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Is Writing Work?

I’m tempted, of course, to make this the shortest Writer Unboxed post in history. (“Is writing work? Yes.” Done!)

Writing is work. Hard work, sometimes. Frustrating and challenging and exhausting, yes, those too, all too often. It’s work because we sometimes get paid for it; it’s work even when we don’t. It’s work because it takes genuine effort, thought, focus. It’s work because it isn’t play.

Except, of course, when it is.

Have you ever had a work in progress you love so much, it feels like play? Like you genuinely can’t wait to sit down and dive in, to discover where the story and the characters are going? Like your imagination gets to go hog wild, and you’re just along for the ride?

Writing is still work then, but it’s also play, and it’s glorious.

Another temptation: I’m tempted to say that if your work in progress doesn’t feel like that, then you’re writing the wrong story. However! There are times during every single book I write where it feels like a long, hard slog. Like hard work. Like I want to give up. (Sometimes I do give up, even; it never sticks.) And every single time, the book has turned out fine. Better than fine. It’s always work I’m proud of when it’s done. Even if, during the process, there were times I thought I’d rather kickbox with the Rock than tackle a particularly snarly chapter.

So what makes the difference between writing that’s work and writing that’s both work and play?

Personally, I don’t know the answer. For me, it’s not about genre, though I will say I’ve been feeling it more lately, in the new genre I’m writing in. (My pseudonym keeps busy!) It isn’t about whether or not the book is under contract — the pressure I put on myself generally feels worse than any deadline pressure, at least so far. And it isn’t entirely about the stage of the work, though the words certainly come faster in the early writing than the later, get-it-right revision stage.

I think it has more to do with alchemy. When all the right factors are present — the story is there, the words are flowing, even the problems are interesting problems — the work of writing becomes a work-play hybrid. You get out of your mind and into the story. You let go of the work and somehow, it makes you work harder.

Q: What makes your writing work feel more like play?

About Jael McHenry [1]

Jael McHenry is the debut author of The Kitchen Daughter [2] (Simon & Schuster/Gallery Books, April 12, 2011). Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. You can read more about Jael and her book at jaelmchenry.com [3] or follow her on Twitter at @jaelmchenry.