Rediscovering the Joy of Writing: Six Lessons for a Lifelong Habit

Once upon a time, you loved to write. Maybe as a child you spent hours in your room, scribbling imaginative stories. Or maybe you picked up poetry in high school. Or maybe during college you took refuge in a private journal, your prayers and outpoured hopes finding their home on paper.

But then somewhere along the way, the joy faded. Maybe you’re an undergrad, and though college seemed to promise a writers’ Eden, academic essays have left you feeling exiled somewhere east. Or maybe the joy left through a different door. Either way, you have lost some of your pleasure in pen and keyboard — and you long to have it back. Whether you write for an audience (letters, articles, sermons) or simply for yourself (journal entries, poems, prayers), you want to say once again, with Eric Liddell-like joy, “God made me to write — and when I write, I feel his pleasure.”

So, when your delight has faded, and your fingers seem to have lost their skill, how might you rediscover the joy of writing? As one who has rediscovered such joy several times over, I offer six suggestions.

1. See the seasons.

“For everything there is a season,” the Preacher tells us (Ecclesiastes 3:1). And everything includes the rhythms of the writing life. We might wish writing were like San Diego, sunny and seventies all year round — but writing is far more like my Minnesota home, with its brilliant summers and barren winters.

If you write regularly for long, you likely will discover that seasons are a normal part of the writing life. Unlike our Lord, who “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), we who write are fickle and changeable creatures. We pass through seasons.

In some seasons, the words come quickly and joyously; your fingers can’t keep up with your cascading thoughts. Daily, even sometimes hourly, ideas pop into your head that make you want to sit down and lose yourself on paper. But in other seasons, you stare desolately at a blank word-processing screen, that obnoxious little cursor blinking failure in your face. Or you finish writing something, read it over, and wonder how such a grand idea could wear such tattered words.

“If in your writing you aim to be the best, or to be better than so-and-so, your joy likely will die and stay dead.”

Getting some extended experience with writing helps in this regard. I am still somewhat young in my writing, but I’ve been hitting keys for long enough that I don’t get as discouraged when I pass through a writing winter. The cold used to blow right into my authorial bones. When writing turned from a joy to a struggle, when it felt like I had to fight for every word, I wondered whether this was simply my new reality. I might as well hang up my keyboard and find a better use for my time.

But time and again, the season passed. Winter branches budded once more. And so now, when cold seasons come, I learn to treat them like a Midwestern January: not as a reason to give up, but as a trial to endure in hope.

The seasons of writing, however, are in one respect quite different from normal seasons. Whereas a normal winter will pass if only you wait long enough, a writing winter usually requires something more: not only that we wait, but that we keep writing while we wait. Which brings us to our second lesson.

2. Embrace routine.

Let’s switch the image now from seasons to agriculture. C.S. Lewis, in his Reflections on the Psalms, addresses the familiar scenario in the Christian life when you come to your time of Bible reading, prayer, or Sunday worship, and you find more duty than delight in your heart. We may feel tempted in such moments to forsake duty altogether as we wait for a more willing spirit, but Lewis differs: “When we carry out our ‘religious duties,’” he writes, “we are like people digging channels in a waterless land, in order that when at last the water comes, it may find them ready” (97).

When by faith you go ahead and read, pray, or gather with God’s people, even when you meet great resistance within, you are like a farmer digging channels and waiting for water. You cannot make the water come, but you can dig and pray and wait on God (Galatians 6:9). And a similar dynamic holds true in the writing life.

It would be hard to overstress the importance of discipline, habit, and routine in writing, and especially during the driest seasons. We may need to take breaks, or experiment with different kinds of writing (more on that later), but trying to rediscover joy in writing without writing is like trying to rediscover joy in God without Bible reading or prayer.

