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?