Recovering the Joy In Writing

https://www.flickr.com/photos/lorenkerns/5204623916/in/photostream/A few years ago, I taught a class on recovering joy in the writing process. It wasn’t quite right at the time, and I have not had time to really dig into what would make it better, but I stumbled over some of the notes recently.  I have also stumbled over some discussions of burnout and loss of faith in writing, so it seems like a good time to post some of my notes.

There are many things that cause writers to lose touch with their joy. They mostly fall into a few categories:

1. Exhaustion

2. Loss of faith (in the business, in yourself, or in life)

3. Creating an adversarial relationship with the work (doing the wrong work, working with the wrong attitude, serving the wrong ethics)

4. External pressure, either from the business or life; success or failure; joy or loss.

When any of these things overwhelm a writer, the result is often a sense of paralysis, and powerlessness.

Exercise

Take a moment to be very quiet and close your eyes. Think back to a time when you first knew you wanted to write, when the possibility of it seemed incredible and wildly exciting. What was happening? What was the trigger of excitement? What did you imagine a writing career would be like?

Powerlessness often comes from a feeling that there are no choices.  But there are always choices. It’s just that we can’t always see what they are.  Take a look at the stories you are telling yourself. Can you identify your main stumbling points at the moment?

For example, you can write a sentence that says, “I want _____________, but I can’t have it because _________________.” That can be small or large. You might want to focus on the current work, or a bigger goal.

Some possibilities: “I want to write one book a year but I can’t because I need the money generated by my other work.”  Or, “I’d like to get moving again on my MIP, but I can’t because I have a sore throat and the weather sucks.”

POWER

What if you are a writer because God or the Universe or The Great Spirit needs you to write something? Is that possible?

Consider the idea for a minute. You are a writer, writing books because some greater power needs you to do it. So when you sit down to work, you’re not some ego-maniac who thinks you’re all that, you are a soul engaged in creating the fabric of the world we are living in right now. It’s a vast, vast quilt, but each of us have our little bit to do. I like to think I’m over here embroidering on my silks because it will give rest to a nurse who has been on her feet all day, or a teacher who needs to escape the demands of her students, or a lonely suburban mom who doesn’t have anyone to talk to since she had her first baby.

The term “faith” is a little wobbly for my tastes. It sounds too insubstantial to be able to do much for us. Faith sounds like it could falter, and it does, as we all know. It’s easy to get swept up into faith for a project, doing all the research in a big rush of heat and joy, and then bog down somewhere along the way. (Which is where discipline comes in, but we’ll get to that another day.)

I’m great fan of Thomas Moore, a writer/therapist who once studied for the priesthood. His books reflect a combination of spirituality and psychology that address the whole person in a way few others do. I highly recommend his book, A Life at Work, which offers a great many insights into the connection between work and spirit. One entire chapter in the book is called, “To Work is To Pray.”

This is not exactly how we’re taught to think about our work. Work, in American terms, is generally something you do to get something else—food, shelter, travel—not an end in itself. Writing, because it is so enjoyable (and something a lot of people fancy they will do one of these days) is seen as somewhat frivolous, not really work at all, and commercial fiction writers are especially frivolous.

But I don’t think it’s frivolous at all, and in fact, it takes so much devotion and energy and discipline to write books that we really have to be called to it in a deep way. We are—each one of us here—called to this work. Now, it may be that this won’t be or hasn’t been the only great work of your life. Many of us do more than one thing. I consider raising my sons to be one contribution to the world, and my writing is the other.

Thinking this way frees me in important ways:

  • I don’t have to be perfect when I do it—I am writing my own body of work, not anyone else’s. I am not the judge of my work, only the servant.
  • It allows me to let go of end results and focus on the work itself. It’s absolutely impossible to think about the eventually success or failure of a book while it’s in progress. That would be like planning for a child’s college graduation while he’s still in utero. My only job is to show up and as “Do what is mine to do today.” Isn’t that an easy way to think about the work? Do what is yours to do today. No more, no less. Just this thing.
  • It allows me to enjoy the process of making THIS particular page/book/project the best I can make it, by tapping into the pleasure of my own voice and view of the world, which obviously the universe needs to be just as it is. Just as I am, as the old hymn says. Just as you are.
  • It also means that I have access to assistance beyond myself.  Here is where faith comes in. If God or the Universe or whoever arranges these things wants me to write, if the universe needs this story, and She/It/ Spirit wants to use my mind and heart and voice to get it out there, then there is bound to be help for me. All I have to do is ask, and then listen, be willing to accept that help.

