This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.
How do you keep the joy in writing? How do you put it back in when you’ve lost it, particularly if you are working on a longer project? These are questions I often struggle with in my own work, even if the project is one that I’m generally happy with and committed to. I asked novelist Claire King whose debut novel The Night Rainbow has been published by Bloomsbury if she could share her thoughts with us. Claire combines work, writing and family life (originally from Yorkshire, she lives in southern France with her husband and two young girls) and is now revising a second novel. I’ve found her thoughts inspirational and hope you do too.
How do I keep the joy in writing? Claire King
You asked how I keep the joy in my writing, or put the joy back in when I’m struggling with it. I feel as though I could come up with a short list of tips like going for a walk, using writing prompts to kick off a piece of flash fiction or reading something inspirational. But in the end that would sound glib, because lacking joy is more fundamental than just being a bit uninspired or bogged down and needing to take a break.
I would define Joy as a sense of well-being, happiness, exhilaration even, and one of my favourite quotes on life in general is from Richard Wagner:
“Joy is not in things; it is in us.”
I think this is important on many levels, not least in raising the question: where does the joy come from in us? My view is that it’s to do with how we define ourselves, what we believe makes us happy and our lives meaningful. Writing is certainly one of element of how I define myself, so if I lose the joy in writing then I am losing joy in myself. Perhaps that sounds terribly over-dramatic, but isn’t it true that however you define yourself in life, the joy waxes and wanes? We may not always admit it to others, but there are times when we can lose the joy in learning, in parenthood, in being a spouse, in food, in sport, in our bodies, in our environment. Somehow all the colour goes out of it and we wonder if we will find that again.
One of the nice things about getting older is the accumulated experience of life’s ups and downs. So when you hit one of these patches you know that you’ve come through it before, that it’s cyclical, and that if you press on you will come through.
Yes, there are some days when I find writing frustrating and energy sapping, days I just can’t find the right words no matter how hard I try. There are some days I can’t even discipline myself to try properly at all, and then I feel bad about myself, and call myself names. But then there are the days when it just all comes together, when I lose effortless hours advancing the story and pushing the right pieces into place. When characters bloom and take on a life of their own. When perfect expressions seem to fall from the sky. And those times are rewarding, exciting and joyful. I have to remind myself of that.
Still, there’s no use just waiting for the joy to come back. I think we have to hunt it down again and that means figuring out the underlying reasons for why it was lost in the first place. Perhaps we are tired, discouraged, pre-occupied, or overwhelmed…If we can put a name to it, we can start to find ways out.
I’ve found, personally, that I have a sort of mental ‘bank account’ that fills up with triumphs and successes in the things that matter most to me, and depletes with failures and admissions of defeat. If writing is going badly it’s a drain on the reserves. A slow trickling debit. But it can be offset by little credits in other areas. One of the reasons I walk/run regularly is because it’s physically demanding. Once I’ve pushed myself up the mountain and galloped back down again I feel better about myself and what I can achieve. I think it’s important to have something like that, that gives you small victories in your life’s pursuits.
When I started writing The Night Rainbow I was pretty much constantly exhausted from having two very young children and juggling all sorts of work and personal matters. It seems like a crazy time to start a novel. But I realised that my entire time was devoted to the care of others and earning money to live, and in some ways I felt as though I was losing myself. I needed to do something to redress that.
Don’t get me wrong, raising my children was very rewarding and I was so inspired at that time by the joy I saw in my children. They found joy in the smallest things – a caterpillar, an iced-lolly, a drinking straw. I felt positively jaded in comparison to them, and I wanted to explore that in my writing.
In that novel I wrote a mother character, Maman, who is clearly depressed and not functioning at pretty much any level, spending most of her time in bed. Maman isn’t me, of course, but I think I was overwhelmed by how much my daughters needed me, and I was worried that this inability to cope was inside me somewhere. It was cathartic creating her, and it’s really interesting reading the early reviews coming in and seeing how they respond to that character. I’m so pleased that readers can empathise with her plight.
One important element of Maman and her depression is that she is lonely and alone, which serves to deepen her troubles. She has no-one to talk to. I think we should always bear in mind that losing our joy on whatever level is not unusual and that we’re not obliged to tackle it alone. Other people can help remind us why we are doing this, remind us of the bigger picture, and what’s important. They can also help on practical levels, take responsibilities off our shoulders, give us encouragement or rest or whatever we need to find ourselves again.
At the moment I’m living a peculiar juxtaposition. On the one hand there’s the utter brilliance of being a couple of weeks from the launch date I’ve waited so long for, seeing wonderful reviews already coming in and being able to hand over a signed copy of my novel to my mum. Joyous. On the other hand I’m editing my second novel and it is such hard going. I haven’t showed it to anyone yet, because I’m not proud of it. The voice isn’t perfect, the character arcs stutter a little. I often wonder if I set myself too ambitious a task with this one. It’s like being on a roller-coaster all day.
But I know that if I change one word at a time, eventually it will take shape. I know this because it’s not my first novel, and I’ve felt like this before. I have to ignore that joyless inner voice who tells me to have a cup of tea and turn on the TV instead. I just have to put one foot in front of the other until I get there. The joy in these words will be around the next corner, I’m sure.