You will find this advice from authors all over the place if you pay attention, even from those authors for whom we might assume writing comes naturally all the time. One of my favorite riffs on this theme comes from the short-story writer Flannery O’Connor:

I’m a full-time believer in writing habits, pedestrian as it all may sound. . . . I write only about two hours every day because that’s all the energy I have, but I don’t let anything interfere with those two hours, at the same time and the same place. This doesn’t mean I produce much out of the two hours. Sometimes I work for months and have to throw everything away, but I don’t think any of that was time wasted. Something goes on that makes it easier when it does come well. And the fact is if you don’t sit there every day, the day it would come well, you won’t be sitting there. (The Habit of Being, 242)

Like O’Connor, the best writers typically discover and rediscover their creativity within the tight bounds of routine. So, even if current struggles allow only for a brief routine, dig a little every day, or every other day, or whatever the right pace might be, and wait for God to bring the rain.

3. Kill ungodly comparison.

Sometimes, as we’ve seen, we lose joy in writing simply because the season has changed. We find ourselves in a writing winter whose coming we had no more control over than a cold front. Other times, however, we lose joy because we ourselves have allowed something to steal it. And among those somethings, one of the more common is ungodly comparison.

I say ungodly comparison because comparison can indeed be put to good use. We do well to read others’ writing, celebrate where they excel, and seek to learn what we can. But there’s another kind of comparison, a devilish kind, where we cannot rest satisfied unless we see ourselves as better than the others in view.

In an email newsletter from a few years ago, the writer Jonathan Rogers contrasted two events that took place on the same weekend in his city of Nashville: the NFL draft and a running marathon. Both events took competition seriously, yet they did so in strikingly different ways.

In the draft, the players competed according to a hierarchical orientation, an orientation highly attuned to who gets drafted first, second, third, in what round and in what order. You can be an all-star athlete and yet leave the draft feeling insecure because you were chosen second rather than first. In the marathon, however, most of the runners competed according to a territorial orientation: they ran not against the other runners, but against their own personal resistance. A few ran for first place, to be sure, but most ran for a personal record, or just to finish.

Healthy writing, Rogers writes, is far more like a marathon than a draft; it has a territorial, not a hierarchical, orientation:

If you’re a writer, forget about your place in the hierarchy. . . . What you have is a territory — a little patch of ground that is yours to cultivate. Your patch of ground is your unique combination of experiences and perspective and voice and loves and longings and community. Tend that patch of ground. Work hard. Be disciplined. Get better. Your patch of ground and your community are worth it.

If in your writing you aim to be the best, or to be better than so-and-so — a temptation common to man — your joy likely will die and stay dead. But if you see yourself as someone with a certain territory, a unique set of experiences and perspectives and gifts, then you won’t worry as much when others excel you. Of course they will. Instead, you will devote yourself to your little patch of ground for the benefit of the people around you and the glory of God.

Or to use a Pauline image, you and other writers are less like competitors and more like members of a body. If you are an eye, be the very best eye you can be; write in a way that only an eye like you can. And then resist wondering whether you as an eye write better than the hand over there. Let the hand do its handish things, while you do your eyeish things, and give thanks for each other.

4. Word-craft wherever you can.

Somewhere along the way, many of us pick up the idea that academic or professional writing equals boring writing. Maybe that’s how you lost your joy in writing in the first place: you used to write short stories, and now you write essays in MLA style, or project reports that follow a template. So, even if you find the content of your writing interesting, perhaps even worshipful, the style feels technical and sterile.

In her book Stylish Academic Writing, Helen Sword discusses the gap between what most writing books advise and what most academic and professional writing looks like. She lists the various writing virtues you would find in the best style books, like using clear, precise language; engaging readers’ attention through examples; avoiding opaque jargon; and favoring active verbs and concrete nouns. Then she writes,

Pick up a peer-reviewed journal in just about any academic discipline and what will you find? Impersonal, stodgy, jargon-laden, abstract prose that ignores or defies most of the stylistic principles outlined above. There is a massive gap between what most readers consider to be good writing and what academics typically produce and publish. (3)

And I would add, speaking from my own experience, the same holds true for what academic students and young professionals typically produce and publish.

