It’s true that people write the advice they need to hear, and I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t been the perfect model for a happy writer.
I had some bad years. Mrs. Bookfox definitely saw the worst of it. Part of it was chemical issues, but also I had such extravagant fantasies about writing success and none of them were coming true.
And I’m not an outlier — in the writing groups I’ve been a part of, and the writers I’ve known, many have struggled with either sadness or depression.
For me, I’ve worked on both the physical side and the attitude side in the last five years, and I’m happy to say I’m in a much happier place now.
If you’re struggling with the attitude side, this post should help you. In some ways you can jury-rig your happiness — if you do the type of things that reliably bring happiness. Let’s call it the social science of happiness.
Below are actual techniques I’ve used over the years in my writing life, and looking back, in those times I’ve been really satisfied, at peace, and happy with my writing.
Reread the Book that Made You Want to Become a Writer
I first knew I wanted to become a writer when I read Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”
The lush language, her philosophy of living, the careful observation of the natural world — it was the most beautiful book I’d ever read, and all I wanted to do was to join her project of transforming words into emotion.
Sometimes you have to go back to the origin. To remember why you write at all. We need those reminders.
Every few years, I’ll crack open Dillard’s book again and remind myself of why writing is valuable, and remember how it feels to experience epiphany after epiphany. My entire spirit is uplifted in those moments, and I feel that rush of energy necessary for good writing.
Do Some Guerrilla Poetry
I am not a poet, but I love poetry.
So I used to handwrite excerpts from famous poems and post them in public places, usually parks.
Then I’d wait, watching my twins as they played on the playground, until visitors came by and read it.
I loved watching their surprise as they realized it wasn’t another flier, another governmental notice, another yard sale advertisement, and instead a mosaic of artfully arranged words.
I dare you to do this without smiling. Seriously, it brings joy.
It’s like a happiness hack. Spread the words, writers!
I’m posting an example of a poem by Mary Oliver that I’ve posted. It’s not even a particularly happy poem, but that doesn’t matter! The joy comes from ambushing people with art when they least expected it.
Schedule a Praise Session
Writers receive an enormous amount of criticism. You’re probably part of a writing group and when you give your material to them, you get to listen to an hour of criticism. Which is wonderful and necessary. But sometimes, it’d be nice to listen to kind words.
Where can you find such kind words? It’s like hunting a mythical beast.
I would recommend a praise session. Call up your writing bestie and exchange a new piece of writing with them. A small piece. And then meet up over drinks and spend 15 minutes extolling all the virtues of each other’s writing.
“You are hilarious! I snorted 6 and a half times while reading this! And your characterization of the protagonist was O’Connor-level genius. You always write such fantastic first lines! Gurrrlllll, you gotz mad skillz!”
No critiques. There is always enough of that. Just for this one time, just praise.
Give a little love, get a little love. We writers need some love.
Throw a Party for Someone Else
Got a friend with a book coming out? Throw them a party! Put up some red streamers, bake some bacon-wrapped dates, and invite all your writing friends and enemies.
Your friend can answer questions, much alcohol will be drunk, and some books will be bought.
Plus, your friend will love you forever. It gets tiring doing all the promotion when a book comes out, and if you can take over a bit of that responsibility for them, it will fill their heart with joy. And that joy will spill over and fill your heart with joy.
Have a Mission Bigger than Yourself
Ultimately, if you spend all your time chasing your own goals as a writer, you’ll come up feeling empty. You have to align your personal writing with some larger project.
That means not only writing short stories and publishing them, but also championing the form of short stories and joining communities of short story writers.
That means not only creating your own writing community, but thinking about how to help others create their own writing community.
If you’re a spiritual person like I am, then you might want to connect your writing with a larger goal of helping people with your writing, or convincing people of a larger truth about life, or even of honoring God by creating beauty.
The secret to happiness is always giving of yourself. How have you shared your writing talents with others?
You can volunteer to read to retirees at an old folks home. Not one of your own pieces (you don’t need that pressure!). Read some poetry you like, or a funny passage from David Sedaris.
Or volunteer at an 826 center, teaching elementary school kids how to write a story. By donating your time and attention to the next generation, you’ll be injecting your life with some meaning and perspective.
You can also donate actual money to an organization like PEN International, which helps oppressed writers around the world, even helping them get out of their country of origin if they need to go into exile.
When you’re working steadily on a project, life is all roses and daisies. Some of my greatest stretches of happiness as a writer is when I’m deeply immersed in a project, writing on my 42nd day of writing in a row. (Little bit of advice: don’t take weekends off — keep your streak going).
You can’t help be happy because you see the steady, incremental growth. What writer wouldn’t be happy about a project of their own design growing under their very eyes?
