Protect Your Joy

Last night my writing coach asked me to revisit two authors whose work I had mentioned as points of reference for this project.

They were Viktor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning after his time interned in various concentration camps during the Second World War, and Albert Camus, a philosopher who fought in the French Resistance and wrote The Myth of Sisyphus.

The summary line in Frankl’s book was this:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedom — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

And here’s Camus’s:

“Man stands face to face with the irrational. He feels within him his longing for happiness and for reason. The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world.”

Both were prolific, highly respected writers whose work I deeply admire.

So, when asked to create a thesis for this book as succinct as theirs, I felt a bit panicked. Tall order, I scrawled next to the to-do item when I added it to my list for the day.

I slept on it. I journalled. I did other work. I procrastinated on Wikipedia, reading about their lives in search of even a tiny thread of similarity between us.

(Plenty between the two of them, not so much with me.)

About 4pm this afternoon, cooking in my own frustration by the fire, and missing out on playing with Obi and his puppy papa in the field next door, I thought, Screw it. I’m going outside. Something will come to me.

Something did, and it was advice that I have given others many times.

Comparison is the thief of joy.

I’m not trying to write my own version of The Myth of Sisyphus or Man’s Search for Meaning. I’m trying to write The Draft. The fact that I’ve never been in a war zone or a prison has nothing to do with whether I have something useful to say.  

The gap I needed to close today was in the self-assurance that’s necessary to make such a bold statement about my work, without worrying if anyone thinks I have the right or experience to do so.

I also had to remind myself that I was comparing my draft with their final, published version.

Writing such a self-assured and bold statement doesn’t happen in one take.

It starts as a page, then a paragraph, and then a few different versions of that paragraph, and finally, maybe it gets whittled down to a couple of perfect lines.

So my point today, , is that when you’re writing — or doing anything challenging, for that matters — try to remember that comparing your work to someone else’s will steal all the joy from the process.

Yes, there’s benefit in studying other people’s work. But holding yours up next to theirs, as the small child in you start to cry over all the ways it’s not perfect… that doesn’t help.

Try to keep some fun in your writing. It’s no good doing it if it’s always dead serious.

Experiment with interesting words, chase down that flow state that makes your body zing, make things up to amuse yourself.

Stand in the window as the thief tries to climb up to steal what’s yours, and slam it shut.

Your writing belongs to you, and its gifts belong to you, so protect your precious joy. It’s the ever-burning fire that will keep you going.