Recently, I saw a motivational quotation on the order of “Do what you love and it isn’t work.” It struck me as unrealistic and unhelpful. It fails to capture the difficult and intimate interplay between love and work—whatever kind of love we may be talking about. Love calls on us to do things that are difficult, even unpleasant or painful. Often we surmount difficulties and minor discomforts for our proudest achievements and best experiences. But it’s possible to face too much difficulty, and too much pain, and then love can be destructive. To have a healthy relationship with the things we love—whether people or activities or otherwise—it helps to be able to listen to ourselves and make good judgements about how much difficulty is the right amount of difficulty.
Passion often lies where there is great difficulty. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues that the best moments in people’s lives occur in activities that present significant challenges—the “Flow” state that Csikszentmihalyi has researched occurs in difficult activities, not easy ones. The activities that he describes as flow activities are ones where there is a danger of failure and a possibility for growth.
Shortly after seeing that motivational quotation, I was out for a run. (I’m not sure I go fast enough to call what I do “running” anymore, but I’ll call it running.) While running, I was thinking about the practice of listening to myself and the value of self-knowledge, and thinking about that in the context of writing and developing a writing practice, as well as the context of going running.
Going running is difficult and it is also something that I love. When running well, I feel better than I do at any other time. But I’m liable to aches and pains. Tendonitis is a frequent issue, as is tightness or cramping. Understanding these pains and being able to self-diagnose—listening to myself—helps me decide when to run harder and when to stop and engage in some treatment (like stretching). You don’t want to keep running if running is going to cause more damage or prevent damage from healing; you do want to keep running if the exercise will help resolve the problem. Being able to listen to yourself helps you make a good judgement.
This ability to listen to oneself is valuable in all cases where love leads us to a difficulty: do we continue to follow our passion, or do we pull back because our passion is causing damage?
To develop a successful writing practice, it’s important to listen to oneself, and to understand which difficulties are a sign to stop and tend to yourself, and which are just difficulty and discomfort to work through.
This is true at both the physical and emotional levels. Physically, to write, and to work on writing has real dangers—I have known more than one researcher whose work was brought to a near standstill by repetitive stress injuries. RSIs are better understood now than when I was in graduate school, so fewer people are crippled by them—partly because we better understand the danger and the danger signs (as well as appropriate responses).
Danger of overwork also exists on the emotional level, I believe. It is possible to turn a work practice into something so unpleasant that it becomes hard to work. The idea that obstacles to writing stem from psychological issues is hardly a new or inventive one. Two sources where I have seen this idea are Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit and Keith Hjortshoj’s book on writing blocks, both of which discuss different psychological issues that inhibit writing.
Whether the pain is physical or emotional, being able to listen to yourself and correctly diagnose the severity of various discomforts can help you develop a more effective writing practice. And that understanding can help your realize a project that is important to you and also difficult—a project of the sort that is often called a “labor of love.”
A labor of love requires a positive and beneficial practice that provides sufficient rewards to justify the difficulties involved, and part of that requires the ability to listen to yourself in order to understand what the costs are relative to the benefits.
The “do what you love and it isn’t work” trope fails to explain or understand the idea of a labor of love, and so cannot support such a work. If you think that doing what you love means that you don’t have to work, then you will almost certainly interpret all difficulties as a sign of something wrong—perhaps, even that you don’t love what you’re dong enough. A more realistic view of what constitutes a good relationship recognizes that significant difficulties are part of the best things in life.
For me, the difficulty and frustration of not knowing what to write, of feeling that my ideas are weak or of limited interest, of not knowing how to make a coherent argument, of feeling that my hoped-for and intended argument has totally fallen apart, all of these are real pains. There is real difficulty and distress related to these things. But is it suffering that will cause long-term damage? Knowing yourself and listening to yourself helps prevent engagement from becoming unhealthy.
Doing what you love takes work. It involves real frustrations and difficulties. That work and those frustrations and difficulties are not necessarily signs that you’re doing something wrong or that you don’t love enough. That’s where listening to yourself is about: by listening to yourself, you get information about your processes and you can use that information to develop better, healthier practices.
In this post, I have focused on listening to yourself with respect to managing a writing practice, but as a final note, I want to point out that for a writer being able to listen to yourself—hearing your own voice, and trusting your own judgments—is crucial not only in managing the practice of writing, but in finding material to write. To write original work, there is no other source than your own voice—but that’s a subject for a different post.