How to Rediscover the Joy of Writing

It’s something of an irony that most of us come to writing because we love it—and, yet, it’s actually really freaking hard. Only somewhat tongue in cheek, I will often advise that if “you can not be a writer, then don’t.” And yet it is abundantly clear that more humans than not need to write. (And my more truthful advice is “everyone should write.”) But what happens when you lose the joy? Is there a way you can learn how to rediscover the joy of writing you experienced way back at the beginning of your journey?

Here’s the thing: we may initially come to writing because it brings us joy, but I think we tend to keep writing as a search for joy. Whether we’re writing purely for entertainment and escape or as an attempt to explore and make sense of the human experience, writing is one of our most powerful tools for healing, growth, and transformation. This means that, by its very nature, writing is a journey of change. If we start the scene with joy, we can know we will eventually arc into disillusionment, frustration, and perhaps even sorrow. But if we keep writing, we can also be assured we will arc back into joy.

Over the last few years, I have been sharing the occasional post from behind the scenes of some bumpy moments in my own writing life. I have arced through all of the above emotions, all the way down into the despair that perhaps writing was done with me and I was done with it. But I stayed with it and am quite happy to report that, yes, I learned how to rediscover the joy of writing.

Recently, I received several emails on this subject, asking that I comment on the need to learn how rediscover the joy of writing and to offer any insights from my own journey down this road. One email was from long-time reader Joseph Merboth, who eloquently expressed a disillusionment with writing that I think many writers experience at one point or another (and who graciously allowed me to share his words):

This is perhaps too specific a question or too personal to my life. But I also know that you believe writing reflects life and vice versa, so maybe the answer lies somewhere in between.

For the past 7 years I’ve relentlessly pursued writing, but now I’m questioning everything. Do I want to be a writer, or do I just want the freedom to create at-will and not work a normal job? Do I love storytelling or am I just geeking out about the mechanics? Am I creating from a sense of joy or of duty?

One problem is that I never had an infatuation period. I was a latecomer to the party (relatively speaking), so there are no early memories of terrible novel attempts to look back on fondly. My love comes from reading, and somewhere along the way I realized I didn’t want to just consume anymore. This led to me studying the craft, which was thrilling at first as I uncovered a complex world of symbolism and rules and rule-breaking. But it has also served to disenchant my reading. I’m no longer in awe when I read a good book; I’m either self-satisfied because I know how it works or I’m lost in analysis.

If I’m being honest, each day of writing is a chore. That’s to be expected at first, but seems like a bad sign 7 years on. I think I’ve also lost sight of my ambitions. I used to write with a desire to change lives, to be an inspiration and bring hope. Ah, the naïvety. I’ve grown cynical in the last few years (something you might relate to), and that calls into question why I’m doing this at all.

Is it possible to rediscover the joy? How do you put your heart into it when you’re writing out of obedience to your schedule, your self-expectations, or your flimsy sense of purpose?

If you can’t identify with any of this, feel free to ignore my email. I just thought there was a chance you’d worked through some of the same questions yourself.

Sorry to be a downer! Your blog posts have had a new vitality lately, so I’m hoping that means you’re moving onward and upward.

Today, I want to share a few of my thoughts on the topic of learning how to rediscover the joy of writing. I can’t speak to a universal experience for all writers, but I can speak to my own experience, in hope it may provide context for others who are struggling through some of the more difficult phases of the journey.

Are You Transforming? (Or, The Stages of the Writing Life)

The first thing I would emphasize is that the writing life is a journey. It is a not a straight line to the horizon; it is not a one-size-fits-all container that holds the same experience for every one of us. In fact, if you’re pursuing writing with any degree of honesty and integrity, it is sure to be a highly personalized, often challenging, sometimes volatile quest into the unexplored regions of yourself and human consciousness. This is true not just in regards to what you write, but also in how you relate to the act of writing, your sense of purpose, and your relationship to discipline.

No surprise that one of the most intuitive models through which to view the writing life is story structure. Story structure is nothing if not a map to the full panoply of human emotions. Sometimes there’s joy, of course, but there’s a lot of suffering too. There’s a lot of doubt. There’s a Dark Night of the Soul, for crying out loud.

My own experience has shown me that, like most aspects of life, writing goes through phases or cycles (call them “acts” if you want). I read somewhere that three- and seven-year cycles are seen as important in personal transformations and spiritual awakening. I personally resonate with this. The current phase in which I find myself began seven years ago, and I now reach what certainly seems to be a resolution of sorts.

