Who Let the Joy Out? Humph, Humph.

You’ve heard that expression (which always sounded to me like nothing more than an utterly fatuous promise) that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear?

I’d returned from the Muse and the Marketplace writers conference held earlier this month, in Boston, feeling first overwhelmed by the conference itself, then downright paralyzed. For days afterwards, I felt in a daze—my creative faculties on hold. And I suffered a deep unease, as if some vital element of my person was being snuffed out.

I couldn’t blame the conference. I’d been exposed to a lot of valuable experiences and ideas about writing and the writing life. (More on those in a later post.) But it was learning all this stuff, some new, some not, that contributed to a growing discontent I’d been feeling for some time.

Then I came across an essay by Ethan Gilsdorf, whose formidable writing creds bowled me over. (I mention this because I felt anyone with so large a reputation was taking a risk by going public about his failure to work on the writing project that’s called to him for years. At the Muse conference, I’d taken his “Writing the Risky Personal Essay” class. Clearly the man practices what he preaches.)

I couldn’t imagine any blog post speaking to my situation more directly and profoundly. In “This Blog Post is a Pep Talk,” Gilsdorf wrote:

“As writers, we … need to take pleasure in our work…. We need a project … to fall in love with again. The kind of low-pressure, it’s-OK-if-you-fail, writing for the joy of writing project.”

I stared at my computer screen, frozen. That was the poke, the permission I needed. Even though I’m a writing instructor, I’d paid so much attention to other people’s writing rules that I’d discounted my own authentic voice, lost faith in the writing that had gotten me published and garnered kudos and the occasional award in the past, and worst of all, let it stymie my joy in the writing process.

In my early career, I avoided writing classes because I feared they would exert too great an influence over my own style. But as I progressed, I felt I needed more skills in order to advance my writing. But one has to cherry pick what advice to take and what to leave in the orchard, and at some point, what with my extensive business and professional writing and absorbing so much advice from different people and trying to adhere to the rules, peculiar preferences, (and word counts!) of literary magazines and other publications, I no longer felt connected to the writing I was doing, nor did I enjoy the process of producing it.

If I want to regain my joy in writing, I need to refuse to let my writing for money or attempts to win prizes dampen my desire to write from the heart. To recapture joy in writing, I need to carve out time and mental space for the thinking and writing that means most to me, even if it doesn’t get published or isn’t otherwise acknowledged.

Gilsdorf didn’t offer any writing advice. Instead, he did what essayists are supposed to do: explored a personal subject and engaged his audience (primarily) of writers with that exploration.

By the way, for me, the personal exposure in this blog post makes it feel uncomfortably like a risky personal essay.

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11 thoughts on “Who Let the Joy Out? Humph, Humph.

  1. I think every writer has experienced this at some time or other, probably more than once, if they get past it the first time. I know I get discouraged, when I think too much about the market and promo, or about what kind of stories I “should” write if I want to sell. It’s when I focus on doing it for its own sake, for enjoying just sitting at the computer and creating, that reminds me of why I do this. Looks like you’re well on your way to recapturing the joy — and may it stay for a good long time!

  2. Thanks so much for your words of encouragement, Jennette. (I have to admit it’s nice to know one isn’t suffering alone!) But I’m convinced nothing good would ever have been written, even by the well-known writers we admire, if writers didn’t learn to get back to the writing they truly love.

  3. Wonderful essay, Lynette. So critical to keep the marketplace from trumping our love affair with the muse.

  4. Lovely essay – inspiring even for those of us who are not trying to get published.

  5. what a great story! I admire your honesty and work ethic. Teacher, teach thyself!

  6. I thought of some better words to explain why I liked this essay so much: it applies to any passion that gets caught up on the shores of opinions and bureaucracy.

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