Reclaiming the joy of writing

PhotobucketWe 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?

Photo by Santa Crews Girl



About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.


  1. says

    This spoke to me on many levels. Reading is something that helps revive my mojo — a great novel or an inspired body of research related to my story idea.

    Thanks for an outstanding post, Barbara! You’ve made me want to write.

  2. Margaret A. Golla says

    Oh boy, oh boy, you certainly hit a chord with me today! I get excited about writing something and then make the mistake of showing it to people, even CP’s, before it’s ready. It’s the ‘looky what I did’ phenomenon. And when I get the negative or non-commital feedback, I lose my vim and vigor.
    I just chunked 50 pages of a new story. At the time I wrote it I was excited about the new story, but something felt wrong, then I rec’d feedback from an industry professional and it wasn’t good. I needed to hear the bad news.
    Yes, I had the ‘aha’ lightbulb moment: I was trying to hard too force the square peg in the round hole.
    I had lost my love by trying to write something I’m not. And when I got back to ‘my’ style of writing, the story flowed. Okay, it helps that the scenes are mapped out, even though I have to rewrite from scratch. :-)
    I agree that reading anything and everything helps refill the well. I’ve also given myself permission NOT to write for a set period of time (a couple of weeks, usually). By the end of the enforced sabbatical, I’m itching to get back to the keyboard.

  3. says

    I always enjoy your essays, Barbara, but this one hit so many “Oh yeah!” points for me.

    I’m always much more enraptured by the books I’m writing on spec than the books I already have contracted. I used to think it was due to a character flaw of not wanting what I already had. But eventually I realized it was beause the spec manuscripts are still wholly mine. Once the contract comes into play, the book becomes in part the publisher’s–it becomes a product.

    It’s sort of like loving a new band you’ve just discovered, and then when they get big they lose that specialness because they don’t just belong to you anymore.

    I don’t know what the answer is–I’d much rather have the security of contracts than the pure joy of spec work! ;-)

  4. says

    I think every writer hits the wall at some point. Like Margaret, I just chucked about 50 pages. For a while it sucked the life out of the project, but after reading some good fiction, staying away from the computer for a little while, I’m recharged again.

    So for me, taking a break seems to do the trick.

    And yes, keeping a sense of humor about it certainly helps!

  5. thea mcginnis says

    thank you, barb. what a great way to wake up today – to a little home truth and the succor to bathe in.

  6. says

    Like the others, this was a great post and a reminder of what inspires us to write. Sometimes the reading is what gets me started; if the reading is good, it tends to keep me from writing, but can be inspiring in and of itself wanting me to get in my office and get creative too. If the writing is not so good, it gets me inspired to go do better. Thanks for posting and sharing this great bit of advice and inspiration on such a snowy day here in NY.

  7. says

    Therese, you’ve written so much for so long I would imagine you have tricks of your own.

    Margaret, that’s a good one: giving yourself permission not to write for awhile now and then.

    Jeri–big fan here. :) Same thing is true for me: spec books are easier than book that have a deadline. It’s so contrary it drives me crazy, and I have no answer except to just show up–and sometimes write on spec for the fun oof it.

    Kathleen, that’s always painful, to chuck pages, but it can alsy be free. Glad to know you’re feeling recharged!

    Good morning, Thea.

  8. Jennifer August says

    Wow – I am so happy to have been directed here! All of your comments are so valid and common sense, but I find it’s often the common sense stuff that’s easiest to lose sight of.
    Thank you for a wonderful article. I plan to print it out and put it in my book of “inspiration” articles – my own bit of refilling the well.
    Thank you again!

  9. says

    The earlier comments covered everything I feel about this lovely article.

    I am in the midst of the very, very last revisions to my book, chopping it down to 90,000 words from 126,000. It was not joyful, tossing those words away (well, I have them in a separate file for use in another book), but I see the book as pristine and unmuddied now, and I am happy with it at last.

