Default: Story
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.


  1. says

    What a wonderfully liberating POV. I LOVE the part about ‘I write whole books then see who wants them’. You have turned publication angst on its head. Bravo!
    alex wilson´s last blog post ..White Space

  2. says

    What a great story and a great realisation. I, too, remember writing for the sheer joy of it when I was a young teenager, and I’m reminded of it again each day when I hear my six-year-old son spinning stories with his toys. Here’s to finding the joy!
    Jo Eberhardt´s last blog post ..To This Day: A Video on Bullying

  3. says

    Seven novels rejected over fifteen years pulled me down deep into the “Woe is me” miasma. I quit writing for three years until I had an epiphany and wrote a book that’s being published in February. Now I’m writing with a renewed energy, new, fresh stuff I love. Mary Pickfords quote comes to mind, “What we call failure is not the falling down but the not getting up.”
    tony Vanderwarker´s last blog post ..How To Wreck Writing

  4. says

    Attitude is everything. Great post to remind people to be positive. I think everyone gets days where they feel down, when things are going wrong. When I’m down, I try to remember that what I’m doing is much better than a number of the alternatives I could be doing. I’ve had jobs I didn’t enjoy and know many people who don’t enjoy their jobs presently, so when I think about it that way, it always puts things in perspective.

    Again, nice post.
    RJ Crayton´s last blog post ..Going after foreign sales

  5. says

    You said it absolutely, Barbara, writing stories because we love (and are driven) to create and experience the story and characters. That is the motivation. You are blessed that you get paid to write your stories. Most of us do not get paid for our fiction … yet. When I get down about such things in this writing life (rejections, frustrations, poor sales or promotional efforts that go nowhere, etc.), I find a story to read, some short story or submerge myself in an old favorite classic novel to remind me that I need to just read and enjoy other authors and their stories. It’s not just about my own act of writing, or even the stories I create, it’s also about the joy of reading. It completes the circle for me in an odd way: writing + reading = love. Now if only love could pay the grocery bills, I’d be in heaven! Great post, thanks.
    Paula Cappa´s last blog post ..The Haunted North Crag at the Sea

    • says

      It’s true I get paid for writing now, Paula, but I haven’t always. As chance would have it, I’ve just had occasion to read some journals from the days when my boys were babies and I was fighting for time to write and against the naysayers who didn’t understand why I thought I had to do this weird thing. Even some people who were actively discouraging. It was not always easy to believe in myself or get the writing done or have fun, but boy….I can so say to those naysayers now:

      Barbara O’Neal´s last blog post ..Fare thee well, James

  6. Denise Willson says


    Thanks, Barbara. :)

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

  7. Becky says

    Thank You!!! (Can writers use multiple exclamation points on a post?) Your attitude has blessed me. May I bring as much sunshiny joy to the folks around me as you have brought to me.

  8. says

    Thanks so much for this reminder! When I get down, I think about how I feel when I read a great book or story and how I want to give that feeling to someone else. It gives me an added burst of energy.

    I also paraphrase that saying/bumper sticker – “A bad day writing is still better than a good day _____ .” I usually fill in the blank with “better than a good day working for someone else” but whatever works for you. :)
    Madeline Mora-Summonte´s last blog post ..Motivational Monday

  9. says

    Love this post — thank you, Barbara. I love it as a writer. Indeed, story is my default mode, and I enjoy it, it gives me joy, it even helps me out when people in the world irritate me (when I catch myself carping about a stranger, I flip my mental script and spin a story about what might be going on in their lives to make them behave in whatever way it is that annoyed me — it works!). But I also love this post as a read of yours. I can’t wait to see what you will write when you are giving yourself permission and writing with joy :-)
    Natalieahart´s last blog post ..When Fear and Avoidance Mean You’re On the Right Track

  10. says

    Beautiful! You hit the key on the head! Great reminder of why most of us “noted and jotted” before it ever occurred to us to even consider it hard or work. Takes me back to when I was about 8+ years old and would spend summer afternoons (after chores) wandering–and wondering–about the 2 acres of the family homestead. The small, ringed notebook full of words, phrases, scribbled drawings and clips from magazines/newspapers that I carried is one of the few keepsakes intact after all these years. Thank you for your insightful post!

  11. says


    “Let’s stop telling ourselves how hard this is, and start telling each other what a blast it is.”

    The pleasure you take in writing shows in your writing, Barbara. You have fun on the page…and thus your readers have fun in the reading.

