We all want easy: easy money, easy relationships and easy jobs.
At least, we think we want easy.
As soon as situations get tough, we say things like, “Why does everything have to be so hard?” or “Why does everything have to be a drama?” We believe life would be so much better, so much more enjoyable, if everything played out hitch free. The problem with easy though, is that it can easily become boring and even dangerous.
One scientific study conducted in 1950 showed that a struggle free life can actually lead to…death. The study placed a group of rats into an optimal ‘utopian’ environment where food and water were aplenty and predators were non-existent. Initially, the rat population expanded rapidly. However, 600 days later, the last remaining rat died. Over the course of these 600 days, the male rats became increasingly more violent (even cannibalistic) and the female rats became infertile. One lingering question from the study was whether or not a ‘nature kill switch’ is triggered when a species has no perceived threats; or in other words, challenges.
We’ve all taken on tasks we would’ve preferred not to. Sometimes they’re personal, like moving house, starting a new exercise program or decluttering your home. Then there are the work challenges, dealing with difficult clients, working as part of a team or taking on a project indefinitely. Despite the stress and responsibility associated with these tasks, a deep sense of satisfaction usually accompanies their completion.
Writing is no different.
As Laurie Steed says, “Writing is hard but worth it, always.”
There are some writers who view their craft through the lens of joy while the rest see it as exhausting and painful. Both however, feel compelled to do it. Stephen King says he loves writing so much he’d do it for free. Though, he’s quick to add that he’s glad to get paid for it!
In her creative manifesto, Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert rejects the notion of the ‘tortured artist’ in preference for art created joyfully. However, Gilbert does not paint any illusion about the process. When it’s time for her to begin writing, Gilbert rolls up her sleeves and gets to work. No drinking, no late night, strict farmer’s hours. The visual artist/author SARK once sarcastically described her process as “sitting on a chaise lounge in the sunshine while listening to the early morning birds and writing down the words that flow through her like rare honey.”
There is a reward in completing challenging tasks. The reason why we feel good after an intense workout is because it was challenging, because it made us uncomfortable and because we wanted to give up. If you finish though, there is a genuine since of relief, pride, accomplishment. (And you know, the whole endorphins thing comes into play but that’s a different discussion).
Every challenge has its own reward. You climb to the top of a mountain – who’s summit looked impossible from the bottom – and are rewarded with a spectacular view. This can often be followed by a sense of surprise. Surprise that we actually did the thing. Surprise that we actually followed through; because let’s be honest, so often in life we don’t follow through. We don’t typically do things that look like work, or that we don’t like, or that make us uncomfortable. As Dorothy Parker said, “I hate writing. I love having written.” Rob Bell says his writing got easier, ironically, once he accepted that writing was exhausting and the man has written eleven books!
In Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, a book about the psychology of optimal experience, the author describes these challenging moments as “a person’s body or mind [being] stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worth while.” Csikszentmihalyi also highlights that these experiences may not be pleasant. Climbing a mountain isn’t pleasant, training for a marathon isn’t pleasant and neither is writing a book.
Crafting a novel is a long game. Obviously, there are exceptions. There are people who can smash out a first draft in a week, skip the revision and hit the publish button. If you want to produce something meaningful though, something you can be truly proud of, then you best settle in because producing multiple drafts, memorable characters and perfect pacing is work and that work takes time.
Writing is the mental equivalent to hiking, it’s uncomfortable, draining and solitary.
The words do not flow like rare honey.
The prose that reads effortlessly is often the hardest to write.
The ability to take an idea and communicate it clearly in as few words as possible is a skill. We all know how to write, we all know the basic story structure of beginning, middle and end, but that doesn’t mean that everybody is a writer. We all know how a piano looks and sounds, and yet we don’t all walk around thinking “I can play the piano.” Unless, of course, you can actually play the piano…
The point is, writing is a skill and a craft developed through deliberate practice and concentration. The reward is in the improvement of your skills and your ability to follow through to the end. Randell Jarrell said that a novel is a long piece of fiction that has something wrong with it. In other words (while keeping with my above metaphors), you can still finish a song despite hitting a wrong key and you can still climb a mountain long after the wind has blown off your cap.
Your sense of victory is not necessarily connected to the pleasantness of a task, but the completion of it.
Image: Grim Reaper Thinks by John Chandler