    But this required dedication, because although the writing was so energizing – I couldn’t wait to get back to it each morning – I’ve been far less enthusiastic about this part of the work. So I’ve been re-reading all my favorite writers, seeing their own final books, and it’s helped enormously.

    I’m so happy to have found your site.

  10. says

    Not much more to add except that like Fran I find revision SO much harder to get excited about than the original writing. For that reason, I usually try to revise as I go. It slows the process down immensely, but keeps me from wanting to bash my head against a wall later. ;P

  11. says

    Wonderful advice, Barbara!
    Currently working on my tenth fantasy novel, so I know writing can lose its magic when it’s no longer fun. I find great inspiration here on the Writer Unboxed website. The contributors know exactly what authors face in terms of all the joys and pitfalls of writing and they willingly share in their wisdom.
    When my mojo is dragging, I remember why I began writing in the first place. I will offer an excerpt that was meant to be funny or sad to be read for a response. When the reader bursts out laughing or is moved to tears at all the right spots, I know I’m on the right path and it keeps me going.
    Also, visiting the library to see that my books, amongst all those novels available to the public, are being chosen and signed out reminds me that my writing is worthy of the time and energy I invest in writing my novels.

  12. says

    So many good reminders. I spent much of 2008 reading books I thought I “should” read. I’m trying to spend more of 2009 reading books I want to read. I’ve never been one to read things a second time, but I’m thinking of pulling some Elizabeth Berg back out after reading your post.

    And thanks for reminding me I’m not trying to cure cancer!!!

  13. says

    Barbara, have you been inside my mind? Your words spoke to me in so many ways. I have decided several times to steal back by joy! I’m doing it this time! All of it!

    I love your books, especially the latest ones.

    Therese, thanks for having Barbara as your guest and for telling us about this entry.

  14. says

    Mary, thanks for commenting and letting me know it worked for you. And glad you like my books! Come back. I’m here the end of the month.

    Right, Julie. While there are books we should read and want to read, there should also just be the ones we love to read.

  15. says

    Brilliant article. Thanks.

    To (mis)quote Osho’s book “Creativity”: to find that sheer joy in creating, sometimes, when washing the kitchen floor, we need to use the mop to paint an invisible painting on the floor. It’s enough that we’ve done it, even though nobody else can see it. This article reminded me that lately, in my writing, I’ve only been washing the kitchen floor and I’ve forgotton how to paint those invisible masterpieces. :)

  16. says

    Barbara – Such a great blog. Thanks. Like everyone else, I’m soaking up your words of wisdom as I finish up a book and get ready to jump straight into another.
    ;-) Bella

  17. says

    Beautiful thought, Ann. It reminds me that I often use mundane tasks to stimulate my creativity. In hanging laundry on the line, I find the key to a problematic scene.

    Yvonne, but you are my goddess for the egg cups. Forever and ever.

    Bella, that’s hard work, back to back books. Nourishing the girls in the basement becomes very important, doesn’t it?

  18. says

    Thanks so much for this, Barbara! Sometimes I think I have to be writing every minute and I forget to read, relax, and have fun even though I write funny books for kids. Laundry is a big help. It gets you up and out of the chair and the clothes come out all clean and fresh. Just think if there were a machine that could do that with your prose!

  19. says

    Juliet told me about this site, and I happened upon Barbara’s article, and all I can say is that you must have read my mind, Barbara! The frenzy of “a book a year” and meeting deadlines, and the whole package of “will the books do well or not” and all that white noise has been leaching the joy of writing from me for some time. You gave me some tips to get that original innocence back, and I am very grateful. Wonderful site!

  20. Mel Araiza says

    Barbara, this was amazing and inspiring! I think I’m going to print it and read it every now and then. I absolutely loved it!

    I think the best way for me to get my mojo back is to read from my favorite authors. They get me back in the mood.

    Another way to bring back the mojo is to read something that is terribly written (ex. Twilight by Stephenie Meyer) and think: “If something like this can get published, then why can’t I?”

    *I’m not the only one who thinks Stephenie Meyer can’t write. Apparently, Stephen King and I hold the same opinion! :)