The Joy of Writing

Using positive psychology to identify the pleasures of putting words on the page

I work at the kitchen table, and sometimes my husband or son will wander in, take one look at me, and ask, “Are you OK?”

“I’m writing,” I’ll say, as my features rearrange themselves from Ominous Writing Face into the familiar Natural Resting Bitch Face of their loving family member.

I don’t yet subscribe to the old chestnut attributed to Dorothy Parker—“I hate writing, I love having written”—but, for the most part, the act of writing doesn’t bring me joy. It would be nice if it did; who doesn’t want to spend their days in joy? But, according to research in positive psychology, a relatively new branch of psychology that homes in on positive emotions, it’s probably for the best that it doesn’t. Joy is overrated.

• • •

According to Martin E. P. Seligman, PhD, who’s credited with being the grandfather of positive psychology, the problem with describing joy lies within our very language. In his book Authentic Happiness, Seligman points to Aristotle and the ancient Greeks, who had two distinct words for what we English-speakers tend to lump together in one big glob of generally positive feelings: happiness, joy, pleasure, gratification, and so on. Taking inspiration from the Greeks, Seligman divvies up these feelings into two basic classes: pleasures and gratifications. Writers get to reap rewards in both categories.

Pleasures, as Seligman describes them, are “evanescent, and they involve little, if any, thinking.” Bodily pleasures, for example, are just that—physical pleasures. Unless you get some weirdo kick out of the feel of your fingers on a keyboard, there’s not much bodily pleasure to be found in the act of writing.

A notch up from bodily pleasures, according to Seligman, are “higher” pleasures. He arrived at the definition of this more elevated class of pleasure, he tells us, by checking out the thesaurus for synonyms of joy (and then the synonyms of those synonyms) and then crossing off all the body stuff, like orgasmic. He was left with a variety of categories of higher pleasures that can be intense, like kick and excitement; less intense, like fun or glee; or the emotional equivalent of a cuddly blanket, like comfort or relaxation. This category would also include the kind of pleasurable experience writers seek to evoke by using just the right detail to put readers in a scene. Think of Marcel Proust’s madeleine. Think of the chilled bottles of white wine in Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story. Think of all the beautiful things described in River Teeth’s “Beautiful Things” column.

We’ve probably all had some moments of delight—that’s a higher pleasure, too—while writing. I know I have. Half the reason I write is to make inside jokes with myself, which I know damn well are the darlings I’ll later have to kill. (I’m a sucker for mash-ups of the intellectual and pop cultural.) In “The Fun We Can Have (an Essay about an Essay),” Randy Osborne writes:

As writers, I believe, we’re often conveying (sometimes deliberately, sometimes not) more than the words on the page seem to mean. I believe we write in a code that’s understood by readers, even when they’re unaware of what they comprehend. This can become for the writer a kind of game.

Or a competition. In “ReflexLOLogy: Inside the Groan-Inducing World of Pun Competitions,” Peter Rubin—the author of the essay and a contestant in one such competition—writes of his fondness for puns: “Polysyllabic rhymes aren’t strictly puns, but they’re made of the same marrow; when Chance the Rapper rhymes ‘link in my bio’ with ‘Cinco de Mayo’ in the song ‘Mixtape,’ I get an actual endorphin hit.”

There’s not a thing wrong with indulging our pleasures, Seligman asserts, as long as we don’t go hog-wild with them. After all, the more you indulge, the less pleasure that indulgence will bring—even the most ardent pun-makers have to annoy themselves after a while. (In fact, according to Authentic Happiness, one study on pleasure-seeking taught researchers more about addiction than pleasure.) In other words, when you spend your time obsessively rereading the passage you’re so proud of, it may start to feel more like literary masturbation than authorial pride. Then, boom: you’ve pleasured yourself all out. Pun intended.  

• • •

Besides, the jollies you can get from wordplay are limited. Show me a writer who was in it purely for the fun, and I’ll show you twenty pages of an unfinished manuscript. It’s just not enough to sustain you through writing an entire book. Although his book is titled Authentic Happiness, Seligman’s overall take on happiness is along the lines of how most of us think of, say, a happy marriage. It’s not that every minute is bliss and taking his ass to Red Lobster. It’s that the relationship (whether with your spouse or your readers) is worthwhile. Rather, happiness springs from something bigger—and more rewarding. In Authentic Happiness, Seligman calls this “the gratifications.”

“The pleasures are about the senses and the emotions,” he writes. “The gratifications, in contrast, are about enacting personal strengths and virtues.” He takes a page from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, another psychologist, best known for his research into the concept of “flow.” Csikszentmihalyi, according to Seligman, found that the gratifications share eight “psychological components,” including “the task is challenging and requires skill,” “there is a sense of control,” and “time stops.”

Flow is, as a wise man once said, “The moment. You own it—you better never let it go.” It’s when you get caught up in something so interesting that you lose track of everything else going on. And—this is key—you’re not feeling anything at all.

Flow is one of the greatest gifts to creative types—and to writers, especially during the dreaded first draft when so many of us look at the blank screen and get hypercritical of something that only exists in own heads. (THE SELF-DEFEATING BEHAVIOR IS COMING FROM INSIDE THE HOUSE!) Julia Tausch, in her essay “Guys in My MFA,” describes flow (without naming it as such) like this:

Though I didn’t reflect on it much at the time, when my writing was working, my thoughts were gone. Section breaks and dialogue appeared where they needed to, and got pushed and pulled into order in a similar way—in an entirely intuitive state, during which I got out of my own way.

