Thursday, April 18, 2019

Remember Joy

Dear Beginning Writer, Dear Veteran Writer, Dear Writers Everywhere,

There is really no reason to be a writer if writing doesn't bring you joy.

I think writing does bring joy to most of us. But too often we fall into the trap of thinking that writers are supposed to be suffer, agonize, starve in garrets, bleed onto the page. We find ourselves competing for the misery prize, trying to outdo each other for the accolade of being named Most Miserable.

Although I love much about Annie Dillard's brilliant book, The Writing Life, I have to accuse her of a being a notorious offender in this regard. Here are two of her observations about the writing life.

A neighbor politely asked her about her writing. "I said I hated to write, I said I would rather do anything else. He was amazed. He said, ‘That’s like a guy who works in a factory all day, and hates it.’ Then I was amazed, for so it was. It was just like that.”

And this:

“This is your life. You are a Seminole alligator wrestler. Half naked, with your two bare hands, you hold and fight a sentence’s head while its tail tries to knock you over. Several years ago in Florida, an alligator wrestler lost. He was grappling with an alligator in a lagoon in front of a paying crowd. The crowd watched the young Indian and the alligator twist belly to belly in and out of the water; after one plunge, they failed to rise. . . It took the Indians a week to find the man’s remains.”  !!!!

I recommend instead the view of writing espoused by Brenda Ueland in her equally brilliant book, If You Want to Write. She tells us to "stop thinking of the creative power as nervous and effortful; in fact, it can be frightened away by nervous straining.” In fact, she dismisses this perspective on writing as "all fear and conceit." 

Whereas Annie Dillard claims that it takes ten years to write a book, Ueland doesn't recommend laboring over our writing. She says, “there are wonderfully gifted people who write a little piece and then write it over and over again to make it perfect – absolutely, flawlessly, perfect, a gem. But these people only emit about a pearl a year, of in five years. . . . But this is all a loss of time and a pity. For in them there is a fountain of exuberant life and poetry and literature and imagination, but it cannot get out because they are so anxiously busy polishing the gem. And this is the point: if they kept writing new things freely and generously and with careless truth, then they would know how to fix up the pearl and make it good, in two seconds with no work at all.”

Ueland's image of the writer is not a Seminole alligator but this: “you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountain top, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten – happy, absorbed, and quietly putting one bead on after another.”

I choose to live my writing life like Brenda Ueland. Let’s stop competing to see who can be the most miserable. Let's admit - to ourselves - and to our colleagues - and to the world - that writing is - yes, FUN! It makes us happy! We love to do it! It's not always easy, and there will be crippling self-doubt, and fear of rejection, and actual rejection, and the dark nights of the soul. But there will also be joy.

Let's remember the joy.



  1. Yes! Even when writing is its hardest, it's a joy for me. I love the image of a kindergartener stringing beads together. That's the perfect analogy!

    1. Thanks, Rebecca. I think the bead-stringing analogy is especially lovely for children's book authors who want to remember our child selves as we write.

  2. I agree with the bead-stringing analogy. Why suffer with a joyless thing when putting words, phrases, sentences on paper should be a celebration. Here's to happy writing moments.

  3. The days I can tap into the joy are the most productive I have!