But believe it or not, you will find no rule that says you cannot include interesting vocabulary or arresting turns of phrase just because your writing is going to get a grade on it or be tucked away in a corporate file cabinet. So, why not treat your academic or professional assignments — or for that matter, your emails and text messages — as opportunities to grow in word craft? Why not throw in a metaphor or trade a to-be verb for something vivid and surprising? You might find yourself enjoying the writing process more, and I can guarantee your professor or boss will enjoy reading it more.

So, “whatever you do, work heartily” (Colossians 3:23). And whatever you write, write creatively.

5. Begin where you are.

Back to Lewis. In his book Letters to Malcolm, he offers a helpful principle for prayer that applies also to writing. Instead of feeling pressure to begin every prayer time “by summoning up what we believe about the goodness and greatness of God, by thinking about creation and redemption and ‘all the blessings of this life’” (88), consider starting smaller, Lewis says, even right where you are: thank him for the crescent moon outside your window, the gift of coming sleep, the wife whose hand you hold. Because, Lewis writes, we “shall not be able to adore God on the highest occasions if we have learned no habit of doing so on the lowest” (91). So, we begin where we are.

“Often, the joy we want to rediscover in writing comes from what we see while we write.”

We can apply this principle to writing in at least two ways. First, if you have lost your joy for the kind of writing your classes or job demand of you, carve out at least a little time for the writing that sparks your joy — whether haikus, or Lord of the Rings fan fiction, or handwritten letters, or comic books, or whatever else. And even better, find some people who like the same stuff so you can write and revise together. In other words, build up joy by returning to the writing that more readily brings you joy.

Second, if the joy seems to have drained from writing altogether, if you struggle to find delight in the act of writing at all, at least write about something you find delightful. Write about a friend you thank God for, or a passage in Scripture that stirred you, or something wonderful and surprising in the world God made. Some months ago, I was wading with my wife and sons in the Mississippi River, and we noticed around our feet dozens of snails making their way along the riverbed, their trails crisscrossing like interstate junctions. Write about that kind of ordinary glory. You might not find joy writing about biology or Jane Austen or the latest quarterly revenues, but you might find some joy writing about snails.

The sons of Korah sing in Psalm 45:1, “My heart overflows with a pleasing theme; I address my verses to the king; my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.” Our words rarely flow more readily than when they come from the overflow of the heart. So, what is your heart overflowing with right now? Begin there. Write about it.

6. Write to see.

Often, the joy we want to rediscover in writing comes from what we see while we write. Under God’s providence, our own words can pave the path that leads us back to joy; our sentences can become the window that shows us more of God’s glory in Christ. And so, as John Piper has said, write not only to say beauty, but to see beauty.

Paul’s soaring doxology in Romans 11:33–36, for example, is no mere calculated literary device. “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” This is the language of affectionate, spontaneous praise. And the praise came, in part, from writing Romans 1:1–11:32. Through his writing, Paul felt more reason to praise God than he did before he wrote.

And to that end, consider one final suggestion. In one section of Helmut Thielicke’s book A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, he talks about the importance of what he calls “the atmosphere of the second person” in theological writing and thought. After referencing the fact that Anselm begins his discourse on God’s existence with a prayer, Thielicke writes,

A theological thought can breathe only in the atmosphere of dialogue with God. . . . The weal and woe even of theological thought depends decisively upon the atmosphere of the “second person” and upon the fact that essentially dogmatic theology is a theology which is prayed. (64, 67)

The deepest joy in writing, whether theological or not, depends on whether our writing happens in “the atmosphere of the second person” — that is, in the presence of God. So, I exhort myself here along with you: before you write, and as you write, and after you write, speak to the God in whose presence you write. Venture outside the realm of the third person, where we speak about God and his world, and enter the realm of the second person, where we speak to God himself. Write with God not only as a he, but as a you.

When our writing becomes an exercise in relying on God, praising God, and telling forth God’s excellencies in Christ, then we have good reason to believe we will discover and then rediscover joy in writing, however far away it feels right now.

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