    How do you listen? You can try meditation, as Tom Bentley  suggested in his post yesterday. Julia Cameron obviously believes in morning pages. You could try writing questions and then waiting to see what answers come up. You could say, even if you don’t believe in any higher power, “I need help with this plot problem, and I’m going for a walk. Can you help me while we go?”

    It’s worth seeing what happens if you try that.

JOY

Another one of those words that makes us squirm a little bit.  But why?

Life is so magnificent. I mean really—think of it. Rome alone is worth a thousand million words, and so is the main street of your hometown, especially at dusk, when the light is coming right down the middle of the street, making the world look dusty. One of the great pleasures in being a writer is being able to say, WOW! all the time. That’s what we’re doing in our books, saying wow. Look at this amazing thing, this moment, this way things came together or fell apart.

One of the reasons we age, and one of the reasons we fall out of love with our writing, is that day-to-day trials can steal our wonder. Think of the things that are wonder-ful in your world. Think of the wonders you were driven to share when you were just starting out, and what you have dropped along the way.

Imagine that you have two hours to tell the world what you love about it, all of your favorite things—people and music and potatoes and 9 am. It’s the only legacy you will ever leave. What things will you miss, like the people in Our Town, when you get to the other side?

What fascinates you? What amazes you? What thing did you find out about when you were a kid and said,”No Way!” but it was true and marvelous. One of mine was discovering praying mantises could change color. I mean really, a bug that could DO that? Wow.

Love is a wow. Love of a sister or a friend or a parent or a lover or a child or a dog or a cat or a bird. I suppose some people find love for tarantulas and that’s great, too. We all love different things. My nephew loves to play lacrosse. My ex-husband loves football so much it’s like a song with him—Sunday, Sunday, Sunday football! One of my sons loves the law in all its convoluted, twisting beauty. The other loves muscle cars and bare knuckle fighting. (I love none of those things. My pleasures run to delphiniums and organic spinach and very early morning walks.)

For two hours give yourself over to wonder. Imagine the world is going to end and it is your job to record what is here now for all of the future of time. Shakespeare is going on my list, and root beer, bubbling up from a cold glass, and my partner’s deep blue eyes and the look of Pikes Peak on a winter morning, covered with snow and going pink with dawn, and Loch Lomond on a gloomy spring day.

Make me fall in love with your world. Go. (I accidently typed God. )

I think it’s great to have goals to reach toward, and to find out whatever you can to make a career work–to a point. We do bear a responsbility to help our book-children thrive in the world by having faith and claiming our joy.

The magic of writing, the joy of it, comes from balance.  There is a career aspect, which is the money and the editorial side and the promotions and the readers, and there is a writing aspect, which has nothing to do with anybody else.  If you focus solely on the external demands, writing for the market or the reader (which reader? the one who likes your way with words or the one who likes the sex or the one who says, I wish you would write another book like_________?) or your editor, eventually you go insane.

Sometimes, it feels like my writing is my oldest, dearest friend.  It’s a constant companion, more true than many lovers, never judgmental, always waiting.  Me and the page, always in relationship.   If I nourish that relationship by giving it time and free moments and don’t always drive it really hard trying to make something happen out there in the world, it is a deeply satisfying pursuit.

Anyone else feel that way?

Where do you find loss of faith? Where do you find the joy? Does it feel weird to think that you’ve been called to write?

 

0

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.

Comments

  1. says

    Thank you, Barbara for this reminder. It is so timely for me. I’m over the initial giddy rush of the first few releases, and that work ethic I’m so proud of is beginning to feel like I’m leashed to a treadmill on 6 – and I’m comfortable at 3.

