Illustration by Alice Popkorn

I was recently in St. Louis and went to church with a long time friend.  As we were coming out, a mother, father and little boy were just ahead of us. The boy was about three, dressed nattily in a tie and crisp trousers, and over his mother’s shoulder, he was reaching for the church and crying.  My friend said, “Must want somebody back there pretty bad.”

His mother gave a weary smile. “The drums,” she said.

Marcia said, “That’s a passion right there.”

Yes. Maybe even a vocation.  That’s the thing about vocation, whether it’s a calling toward the church or the drums or to write—it’s something we love.  Love, love, love.  As a child, the budding scientist will spend every day all summer long out in the woods, examining bark or looking for insect specimens.  The budding artist will paint and draw and collect paper and techniques with full-throated joy, delighted to have her work displayed everywhere in the house.  The writer-to-be spins stories in whatever ways he can.  I know a boy who has “written” an entire library of tales about one of his toy animals, because his mother was wise enough to help him transcribe the words as he drew the pictures.  Is he going to be a writer? I don’t know.  But he has the story jones, and the passion, that’s for sure.

What happens to that when we grow up? What happens when we are rewarded with doing the work we’ve dreamed of doing all of our lives?

Most of the working writers I know—me included—spend a lot of time complaining. How hard we work! How challenging it is to get the words on the page, the stories right, the words in the right order! Woeful are we, so engaged in the mighty struggle!

I started writing when I was in the fourth grade.  Before that, I made up songs, but fourth grade is when I remember starting to write them. I wrote a novel the following year, and have pretty much been writing novels continually ever since. In those days, in grade school and junior high and then high school, I wrote for the fun of it.  I took notebooks outside with me when I sunbathed.  I carried pink and blue notebook paper with me in the car.  I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote.   It was so satisfying! I wanted to write more than I wanted to do anything else.  I escaped the world into my stories. I then had an offering to give my mother or my friends or my sisters, who thought I was a genius.

I’m thinking about this because I’ve had a rare offering this past month: a gift book. Really, an attack book, a story that so insistently wants to be told that it dragged me out of bed at four am while I was on vacation.

For three mornings in a row.  Entire scenes, characters, arcs, plot points, everything—all was delivered in those three days.  I’ve had books arrive nearly whole in the past, but it’s been a long time.  I’m also pretty sure I’ve never had one arrive with so much detail.

I had to wonder why, especially as I’ve been struggling with deadlines so much that I finally decided to stop dealing with them. I’ll write whole books (at least until I change my mind) and then see who wants them.  I also gave myself permission to have a deep rest, and to then write whatever books I want to write.  In whatever arenas make sense. I read all over the place—why wouldn’t I also write novels in many arenas?

The combination seems to have been a winner.  Despite an avalanche of petty and not-so-petty annoyances including a broken washer and a new catastrophic fire in my town and a business trip that included family visiting, I’ve written six chapters in two weeks.  That’s a lot for me. Who knows where it will go and if it’s any good, but I’m writing with joy.  Writing to get out of doing other stuff.  Writing because it’s fun. Waking up early and going to the computer not because I have to, but because I’m enjoying the story so much.

What I remember, doing this, is that for writers, story is the default mode of our brains.  At least it is for mine.  If I’m bored or lonely or stranded somewhere; if I read a remarkable story of heroism or someone on the news catches my interest, my brain is off, making things up, spinning out a character arc, asking background questions.  My brain loves putting characters in settings, creating conflicts and then putting the people in motion.  It’s a blast.

Story is my default.  I bet it’s yours, too.  Let’s stop telling ourselves how hard this is, and start telling each other what a blast it is.  Yes, there are hard days—believe me, I know that as well as anyone—but maybe finding the ease in writing is as simple as claiming the joy.  This is a fun, fun job.  I sit in my office and make up stories and people pay me for it.  How amazing is that? How cool is it that your brain can even do this weird thing?

Do you find yourself complaining about writing, or are you able to lock in the joy of it most days? What are your best tips for transforming a bad attitude into a good one? 


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.