Recovering the Joy in Writing

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.

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.”

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 eventual 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 “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, and be willing to accept that help.

How do you listen? You can try meditation. 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.

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 accidentally 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 responsibility 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.


This essay first appeared on Writer Unboxed and is republished here with permission from the author.


Barbara O’Neal (aka Barbara Samuel) has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including How To Bake A Perfect Life, a Target Club Pick, and The Lost Recipe for Happiness, which won the RITA in 2010, bringing her total number of RITA awards to six. Her books have been sold to Italy, Australia and New Zealand, France, Germany, and Poland, Brazil and Hungary and many others. Barbara loves olive oil and peaches, good ale and gardening, big dogs and all cats. She’s also a long distance walker who traveled a portion of the Camino de Santiago Compestela in 2010, and hopes to return to walk the rest in the near future.