The problem is, flow isn’t easy to achieve, especially in this age of ever-present distractions. (Honestly, it took me a good forty-five minutes to get into writing this, and only then because I ran out of turns to play in online Scrabble. This is probably why writers get so much butt-in-the-chair advice.) “Absorption, the loss of consciousness, and the stopping of time may be evolution’s way of telling us we are stocking up psychological resources for the future,” Seligman writes. Later, he reveals the real benefit of flow—it’s a gateway to what we’re all really seeking:

When an entire lifetime is taken up in the pursuit of the positive emotions . . . authenticity and meaning are nowhere to be found. The right question is the one Aristotle posed two thousand five hundred years ago: “What is the good life?”

• • •

So, how can writers square the emotionless concept of flow with “authenticity and meaning”—especially when our creative nonfiction contains elements of grief or trauma? By necessity, some emotion has to be involved; otherwise, we’d all be writing encyclopedia entries. This is the place where it gets a little messy for writers. Flow is helpful but not completely necessary. Sometimes less-than-positive emotions fuel amazing work. 

Speaking with Sarah Einstein, Kelly Sundberg explained how the timing between trauma and the writing affected (for the better) the final draft of her masterful essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset,” about her marriage to an abusive husband:

The common mantra in nonfiction is that writing shouldn’t be therapeutic; the therapy needs to come first. I think that’s generally true, but when I started writing this essay, I hadn’t worked through my issues yet. Nonetheless, I felt compelled to write the essay. I asked a friend, a poet, if he thought I should wait to write about the abuse, and he pointed out to me that I might not want to revisit those feelings later. He was right. I’m glad I started this essay when I still felt disoriented by the abuse because if I wrote this essay now, it would be very different. I don’t love my ex-husband anymore, and I don’t have as much sympathy for him—it would be difficult for me now to render the loving scenes so lovingly—so the first issue in crafting the essay was timing. 

Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of the best-selling Between the World and Me, told NPR this:

I try to be as direct as I possibly can. I don’t attempt to make people uncomfortable; I think that my standards in terms of art and journalism always have necessitated my discomfort. The process of getting conscious for me was a very, very uncomfortable, disturbing, and sometimes physically painful process. 

So, positive psychology, why would we risk pain and discomfort to craft little chunks of our heart and throw them out into the world? 

It’s all part of the bigger picture. Remember, Seligman doesn’t view happiness as most people do. To extend my “happy marriage” metaphor, discomfort is the part where we argue with our loves about, say, how many kids to have or how close to live to the in-laws—not deal-breakers, but uncomfortable issues to overcome for the greater good.

How we view our work and our relationship with our readers—and how our work exists in our culture—can also be part of the greater good. For the sake of this piece, let’s call writing our “work,” regardless if it pays the bills. (I wrote about the economics of it in an essay for the Fall 2015 issue of this magazine.) In Authentic Happiness, Seligman offers various frames through which we might consider our work: as a job (something to suffer through to get to our real lives), a career (something to advance through to get recognition), or a calling (something you believe contributes to the world).

Obviously, the calling category is the highest. And writing is a calling. Well, maybe not all writing, per se, but writing coupled with the desire to connect with readers. Even if you’re writing straight-up humor or escapist work, like genre mysteries or romance, we all need pleasure, and it contributes to a greater good. (Martin Seligman said so!) And if you’re writing creative nonfiction, especially about the tough stuff, I believe we all could use more perspectives than our daily lives afford us.

It took me a long time to feel OK about seeing my own writing and editing as a calling. This passage from Kathryn Chetkovich’s essay “Envy” slayed me:

I was raised to admire a life of service, and to this day, I do admire it. When I see someone bend to the task of helping another, I think she is doing the work of all, the human job. But someone else’s good deed never stabs my heart the way a good book does. I admire it, but I do not envy it. 

I imagine a lot of us come to writing with this mindset. I have friends whose parents caution them not to “act better than they were raised.” When critics of memoir and essay toss off words like self-indulgent, they’re poking at the raw parts of us, the parts that doubt we’ve sufficiently turned experience into art, the parts that worry we haven’t sufficiently earned the lives that our ancestors’ sacrifices—toiling away in the factory and working the night shift at the mental hospital—afforded us.

My editing work is what turned me around and let me embrace writing as a calling. We live in a culture that’s so divided that a good number of our citizens can’t recognize the humanity of their fellow citizens. Creative nonfiction—especially essay and memoir—are uniquely suited to humanize the people who exist only as caricatures in the minds of readers who don’t know anyone like them in real life. We might not be writing for these readers, but we can somehow affect some of them. 

More important, though, are the readers who are like us, the ones who never saw themselves in any literature before. And the readers who thought they were alone in their struggles before they came across your work. And the readers who walked away from your writing with their visions of the world tweaked. And the ones who send your work to someone they care about, the ones who accompany it with a message: “I thought this might help.”

And that offers gratification, and maybe even a smidge of joy.

About the Author

Jennifer Niesslein

Jennifer Niesslein is the editor and founder of Full Grown People, editor of two FGP anthologies, and author of one memoir. She’s currently on hiatus to write a book.

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One thought on “The Joy of Writing

  1. “Literary masturbation.”
    “Literary masturbation.” Guilty. Nice one, Jennifer.

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