Enjoyment vs. pleasure.

sarah on canoe IMG_6614

If you feel safe in the area that you are working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you are capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you are just about in the right place to do something exciting. — David Bowie  

Writing a book is deep play and deep work.

That’s the signature experience of the flow state. You feel relaxed and energized at once.

Though it is always challenging, writing a great book never feels like a burden. 

Though it brings joy and fulfillment, writing a great book doesn’t feel like leisure.

It sounds like a riddle, doesn’t it? 

This elusive state is, like all true things, a paradox.

In this context, “great” doesn’t mean “prize-winning” or “critically-acclaimed” or even “published.” Those can all be beautiful and affirming bits of feedback for us writers, but that’s not my point here.

What I mean by “a great book:”

  • When you look back at what you’ve done, you feel satisfied and proud. 

  • The writing was a transformational process for you, in some way.

  • You wrote the book that only you could write.

  • The writing feels alive.

  • You wrote the book that you want to read.

Notice how it feels when you’re making art, and track that feeling, so you get to enjoy more meaningful and purposeful writing time.

If writing is so enjoyable, why is it hard to make time for it?

Though it sounds counterintuitive, experiencing total creative absorption requires discipline.

When we enjoy writing, it isn’t quite the same as the pleasure of a vacation.

Enjoyment needs focused concentration.

Pleasure is the contentment that you feel when all your expectations are met: a full belly after a great meal, Netflix and a bowl of popcorn, resting in a hammock, watching the clouds.

Enjoyment is more complex. 

Every August, we go on an eight-day canoe trip. 

We prepare for this trip all year, planning our route, meals, and gear. When we are out on the water, away from our wifi and the rest of civilization, we are challenged every day.

The weather is unpredictable. The portages are muddy and, sometimes, unmarked and hard to find. To boil our water for coffee, we need to find dry firewood. We have to keep our food safe from bears. We have to keep ourselves safe from bears!

Canoeing is one of the most enjoyable things I do in my life.

While I love them more than anything, I do not consider these trips a vacation. Canoe trips are not relaxing.

This is how I feel about writing: I love it. And there are hurdles and challenges and risks in every phase. I do it because I enjoy it. It’s not the same as work, but it’s not leisure, either.

As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes in Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience, enjoyment is found in the space between boredom and anxiety.

The edges of space may shift as you experience more in your writing life.

Where are your edges?

You may have cracked the code on subtext in dialogue, but now you want to tackle the omniscient point of view. Or maybe you’ve written a lot of smart, funny personal essays, but now you want to try to write a YA fantasy series. 

Track your writing practice. When do you feel most alive? When do you feel out of your depth? Where do you feel safe?

Where is your pleasure, and where is your enjoyment?


Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you purchase something using one of these links, I may earn a commission. I only recommend books or products I trust.

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Sarah Selecky

Yes Julie -- ABSORBING. Sailing is such hard work! And also it must be incredibly rewarding to put those skills to use and feel the movement over water. I love the comparison to sailing/writing and I wonder if there's a CNF book in there somewhere? Like Murakami's "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running," but for sailors?
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Jule Gabrielli

I love this comparison between writing and your canoe trip. I feel the same way about sailing. It sounds idyllic, and sometimes it is. But it is often challenging and can be downright frightening - when (not if) the weather blows up. Another word that came to me reading this is "absorbing." Being on the Bay—watching clouds, setting sails, adjusting sails, watching weather, staying away from cargo ships, reading charts—demands full attention and concentration. The reward is full-body engagement and a different head space than regular life. A great writing session feels much the same.
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Julie Gabrielli

It's completely magical when you've got the sails up and you cut the engine and you're still moving. And all you can hear is the sluice and slap of water on the hull and the hum of the rigging. Love the idea of exploring this further. (Though I confess - I don't know what "CNF" means . . . oops.)
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