    I’m saving this – and especially the perfect nugget:

    “One of the great pleasures in being a writer is being able to say, WOW! all the time”

    0
  2. says

    I love this post, Barbara. Beautiful, true words. Capturing the wonder in life is the best part of writing, or art, or parenting, or just BEING. This is a lovely reminder on a chilly May morning as I stare at my “to do” list, steaming mug of tea in hand. So thank you!

    0
  3. says

    My two and a half year old granddaughter says WOW all the time. Her eyes go wide and her whole face turns into a smile. It’s like watching the sun come out. Looking at her beats watching the grownups all going around with their ‘game faces’ on.
    You’re right when you say that the day-to-day slog steals our wonder. So yes, I agree, the world needs us to preserve our sense of awe. Then we can give it back in the form of story. Preserving wonder and cultivating joy is a practice. Writing is, too. I have a sign over my computer that says ‘joyful practice’ and it reminds me that there is really no arriving anywhere. Thank you for your wonderful thoughts this morning!

    0
    • says

      Susan, yes. Sometimes we need a game face to survive a challenge, but mostly writing requires the exact opposite, and complete openness to everything around us.

      0
  4. says

    I like your idea of balance, Barbara. I do lose faith sometimes; who doesn’t in this business? You mention success vs. failure, which I think is at the core of losing faith. I was just reading about “success” by Swedish psychologist Dr. K. Anders Ericsson’s “10,000 hour” rule. The premise is, regardless of whether you have an innate aptitude for something or not, the mastery of it takes around ten thousand hours of focused and intentional practice. He sites Mozart, Bobby Fischer, Ted Williams, Bill Gates, the Beatles, has having these ten thousand hour journeys exercising their crafts. That works out to 4 hours a day for 7 days a week for 7 years to achieve mastery. Which translates to me as love of work (writing), dedication, and perseverance. The other key ingredient he sites is “opportunity.” I think mastering your craft is critical and there is joy in that process and goal. Barbara, you sound like you’ve put in your 10,000 hours and caught the right opportunities!

    0
    • says

      Malcolm Gladwell speaks of the ten thousand hours, too, in The Tipping Point. I’ve also heard it said that you have to write a million words before you get to your voice, to your way of telling stories.

      I think it’s more or less true. I wrote my first novel at age twelve, so selling a book in my twenties wasn’t some weird thing–it just coincided with the ten thousand hours.

      Balance is a struggle at times, but worth it.

      0
  5. says

    You consistently dispense wisdom, Barbara, and I (gratefully) receive it. Thanks for sharing these good thoughts with us and keep it coming if/when you can.

    0
  6. Carmel says

    I tend to be a caregiver, and thinking about how my writing can help others definitely motivates me. I couldn’t write though if I didn’t enjoy the process, something that has come easier the more I do it. For a long time, I was frustrated because I wasn’t sure what I was doing wrong. Hanging around WU has helped that!

    0
    • says

      Ah, that’s a good angle for a caregiver, then. And imagine how many people might be given care by a single one of your writings, right?

      I like to imagine holding someone’s hand, someone I’ll never meet any other way.

      0
  7. says

    You touched my heart with your words, Barbara. Thank you.

    Sometimes I get out of alignment when I write, but I have a question that floats around often enough to keep my story from derailing:

    “If I could live forever, and if money were no object, would I be truly done?”

    If the answer is no, then I keep writing. And I do believe that even immortals finish projects. The difference is they do not rush, and they are full of JOY in all they do. (Oh, that exquisite word – so fitting you should use it.)

    0
  8. says

    Lovely post Barbara. I was called to medicine. I didn’t do it. Fear of failure. Fear of debt. I didn’t trust God. I was a wreck at 21, grieving over my mother’s death. Years later, as a young mother, I began to write. It was like coming home. Boy do I feel the fear at times. But when you are called to do something, and you don’t do it, the regrets run deep. So with this second calling, I’m saying yes to God. And therein lies my joy.

    0
  9. says

    “Do what is yours to do today. No more, no less. Just this thing.”

    Every day I have a battle with what Steven Pressfield calls Resistance (capitalized to show I respect my opponent). Sometimes tiny battles, sometimes Armageddon.