    This opens an interesting topic. It’s been on my mind recently and it’s this: The spirit one brings to the process, every day, hugely informs what we later read.

    I know an author who recently has felt disappointed. Despite an expensive launch, this author’s latest novel has (so far) under-performed. It’s an excellent book in its genre. Flawless, even. It hits all the marks. Advance reviews were dazzling. Even so…

    So what’s “wrong”? Jacket? Marketing? Timing? Perhaps. Harder to measure is a novel’s tidal pull, the under-the-surface aching, urgency and need not only of the characters but of the novelist to tell this tale.

    We may not have an instrument to measure this quality but we feel its presence, or lack, as we read. I am coming to believe that this spirit that is brought to the act of writing itself is as important as the techniques, like micro-tension, that are used to keep readers turning the pages.

    Have a blast, everyone, as you write today. May it ever be so.

    • says

      Great point, Donald. That exuberance, that indefinable something, does infuse a work with power. A friend of mine who writes a column on romance novels says she can always tell when a writer completely believes in her world.

      I also think this is why some books that might not be as well-written as others fare so very well with readers. The author believed her world, loved it, presented it with passion.

      Micro-tension is great, too, but that exuberance or passion or whatever name we stick on it, is the leveler.
      Barbara O’Neal´s last blog post ..Fare thee well, James

    • says

      Great observations and something new for me to ponder. I have even noticed my mood or attitude for the day can affect the way my characters interact with one another.
      Cerrissa Kim´s last blog post two

  12. says

    As always, Barbara, this post is an infusion of writerjoy. Story is most assuredly my default, and I couldn’t not-write if I tried. (I have tried. It didn’t work.) A challenging day writing is a thousand times better than a good day doing other jobs (for me.)

  13. says

    Bah, I never complain about writing (Oo- look how happy Barbara is, ‘This is a fun, fun job. I sit in my office and make up stories and people pay me for it.’ That’s so not FAIR! She probably doesn’t have a dress code to worry about either). Every morning I can’t wait to indulge in the wonders of writing, because without it life has no meaning. Every draft I create is a bundle of joy full of grammar errors and promising story rewrites. I’m a person who breezes through a good challenge, especially when it comes to writing. If, I need to rewrite a story 11.5 times, ha, piece of cake. I laugh at the face of rewrites. (It’s a good thing they can’t see through my web lies.)
    I‘ve never had a bad attitude (Shit, I’m stuck here at my 7:03 to 4:47 job.) I can’t think of any good tips either. (They might think I’m crazy if I suggest some type of counseling, either friend or professional. Whew, I almost forgot. I have an appointment today.) Barbara I’ll have to chew on that transforming question. I got nothing. (I wonder if I shoulder Barbara that her awesome post was right-on-time. Nah,I’ll just keep it to myself.)
    Brian B. King´s last blog post ..Final Day Awaken Is On Sale!

    • says

      (I wonder if I shoulder Barbara that her awesome post was right-on-time. Nah,I’ll just keep it to myself.)

      “I wonder if I should tell Barbara that her awesome post was right-on-time. Nah, I’ll just keep it to myself.”

      Okay, I’m bringing back the old shoulder verb.

  14. says

    What a lovely post, Barbara! I think if I never worried about the business aspect, I’d have more joy, because writing is something I’ve done my whole life — letters primarily. It’s the need to connect, to share a story. So now, when it can get hard (the publishing aspect) I simply take a break from it and refocus on writing. And right now, I am having a blast writing a scene where all the major players come together.
    Vijaya´s last blog post ..Our Summer House Guest

  15. says

    It’s so cool to admit that to yourself, isn’t it, that story is your default? When I read that line: story is my default, I recognized it was true for me as well.

    I, too, am a goofy goober. [see spongebob for details. or not.]

    And then I wondered how people with other defaults can even live and how fiction is really double fiction because we have to try and guess how a character like that, one who is not motivated by story, would feel and act and live.
    Walt Fitzharris´s last blog post ..Default: Story

  16. says

    Psst, Barbara, pipe down! You are ruining my carefully crafted persona of maudlin writerness. An arduous task it’s been to let people tiptoe in to view the Stygian depths that only a writer (sigh) experiences, that teeth are only for gnashing, and a sentence is a thing to strangle until it sings no more.

    And I know it’s not hip to be goth anymore, but you are letting the paisley in my implied all-black outfit show, talking about writing being fun and such. If I stop complaining, I might have to, gasp, start writing. (And having fun.)

