batch of eight. It’s my favorite one so far:


So take time to nurture yourself. The tools we need are simple, easy. Breathing. Sleep. Good books. A few sheets of recycled newspaper and a magic marker or maybe some black ink.

Before you go, I’d love for you to drop me a comment below. Help me figure out my next step. If I was to write about my journey as a writer, what would you like to know? If I was to create an online writing course, what would you want to learn — and what would you pay for it? Should I post more poems?

It would also be just as interesting to hear about how you nurture yourself, or what you might want to do in the days ahead. xo

Comments 10

  1. Betty, I mirror your fears so much. You are a great writer and teacher. Do that class! I am currently enrolled in an online 4 week long journalism class for which I paid $179. As long as you take Paypal and/or other credit payments, people like me will sign on. Just make it short with a specific writing goal and you should get plenty of subscribers. Don’t lose your writers’ confidence now. I am 68 years young with a bad back also and though not yet published, as long as I have access to you and other writers with knowledge to share, I will continue to write. At this stage of life, I have no excuse not to try:)

    1. Post

      Oh, my goodness. June, thank you for making my day. I so appreciate hearing from you. I hope you’re a subscriber because I want to stay connected! I’m also intrigued that you’re taking a journalism class, wondering why that, and not a general writing class. And $179 is good money.

      I’m thinking of offering five sections, each one featuring multiple modules and sub-units. There would also be handouts and worksheets. For this initial course, students would be self-guided. After getting this course off the ground, I’m thinking of offering a more expensive course — also at a workshop length of about five sections that a typical user would do over five weeks that would involve individual feedback on specific assignments.

      You keep on writing, girl! Writers have to stick together. I will hold steady too. :)

  2. Betty,

    Keep writing , love reading your blogs.. I’m ABC – my dad never had the son he wanted and I’m the oldest female! – he actually thought I was wasting time going to college and bragged about Lan Ho who was earning money working in OTB in Chinatown while I was in college… go figure!
    Anyway, still finding myself, in retirement- taking a wonderful art class with Athena He from Dobbs Ferry and enjoying it. Volunteer teaching English to two Asian women who are here for their children’s education.

    1. Post

      Thanks for the encouragement, Ethel. I need it right now. Actually, I always need it! I’m also very glad to hear you’re having fun. You’re onto the next life! How exciting that you’re taking art classes AND teaching English. Congrats all around.

      P.S. — I don’t know what it is about dads, but I relate to your story. Old-fashioned dads are really tough to deal with!

  3. Hi Betty,

    Van der Kolk’s book was really important for me, too, in dealing with old trauma “frozen” within the body.

    Another you should get ASAP is “Healing Back Pain” by John Sarno. Saved my life years ago.

    Love the poetry technique and results, by the way. You are one of the most creative people I know because you approach each life change, each challenge from a place of creative inspiration.

    Have you tried “free-writing”? A powerful way to “write creatively, without fear, from a place of totally honest, unselfconscious feeling.”

    1. Post

      Joel, you’ve always been such an inspiration to me. You’re the reason I’m thinking of creating my own the online workshop-style courses — and why I’m still working on that book project!

      I just ordered the back pain book. Thanks for stepping in with more much-needed advice!

      You’ve mentioned free writing before. I actually use some of Natalie Goldberg’s prompts in my college writing courses. It’s never grabbed me in the past. But funny, just this morning, I was thinking about giving it another try. You’re timing is unbelievable.

      I really enjoy making blackout poetry. It’s completely changed how I read newspapers. Now, I’m scanning pages for key word groupings that might be poem-worthy. It’s fun.

      It’s great to hear from you. Still loving your blog about self-publishing. :)

        1. Post

          Good job, Joel! I totally felt your pain when I read the section about your back giving out. I also like how you describe Sarno’s book. And, I think you’re right — people have to be desperate to try Sarno’s approach. Otherwise, it sounds both too scary and too simple. Thanks for sharing!

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