Writers on Writing #80: Brenda Peynado
Write Your Joy
Most importantly, follow your joy. Write your joy. This does not mean write only happy moments, or only write about the things that make you feel content. On the contrary, you should write about the things that tear you apart, because that is where you can look into your own depth. You should write about the things that make you want to scream, that’s how emotional they are. (See Robert Olen Butler's From Where You Dream on this subject.) But that is the subject of what one writes about, not how. Follow your joy means find joy in the process itself of writing.
Here's the thing about writing. Most of us don't write a novel or even a short story in one sitting. Even if we do, we still have to revise it. Possibly again. And again. And even after that, there's the road to publishing it, which can take years. So if you only find joy in having written, you're going to have to wait a very long time before anything you have is so done, you can look back on it and say, "There, that was nice." Most of us have to return to the blank page repeatedly every day. Every minute we are distracted, we must recommit ourselves. If this is an arduous struggle every time, face it, you're about to embark on a life path that you don't enjoy, no matter how much you've romanticized the life of creativity that comes with being a writer.
It's a hard lesson. Most people you ask will tell you that of course they enjoy it. But the truth is often more complicated. A lot of people enjoy not being in the business world with their bosses they felt enslaved them. Some people enjoy being students for another seven years, if they get their MFA and PhD. A lot of people have been told they are good at this thing called writing, that they have talent. And maybe they're not good at much else. Those alone are not enough reasons to be a writer. If you don't actually enjoy sitting down to the page, the actual typing of the sentences, don't send yourself down a road of torture. Writing is a conglomeration of baby steps, each moment you say, "Oh yes, I'm going to go write now," and mean it.
But be honest to yourself. The rest of your life could depend on it.
I learned this the hard way. I left a great job in Information Technology because I wanted to be creative and do things that "mattered." It was an epic battle every time I sat down to write. It was whole weeks before I looked at a blank page and then I'd binge-write a story for my MFA classes. Once, a teacher told me, more or less, that I'd never be a writer, not if I wasn’t actually writing. I cried and I resent her to this day, but in the end, she was right. I spent years battling myself with the novel I was going to write, those stories I would eventually figure out. With not much to show for it. It's like exercise. If you have to battle yourself to even put on your sneakers, probability is that you'll think “Maybe tomorrow. Tomorrow,” each day and then before you know it you haven't put them on in a year. It's like any sport. If you don't enjoy practice, then how will you ever have the drive it takes to put it in the hours needed to win? How will you ever write a novel if you don’t like writing even a page?
So what do you do if you discover you don't enjoy writing?
Option 1) Be honest with yourself. Quit. Nobody cares if you don't write that story. Really. Go back to the business world. No one will judge you. Most people will be relieved. There's absolutely no shame in realizing something doesn't bring you joy.
Option 2) Find your joy.
So I graduated my MFA, feeling pretty glum. I had written a magical realist novel that wasn't any good but breezed by when I was writing it. I had ten or so short stories, only two of which I'd enjoyed writing. Most of them weren’t worth sending out. And then I hit on something. The things I enjoyed writing the most were the stories that had magical or surreal elements in them. That element gave me a sense of wonder as the story was unfolding that was missing from my realism. The emotions in the story were still raw and strange and uncomfortable, but gosh darn, I actually looked forward to writing them. Every time one of my characters sprouted wings or grew a third arm, I thought, "Yes!" I showed the stories to some of my workshop members and a lot of them said "Eh." But one friend (now my fiancé), one of these people who lives to write, felt sick when he wasn't writing, enjoyed every moment of his tales--he said, “Keep at this, you've got something here.” And I kept writing them. In a four month's time I had written fifteen new stories, more than I had written in my entire MFA, because I had found my joy. I forgot what people thought was good, what I had talent in, what would be easier to publish, and just wrote what I enjoyed writing.
For many of you, your joy won't be writing magical realism. Maybe it will be writing those maximalist sentences you’ve always loved, exciting plots or sci-fi or young adult fiction while this whole time everyone told you that you wouldn't be respected unless you wrote literary fiction. Maybe it will be writing about those moments in your past that just tear you apart when you think about them, but people have told you is too melodramatic for fiction. That happened to me too, when I wrote a story in the middle of drowning between three jobs and barely having time to eat or sleep or just breathe, about that same experience. Maybe it will be discovering a particular character you love so much that every sentence about them is you trying desperately to redeem their flaws, like what happened to me with a story about a flawed father who takes his family on a ski trip. Maybe for you, it is as simple and subtle as just making that first moment of sitting down to the page more pleasant. Shrug off the pressures of making it good, shrug off that insane word count goal that makes you binge write and then starve from not writing for weeks. Just write one sentence that makes something happen, that sounds nice, or that presents a situation that interests you. Take a bite of a donut for each word. You're just playing, remind yourself. This is supposed to be fun, remind yourself. This is supposed to be a life that brings you joy. There, now you've written a sentence, which is one more than yesterday. Reward yourself with candy. Try another sentence. Celebrate.
Here's the thing, it won't necessarily make you a better writer, unless you're counting that you're practicing way more often and probably getting incrementally better. There are still people to this day who purse their lips when I mention the next story I'm working on, with ambulances floating above the city of New York, or a group of radioactive Venezuelans with superpowers storming the US border. "I wish you wrote more stories like [insert realist story that did well in workshop here]." And that's fine. But it will make you a writer that actually writes, which is better.
In the end, it's often not a matter of talent that will produce the stories, the books, the publications. It's actually writing them. If you have both, so much the better. I've seen this time and again with writers I know. It's the ones who didn't write, no matter how talented, who are doing some other job now, some of them still nursing the idea that they really should be writing, some of them finally honest with themselves that they were better suited for other careers. It's the ones who wrote, who loved the everyday of writing regardless of their talent, who have work getting published. In the end, it’s up to each person to find their joy in writing and sustain it.
Brenda Peynado has work appearing or forthcoming in The Threepenny Review, Black Warrior Review, Pleiades, Cimarron Review, 3rd Place in Glimmer Train's Fiction Open Contest and others. She received her MFA from Florida State. She is currently on a Fulbright Grant to the Dominican Republic, writing a novel about the 1965 civil war.