What’s the Story #62

"We are most likely to find joy when we're fully absorbed in something and, thus, transported beyond the ordinary distractions and discomforts of daily life"

I don’t know about joy—joy seems like an extreme emotion—but I do know what brings me delight and pleasure: writing and living the writer’s life. I find great satisfaction in the routine: up in the morning, 5:30 am, thinking about what I’m going to write that day, where I’m going to start, and what might happen in the story I’m trying to tell; crawling out of bed, pulling on my Levi’s and boots, walking the four blocks to Starbucks, where the baristas know my name and usually have my Venti Dark waiting; returning home, ducking down side streets, avoiding neighbors I have known for decades because I am focusing on my work and don’t want to lose my train of thought; walking into my office, sitting in front of my keyboard, opening the folder of my current project, taking in the work I have done, and figuring out how to move forward. 

I start almost every day this way, and I love it. 

And I love the stories. There’s a delightful challenge—and, yes, a joy—in building them. In creative nonfiction, you are writing stories that have already happened, whether to you or to others. I often try to turn myself into a camera and adjust my internal lens to see what I am writing from various perspectives. I look at the story, scene by scene: first, from far away—a long shot—to visualize where it is taking place; then, gradually shifting into a close-up to connect with the characters I am writing about, to know what they look like and describe them, to hear and repeat what they say or said. To establish suspense and surprise and bring information and ideas—and, I hope, emotions—to my readers.

All the while, I am remembering what happened, consulting my notes and transcripts, and sometimes commenting, reflecting, on what I was thinking at any given time during the event, and what those involved told me, and what it all might mean to the reader. All this while, I am in two worlds: deep into the action and energy of what is happening in the story and also immersed in my role as creator/reporter of the story.

In this issue, Jennifer Niesslein dissects the complicated joys (or, sometimes, the lack thereof) of the writing life, viewed through the perspective of positive psychology. She concludes that the greatest satisfactions of writing—and other creative activities—are best found in achieving “flow.” I think that’s about right. Writing can be difficult and painful and frustrating, but when you’re in the middle of it and it’s going well, there’s nothing like it.

Another way to put that might be to say we are most likely to find joy when we’re fully absorbed in something and, thus, transported beyond the ordinary distractions and discomforts of daily life. 

Certainly, that’s the case in some of the essays in this issue. In “The Wanting Creature,” Jennifer Sinor recalls her family’s audience with the Dalai Lama, completely derailed by her worries about not making the most of the opportunity: where would they have the best view, the best chance of a blessing, the most meaningful experience? Brendan O’Meara, in “The Gentleman’s Guide to Arousal-Free Slow Dancing,” remembers the tremendous collective anxiety leading up to his eighth-grade Dinner Dance. These stories, and the others, suggest that joy emerges only unexpectedly, only when we stop searching for it. 

A study published earlier this year in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry found that people generally become happier as they age. Researchers suggest this might be due to a number of reasons, but I wonder whether part of it is just that we get over ourselves, a bit. We become less self-conscious and a little less hung up on what other people think and expect of us. In “It Wasn’t Until I Was an Old Woman that I Began to Enjoy Being Beautiful,” Toi Derricotte observes, “[W]hen you are old, you are willing to make mistakes for beauty, willing to wear a silver purse that might make someone wonder. . . . You will wear something only because it makes you smile inside for its square of light against the darkness.” 

We’re also very pleased to have, in this issue, a new essay by Brian Doyle, who has been a steady contributor to Creative Nonfiction and whose work, maybe more than that of any contemporary writer I can think of, has consistently and fully embraced joy—not only, as in this essay, “The Wonder of the Look on Her Face,” the joys of the writing life, but also the joys of life itself. 

Creative nonfiction, as a genre, has sometimes been criticized for being sort of depressing, for focusing on stories of death and illness and strife. We thought this issue would pose an interesting challenge to both our writers and our editors, and indeed, the number of submissions we received was lower than usual. It’s a tough subject. And now, as 2016 draws to a close with the world in turmoil, we find joy in especially short supply. But maybe we’ve succeeded in our challenge with this issue, and maybe these true stories of finding joy even in the least likely of circumstances will offer some hope.

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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