    I ALWAYS win. Eventually. What keeps me going and trying is the thought that what I write matters. At least to me, and I hope, when I publish it, to others.

    I just put your quote above at the top of my Resistance Journal so I can find it easily every day from now on.

    We all have to focus on long and short range plans, but that focus you talk about, ‘today,’ is the key. I can’t change yesterday (I wish!), or make myself do anything tomorrow, but I CAN write today.

    It is enough.

    0
    • says

      Do what is yours to do is a Unity teaching, by the way. The exuberant Charles Fillmore penned it a long time ago.

      It’s a big one for me, too. And not just with writing. I’ve been fretting over a family member and keeping that in my head keeps me from overdoing or ignoring the issue.

      Hooray for winning!

      0
  10. says

    When I opened my email this morning and saw that you had a post, I read all my other mail first. Too much news, too much emotion, too much stuff. I deleted as I read, until I came to your moment of calm.

    Thanks for that. Years ago I read a book by CS Lewis. His thoughts have become jumbled with all the others along the way, but I remember the title. Surprised by Joy.

    When things get really crazy and I stop paying attention, I remind myself of that title. It helps in life, works pretty well for writing, too.

    0
    • says

      I don’t think I’ve read Surprised by Joy. Adding it to my list–thank you!

      Honored that you saved my post for last and found it nourishing after the chaos of the inbox. (Boy do I know that feeling!)

      0
  11. says

    Thank you! Barbara, I needed this and so did several of my writing buddies. We all need to remember that there is a reason to write *our* story.

    0
  12. says

    Great reminder. Thanks for encouraging us all to craft the best we can. I know several writing buddies who will appreciate these thoughts too.

    0
  13. says

    When my writing went nowhere, which was most of my life, it was merely something to do, but then it became the calling you describe. Often when I become discouraged or weary it conspires to make it possible for me to continue, sometimes against impossible odds. Now, I take walks and have started to explore meditation. I want a more direct connection with the source. Thanks for this post.

    0
  14. says

    I don’t know if I’m called to write as a minister is called to serve. I’m guessing that we’re just given gifts, or talents, and what we do with them is up to us. Just like any gift. Every writer I’ve met has wanted to write from a very young age. It bit me in the 7th grade. But 99% allow life to take over. But, really, does life take over? We don’t have to “just write” any more than we have to “just garden.” We have money-earning careers, families, responsibilities that take up our time. It’s up to me to make sure all are taken care of, including the writing. I absolutely do not have faith in the industry. Anything influenced by the whims of mortal men is not something in which to place our faith (US Government…’nuff said?). We can have faith in the gift of our talent. The only thing we control is what we do with that talent.

    0
    • says

      Certainly the business is beyond our control, though I have at times had great luck and pleasure with the industry itself. I suppose it is a little like the government, in that it is made up of humans, not drones that carry out directives. I have vast fondness for many of those humans.

      But yes, doing the work of showing up is everything.

      0
  15. says

    Wow. I will say that about this post. Here I am this morning, midway through the most demanding novel I’ve ever attempted, admittedly tired, and you made me remember so many of the wow moments of my 35+ years of writing, and that makes me want to get up and dance for a bit.

    Bless you, Barbara, for that. It’ll carry me through today at least, with a better attitude toward the work.

    0
  16. says

    Barbara-

    What a great follow up to Tom’s post yesterday. Funny how that happens. A community begins to think along the same lines.

    Joy in work, work with joy. That’s so free and so right. “For two hours give yourself over to wonder.” I have long wished that book publishing contracts contained not just a delivery date but a required period of play. Time to spend in the world of one’s story and simply wonder.

    If they did, then perhaps standalone novels would always dazzle, second novels would match debuts and series would continually top themselves.

    I have never lost the joy of writing. It has been my best friend since I sat down long ago in front of an IBM Selectric typewriter to meet my first deadline, which was for a (pretty awful) category romance.

    There hasn’t been a day since when I have not wanted to write. I spent a year “blocked” but even then hacked at the wrong novel every day. Something inside wouldn’t quit. I eventually found the right next novel (thank you Nancy Drew) and have felt the joy ever since.