    Oh, I’m just going to go on muttering while I draw my absinthe bath…

  17. says

    I love this: “How cool is it that your brain can even do this weird thing?”

    Often, when I’m finished with a new book project and people/bloggers/conference attendees ask me how I did it, I have to stop and think. *How* did I do it? The process will often become a blur, ideas coming and going without conscious thought sometimes. The characters living their lives while I eavesdrop and transcribe.

    It is a weird thing! Thank you for reminding us of our gifts and passion, love and joy!
    Kimberley Griffiths Little´s last blog post ..When the Butterflies Came (Scholastic, April 1, 2013)

  18. says

    I can understand complaining about the neighbor’s noisy dog, the weather or the other side’s politics, but why would you complain about writing? To create a character who takes you places you’ve never been and puts words in your mouth you would never say continues to be a wonder to me. I love writing, and I love researching. I might complain about my computer or feel frustrated when I get my 156th and 157th agent rejections, but the writing itself is a joy.
    Vic Warren´s last blog post ..Fly with a Happy Face

  19. says

    When I start to feel sorry for myself, I’ll write a note and stick it near my desk. I’m staring at one now that says, “Love the rock you’re pushing.”

    Thanks for a wonderful post and reminder, Barbara.

  20. says

    I remember the first story I ever wrote. I was in the third grade. It was a whole page long. I got an A and a mention in front of the class. I was sooo proud.
    It was a surprise ending story where I had described my mother’s brownie dough and snuck a bite only to find out she had not yet added the sugar.
    I wish I had kept it.
    Thanks for this, Barbara!
    Judy, Judy, Judy´s last blog post ..Do you want your mother-in-law to haunt you?

  21. says

    “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?”

    One of my favorite non-fiction books is called One Small Step Can Change Your Life: the Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer. He describes the differences between Japanese and American cultures in terms of micro-improvements in manufacturing–the number of suggestions employees offer, the follow-through by management, and the size of external rewards for the best tip of the year. The Japanese have North American culture beat in this, yet their typical prize value? If memory serves, it was around $3.

    In manufacturing, anyway, something less-than-ideal happens to our mindset when we start needing/expecting sizable external rewards for what had previously been internal. Anyway, thought it was an interesting parallel.

    And thank you for the role-modeling of health re-creation.
    Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Happy Endings Plumbing (+Writer Unboxed Redirect)

  22. says

    Wonderful post! You are truly an inspiration not only for the quality of work you produce but for your commitment to nurturing our creative and practical sides. BTW- I remember having a notebook filled with pink paper. I wrote in it after spritzing my feathered hair with Love’s Baby Soft and smearing lots of Bonnie Bell strawberry flavored lipgloss over my lips. Sound familiar?
    Cerrissa Kim´s last blog post two

  23. says

    I stopped writing for a couple of years recently when I became so overwhelmed with the publishing process that I lost the joy of writing. It felt as if a part of me had been cut off. Late last year, I got back into it. Now I focus on the joy of writing. The publishing will come, but I can’t focus on it. With an hour a day to write, I simply cannot dwell on things outside the blank page. But now I do have those “4am moments,” when a scene hits me or a problem I’ve had with a plot is revealed and I have to get up and write. It’s exhausting, maddening, and leaves no time for “normal” stuff. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
    Ron Estrada´s last blog post ..Story Milestones

  24. Suzanne Link says

    I loved this blog. Writing is my joy and my passion, too. And it is a blast! Thanks for the reminder!

  25. says

    Hi Barbara,
    I let myself write poetry or fiction while I’m editing memoir and vise versa. The editing stage, which has lasted almost a year and a half now, can be a drag, but I let myself work on my fun stuff, the heady, dreamy, overheard story arcs and that seems to create a nice balance. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t write. I would cease to exist.

  26. says

    I use poetry writing to get out of that bad mood you described. Also I ask myself to try to stop being completely miserable living a dream. Another fav tactic is remembering what a friend said to me: You are on this incredible journey, just enjoy the journey.” What really trips me up is when non-writers ask me why its taking so long to write my novel (have they even written a one-paragraph blog? No. So, hy do I care what they say? Who knows, but I do! It ruins days, weeks.) Last but not least, this quotes slaps me into happiness submission: “Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine.” Margaret Atwood on writing fiction
    Diana Cachey´s last blog post ..Venice Arrival