Early on in that cycle, I wrote the post “When Does Writing Get Easier? The 4 Steps to Mastery,” in which I talked specifically about the Arab proverb that says:

Arabic Proverb

At the time I wrote that post, I felt I had experienced all four stages. I wrote that I had reached:

…a very interesting new mountain peak. Frankly, it’s a mountain peak I didn’t know existed. No one ever told me it existed (or, if they did, I laughed at the whole idea and promptly forgot about it). But I’m here to encourage you that it does exist, and it’s name is: The Place Where Writing Gets Easier Because You Actually Get It.

I wrote that with some trepidation, since the acknowledgement seemed to baiting life to come slap me upside the head with the “next” thing. And, boy howdy, it did. Within a year, thanks to a potent cocktail of life experiences, I was struggling to write at all. A year later, I had to admit I was suffering heavy-duty writer’s block.

Not a lot of joy in that period, I gotta tell you. But here’s the thing about cycles: they don’t just repeat, they spiral. If you stay faithful to what the experience is able to teach you in the moment, you will not only advance out of the difficulties of the moment, you will also level up. When you regain the joy of writing, you will find not simply the same old joy that brought you to writing in the first place, but a deeper and more meaningful joy. A hard-won joy.

Why Are You Writing? (Or, The Golden Thread)

When we are struggling in one of the ebb periods of the writing life, a relatably common thought is, “What’s the point?” If you’re not enjoying it, if you’re not receiving all the results you’re looking for, then why keep doing this?

This is not a rhetorical question. Maybe the truth of your journey is to push through, to keep going, and to spiral up to that new level of the joy of writing. But maybe it’s not. Maybe writing has taught you what it’s meant to teach you at this point, and it is time for you to listen to a deeper wisdom and journey on to the next phase of your personal journey.

Creating Character Arcs (Amazon affiliate link)

Indeed, as the crisis points in story structure and character arc show us, these low moments in life are designed to trigger exactly this kind of soul-searching. At the end of the day, the question of “rediscovering joy” isn’t really about writing at all; it’s about life. And, straight up, writing is not the be-all-end-all of that path for every single person who decides to walk upon it for a time.

There is no shame in that. Showing rigorous integrity in being honest about your own reasons and motives for anything is one of the highest callings of being a human.

So ask yourself: “What’s your golden thread?”

Why did you come to writing in the first place? What has kept you writing all this time? And… is it still true?

Many of us come to writing in a haze of idealism. We’re going to make the world a better place. Or maybe just create an awesome lifestyle for ourselves.

Idealism is important. I believe in idealism. I identify as an idealist. But ideals, by themselves, can’t light the dark when the going gets tough. Per shadow theory, when idealism is overemphasized, cynicism is likely lurking in the shadow. That doesn’t mean the idealism wasn’t true, but if it’s to offer accurate guidance, it must first be integrated with all the other truths of one’s self.

One of the reasons writers—especially highly disciplined writers—may be disillusioned is that we can mistake the form of things for the truth of things. This can happen when we do all the “right” things, all the things we would do were we indeed motivated by true passion, wonder, and joy, only to eventually burn out and discover that we have been, instead, simply running on the motivation of “doing it right.” Although putting in that level of work and discipline will always pay off in some areas, if those actions are cut off from our true heart, things will eventually feel flat at a certain point.

However, just because we are more accustomed to referencing “the way to do it” versus “what my heart says,” this does not mean that, when we get in touch with our heart, it won’t indeed want the writing life after all. But (and here’s something I took the long road to learning), it doesn’t count until you actually get into the habit of asking your heart and listening to it.

This is a whole journey of its own, one that for many people who run highly-disciplined personality patterns, often involves the invitation to deep self-work and discovery.

Are You Really a Writer? (Or, Identities vs. Desires)

The process of identifying your golden thread can often lead you to the realization that many of your reasons and motives for writing may have more to do with “identities” than “desires.” This is most obviously true in that many of us are deeply identified with being “a writer.” If we were to stop writing, that identity would no longer fit—and that, in itself, can bring up ego resistance from primal places that actually have little or nothing to do with our deepest desires and truths.

Beyond the identity of “writer,” however, we must also examine broader and less obvious identities such as simply “hard worker” or “intelligent analyzer.” Although identities like these often point to personality traits that are incredibly useful and valuable, preserving these identities is not, in itself, a worthy motive. When you wake up one day and realize the only reason you’re writing is because “you’re supposed to,” you suddenly comprehend why writing doesn’t seem joyful anymore.

Another identity to examine is that of “published writer.” Many people grow frustrated with the writing journey when they are unable to access the level of results they feel is necessary to justify their efforts. Perhaps they want to be published, perhaps they want to sell a certain number of books, perhaps they want to make a certain amount of money. When it doesn’t happen, it feels like a cheat, and cynicism moves in to fill the gap.

You have to ask yourself: “Is this really why I’m writing?”