So structure your life so that you can write for at least one hour every single day (I would recommend early morning). This kind of routine brings an enormous amount of well-being, peacefulness, and shalom. No matter what happens the rest of the day, you’ve already accomplished the most important part of the day.
Design Your Life Around Pleasurable Writing Experiences
Do a Literary Pilgrimage. Seriously, next time you’re taking a trip (or considering where to go), research the authors who lived in that place and visit the diner where they wrote, their grave, the street named after them, their statue. Paying tribute to a great writer is inspiring.
Redesign your bookshelves. Build custom bookshelves. Or buy new bookshelves. Or reorganize your books. I guarantee you’ll end up stopping, revisiting some favorite books, and coming away with joy in your soul.
Do a personal writing retreat. I’ve rented a hotel room at Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach for weekend writing retreats (during the off season, so it’s not mucho dinero). I write for a few hours, go out and enjoy the surf and sun, then go back to writing. Whenever I do it, I feel like I’m living the writing life well.
Coveting is at the root of almost all writing unhappiness. You’re coveting that famous agent that your writing partner landed. You’re coveting that big book advance your university colleague landed. You’re coveting a publication, a spot in a famous literary magazine, a review in a big newspaper, and spot on the bestseller list, the praise of an editor.
There is no end to the things you can want. And that hunger will eat you up inside and rot your spirit.
The Buddhist way of dealing with coveting is to eliminate desire. So you stop coveting anything, whether good or bad things. I respect this method, and I think there’s a lot of wisdom in it, but since I come from the Christian tradition, I’ll speak into that. The Christian tradition says not to stop desiring, but to switch your desire to better things.
Start wanting smaller things: a good morning at your desk, dutifully typing away. The pleasure of a well-crafted phrase. The admiration of your spouse. The community of your writing friends. The knowledge that you’re writing what you should be writing, and being content with that.
If you can either stop desiring or shift your desire, you’re going to be a much happier writer.
Focus on the Work, Not the Result
There’s that famous E.L. Doctorow quote:
“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
That advice is equally true for how to live the writing life. You don’t want to focus on things deep in the distance — fame, money, security, admiration, publication.
You want to focus on what’s right in front of you: the words on the page.
You have control over those words on the page, but you don’t have control over anything else. In fact, you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment if you concentrate on what’s going to happen after you write.
And I’m definitely writing this to myself: For so many years I daydreamed incessantly about what was going to happen after I finished X novel or Y book, but would have been much happier had I been focusing on the road right in front of me, driving the next leg of the journey.
Break Yourself Out of Ruts
I’ve been most unhappy as a writer when I’ve been slugging away at something that’s not working.
Perhaps I’ve been working on a story too long. Perhaps I’ve been working on a book that simply doesn’t work.
But it’s such a pleasure to start writing something else.
- Write a personal essay about a secret you’ve never told anyone.
- Write a blog post.
- Write a letter to your grandmother.
- Write a letter to your mother telling her what you wish you would have told her before she passed.
- Write a dirty limerick.
- Write a pun-filled sonnet.
- Rewrite a famous movie script in the twang and cadence of an Old Western.
- Write fan fiction that puts the characters in outer space.
Boredom = unhappiness.
Solution? Stop being bored. Change up your project.
Be Content with What Happens
Look, big spoiler alert: my short story collection “I Will Shout Your Name,” did not make the New York Times Bestseller list.
It didn’t win any big literary awards.
It sold a solid but smallish number of copies.
But I’m still happy about it.
Because I get emails from friends and strangers telling me they really like this or that story, and why. Every day someone out there is connecting with my brain, seeing how I process the world, and that’s an enormous joy and privilege.
I don’t have to be famous. I want to be known. And I’ve been blessed for the last six months as readers have encountered that book and told me, I see you. I enjoyed that. This made me cry. This made me laugh.
All you can control is your reaction to what the world gives you. And I’m choosing to view it in a positive light, and to treasure the details.
Get Around Other Writers
Make an effort to get around other writers IRL (in real life).
I happen to be an extrovert, and so sitting by myself at a computer all day long is not my ideal existence — conferences and writing retreats and community reading and any other chance I have to rub shoulders with the literary crowds gives me shivers of pleasure. I leave with more energy than I arrived with.
And I know this might sound like tortuous advice to the introverts out there (sorry!). For you all, I’d recommend trying to find a more intimate space to interact with another human being — a one-on-one meeting, perhaps.
Ultimately, living life is isolation is not the best route for happiness. Happiness happens in community, whatever community you choose to build as a writer.
All right, Bookfoxers. It’s your turn!
What are your happiness hacks to be a happier writer?
Any and all advice appreciated in the comments.
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