    0
  17. says

    Thank you Barbara! This post is such a gift.

    I’m about to dig deep into challenging revisions, and what I realise I need to capture most in the story is joy.

    0
  18. says

    Barbara, Shakespeare and root beer, in the same sentence. Just reading that gave me joy. To know that writers can put the uncanny, the impossible, the risky into their words.

    And that a piece like yours here, that its words can make emotions well. Wow. That’s some fine root beer, Ms Shakespeare.

    0
  19. Poeticus says

    Since I’d heard the Poet’s Journey call at an early age, faith has been a constant companion. I had unshakeable faith I would one day reach the destinations I’d intuited from joyfully broad, long, and deep reading.

    My faith as yet unshaken, I’ve reached those destinations. Not per se from fully fulfilling public recognition yet, from knowing beforehand I was underequipped, falling short of my mark, for my own satisfaction. Publication is the beginning of a new journey leg, one I am equipped — now — for, and faith that too shall come to pass.

    The journey has been fraught with detours, backtracks, idle plateaus, distractions: the doubts that box in a writing block, not a block so much as a wanted puzzle piece missing its revelation; doubt the signal for the pause of growth, and signal for another learning moment.

    Singlemindedness has served to widen my horizons so broad all the universe continuum is a story, that only filtering through the manifold offerings, options, choices yet holds me back. Though I now know my voice, my message, my aesthetic such that that veil too dissolves.

    I have faith enough for a lifetime, for reaching the Poet’s Journey’s never-ending end, mindful of the one end, the bitter end.

    0
  20. says

    I truly enjoyed reading your post, Barbara. I almost didn’t take the time to visit WU, feeling guilt about not getting right to work on my current MIP. Now having read it, I hope to get back to work with a renewed appreciation of how lucky I am to be doing it, making my unique contribution to the quilt of the world.

    I will be looking for Thomas Moore’s A Life At Work. Thank you for the recommendation.

    However…I’ve been puzzling over the photo of the horse in the snow, an image so very familiar to me, having horses and living in a part of the country with winter snow. I usually find joy watching my horses in the snow, knowing that they have a nice pile of hay to visit whenever they’re hungry. In this case, can I assume it’s illustrative of a writer who has lost the joy in his work?

    Thanks again for the inspirational post.

    Ruth

    0
  21. says

    Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU! I have been struggling for a few months with my writer joy-aka it was missing. I finally did some evaluations, some taking time for me, exercising, and just mindfull nothingness and this week I see my joy returning.

    But your blog post is a reminder of what steps I can do to make sure I never loss it again.

    Perfect timing and thank you!

    0
  22. says

    I so enjoy all your posts, Barbara! I understood everything you shared. I write because I must. Telling me not to write is like telling me not to breathe. I love it. I hate it, but that’s me.

    0
  23. says

    “What if you are a writer because God or the Universe or The Great Spirit needs you to write something?”

    Wow. I’ve been so obsessed/overwhelmed by the business end of writing that I haven’t written a fresh word in a year. I worry about who my target audience is, what’s my brand, which genre should the next book be, am I doing enough social media, yada yada yada… I forgot that I used to believe (and am sure I still do) that my god gave me my writing talent and passion for a reason – to write! Doh! I might never be “successful” if I don’t do all the above yada-yadas, but if I’m doing them at the expense of my creativity, then I don’t want to be successful. I can still write and have all the joy of writing even if my manuscripts never leave my desktop. You reminded me the joy is in the writing – not where it might go, but just in what it IS. Excellent post. Thank you.

    0
  24. says

    Thank you. If I let all the other things get in the way and I forget about joy when I am writing, then for me, I have lost the point! Lots of reasons why that happens and then if I let go, the joy re-emerges.
    Also for those of us who love our work, we are indeed the lucky ones.

    0
  25. says

    Great post. Joy for me is often the process of writing. But when I find it hard to get to the desk and work, I walk. That revives me, stimulates more ideas and I can go back and find a new rhythm. Thanks.

    0