And maybe it is. Maybe you are very clear that the reason you’re writing is because you want it to be a job and pay for itself. When it fails to do that, your truth may well be that it’s time to move on. (And by the way, even if you’re totally in alignment with moving on, you still have every right to grieve the disappointment and the transition on your way to, hopefully, celebrating the lessons.)

If you can acknowledge that material results are not your true motivation for writing, then returning to those deeper reasons, over and over again, can help you focus even in the darkness. Ultimately, this is a process of reclaiming wonder. It is returning to “beginner’s mind.” When we have reached the proverb’s fourth stage—in which “we know that we know”—it is indicative that the cycle is beginning again and we are in fact once more at the first stage—in which “we know not that we know not.”

After we have spent so much time and effort studying and perfecting our understanding of the techniques and theories of our craft, it is common enough to reach a feeling of burnout. It is worthwhile to celebrate our discipline and our accomplishment in how much we have learned. But when we notice our own self-satisfaction or a tendency to over-analyze, that can be turned into a call to return to humility and the recognition that the more we think we know, the less we do.

Therein lies the return to wonder—to innocence. Yes, we still know what we know, but all that allows is for us to stop asking the same old questions—and find new ones. And I’ll be straight: that ain’t easy. Your reward (and I use that word with sincerity) for reaching the mountaintop of knowledge and accomplishment is to realize, Honey, you don’t know nothin.’ If you can identify with that, it becomes much easier to let the path take you where it will.

What Is Joy Anyway? (Or, Embodied Joy)

And now, a word on joy itself.

Apart from the mind games we like to play with ourselves and the potentialities for ego evolution, as discussed so far, there is also the little fact that joy absolutely can be lost. And reclaiming it is not as simple as adjusting our mindsets and talking ourselves back into happiness and acceptance.

Joy is a physiological experience. This means that when your body has habituated itself out of joy, getting it back isn’t always a simple proposition.

I do not view joy (or love) as an emotion, but rather as a state of being. This means it is something we can train our bodies to access even when circumstances are not conducive. There are many ways to go about this, and the true journey of somatic reprogramming is far beyond the scope of this post. But I will mention again a little daily practice I do that has initiated long-lasting and life-changing effects for myself. Whether or not you currently find yourself struggling to learn how to rediscover the joy of writing, this is a practice that can deepen your connection with your golden thread—with the truth of how you find and foster meaning in your life.

It’s simply this: While sitting calmly in a relaxed state, close your eyes. Call joy into your body. If this isn’t immediately accessible, try imagining or remembering a time when you felt strong joy. Now, notice where you feel it in your physical body. (For me, it shoots up my spine to the top of my head.) Once you can identify how your body experiences joy, practice accessing this feeling at least once a day. A continued practice will allow you to eventually grow the ability to physically access joy whenever you want. The more you develop this skill, the more powerfully you can wield it.

The One Thing I Would Tell Little Writer K.M.W.

I’ve been imagining stories all my life—since my earliest memory. I started writing when I was twelve. I began with nothing but joy and wonder and curiosity, knowing nothing and not even knowing I knew nothing and not caring.

Later on, I started journeying through the well-mapped territories of writing techniques and theories, where I had only to look to the expertise of those who had gone before to guide me.

But eventually, I ran out of map. In order to keep going, I had to walk right off the edge of the known earth and face the dragons for myself.

And out there, in the frontiers, things got confusing. They got scary. There were days when the joy went out of the writing altogether. There were many, many questions—because without the joy, surely it meant I must be doing something wrong.

There were days when I couldn’t always see my golden thread. Then I’d find it again, shining in the shadows. And eventually, in front of me, there was a whole new horizon of light.

And, now? Now, there are days when writing is a slog; days when it is bliss. In other words: back to normal.

All these years later, if I could go back to the side of my very young self—as she was telling herself stories in a treehouse just for fun—would I give her any advice that might make the journey easier? That might ensure she never had to go through all that trouble of losing the joy for a time? Would I tell her not to work so hard, not to burn herself out, and to be so very, very careful never to lose the wonder?

No. I don’t think I’d tell her any of that. I think the only thing I would whisper in her sweet ear is:

“The art isn’t what you’re writing. It’s what you’re living. The story isn’t what’s on paper. It’s your life.”

Without doubt, joy is one of the most important experiences of life. But it’s not the only one. If ever you feel you’ve lost the joy of writing for a time, don’t think of that as an answer to some cosmic question about whether or not you’re destined to be a writer. Rather, I invite you to think of it as a question. What is its absence here to teach you? In my experience, it is only in submitting as a student that we can truly learn how to rediscover the joy of writing.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions? What are your thoughts on how to rediscover the joy of writing? Tell me in the comments!

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Author: K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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  • August 21, 2023