We begin writing with a burning, a need to say something, to tell a story or explore an idea. We begin in delirious happiness, skulking away to scribble in private, stealing moments to capture a paragraph, a character, an essay. We slip into a study or a coffee shop with laptop or Clairefontaines and fountain pens to write in full-throated explosion, with passion, surety, even grace and some success. It is often difficult, challenging, frustrating, but always exhilarating.
But there is another side to writing. You might know this one, too: The house is empty. The weather is exactly right beyond the windows, and you know what you need to do, but nothing is there. It isn’t that you’re blocked, exactly. It’s that there is no joie de vivre in any of it. Each word has to be scrounged from the bottom of a deep barrel, and every metaphor feels like it’s been tossed out of the day-old store into the free bin. Writing feels like going to the dentist.
When that happens, how do you get your joy back?
To some degree, the answer depends on why the joy has been lost, but almost always the reason is that you’ve moved from internal prompts to external considerations. Remember those old definitions from Psych 101, intrinsic and extrinsic motivations? Most writers are intrinsically, or internally, motivated. It is the mark of a creative personality to remain a bit aloof from the world, observing it, taking it apart, rearranging it. When we begin to write with all that zest and secret passion, we are nearly always doing it in response to an internal prompt: you have an idea, a burning “what if?,” a story that follows you around and won’t let you go. It shows up when you take the roast out of the oven and when the guys around the water cooler are talking about the game last night.
So you set out to write a book, maybe another and even another. And it’s good fun, something you love, something you’d do on vacation. Maybe it even gives your life shape and meaning, a sense of quest and exhilaration.
When the joy disappears, it means you’ve shifted to some external measure of the writing process.
Ask yourself who or what you’ve allowed into your secret, joyful writing world. It might be a sense of failure or judgment. Maybe you’ve had some clumsy critique groups try to change your style, or a couple of brutal contest feedback sheets, a string of rejections, or have come to realize a project upon which you pinned a thousand hopes is going to have to be retired.
All devastating moments in a writer’s life.
Success can also undermine joy, and for the same reason: feedback from the outside world is interfering with your intrinsic pleasure in writing. I’ve seen success do at least as much damage to writers as failure. How can you top that last book? Go higher on the lists, get even better reviews? How can a writer top the material success of a book like Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen or The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown?
Either way, success or failure, the external voices are the demon in a writer’s brain, and the best way to get the joy back, the flow, is to shut out those clamoring doubts and go back to your intrinsic motives. It really isn’t as hard as it might seem. It’s a matter of remembering that you love this work, that’s all. Here are a few tricks that might help.
Ray Bradbury says a writer should read a poem, an essay, and a short story every day. I’m a novelist, so I substitute fiction for the short story, but I do try to read a lot. This single, simple thing so often gets lost in the quest to be a better and better writer. We start reading books about writing and publishing and the business of writing, and we get caught in the rules of what to do and what not to do and what everybody else thinks is great writing and what’s being published and what the fashion is, and we forget to just read in that slightly wanton way most of us began.
Nearly all of us begin in writing because we are passionate, devoted readers. Get that back. Read everything. Read every day. Read all of you favorites, and keep a list of writers, poets, essayists who awaken your own voice. You know the ones I mean—the writers who stir your waters of memory, place, mood. One of mine is Clarissa Pinkola Estes, because something about the way she tells stories takes me back to fifth grade and the neighborhood I lived in then, and the way people talk in my world, that curious mix of Anglo, Native American, and Spanish that is the thumbprint of the southwest. It isn’t that my voice is like hers, it’s that she awakens the best part of me. Lately, I’m working my way through all of Joan Didion—another writer with a western voice—and I love Steinbeck, too.
If you don’t know who yours might be, just get back to reading. That’s enough. Trust me.
Write things that are not for public consumption
This is a huge pitfall in the high-demand world of the Internet. Blogging, email, loops of other writers, commenting on other people’s posts, and then our own work, means that there is little time for that heady dangerous pleasure of writing just because you’re thinking something out, playing around, venting. A couple of years ago, I added a short segment to my writing day, right at the beginning, where I will write for 20 minutes on whatever captures my fancy. Maybe it will eventually become something, maybe it’s only a journal, maybe it’s nothing at all, but just me playing around with words or ideas, and all of that is fine. This plays well to the rebel angle that is also part and parcel of the creative personality. (“You aren’t the boss of me!”)
When you’re always writing for public consumption, you lose the deliciousness of messy, heady, anything-goes writing. It’s also too much pressure. Who wants to put on business clothes every day? Sometimes you just want to relax in yoga pants and mismatched socks. (Not that I’m saying my socks don’t match or anything like that.)
Protect the work
Remember that the work is not polished as it emerges. A novel in progress is as delicate as an embryo, and it is your job to protect it from any environment that might harm it. Protect it from too much judgment or feedback, from other people, but also from yourself. It’s easy to look at a book you’ve slaved over for a year or six, a book that has been through numerous edits, polishes, critiques and editorial input, and think, “Wow, the book I’m writing now will never measure up.” Creation is messy. That’s part of the fun.
Remember, too, that you are creating a whole body of work, and not even you know what is good work or your best work until you get to the end of the road. Some books will be wildly popular for no reason you can discern, and others—sometimes book you love even more—fare very badly. Your job is not to judge them, only to serve each one as it arrives, doing the best work you’re capable of doing at the time. Let each one breathe and dance.
Fill the well
This is, I know, very difficult sometimes, especially when you’re juggling a day job, a family, maybe other obligations. But every detail that hits the page comes out of you in some way. To keep the details fresh and interesting, you have to have new things coming in all the time. To that end, go to the movies, carry a notebook with you on the train, ride the bus and don’t bring a book. Eat meals in restaurants by yourself and only bring a small notebook to take notes. Indulge your hobbies—photography or knitting or golf or hiking or volunteering at the local cat rescue. It nourishes you.
Keep regular writing hours and use them to …er…actually write.
This might seem counter to the idea of joy, but the writing itself is part of the process of joy and discovery. Writing through the sticky, messy, boring, stupid, annoying parts is just something we all have to do. Because in the end, the magic of writing occurs as we are writing, when we’re tapped into that mother root of all creation.
Never, ever take it all too seriously
While the right book at the right moment might save an individual life (and I know I’ve been saved once or twice, haven’t you?), we are not exactly finding the cure for cancer here. We’re entertainers, and we’re supposed to be having fun. If you’re not, maybe it’s time to find something else to do for awhile.
I’m sure there are many other ways to bring back the joy. How do you get your mojo back?