For many, writing is difficult and painful. And, when that difficulty and pain are combined with the obligation to write, the very idea of writing becomes wrapped up in the sense that there could be few activities less pleasurable or rewarding. Given where most of us get most of our first writing experience—in school—where the only reward for writing well is a good grade, it’s easy to understand how people don’t think of writing as rewarding in any meaningful way.
Obviously there are some people who like to write, even when they’re just school students. When I was in high school, I couldn’t understand those people at all. But now, it seems much more reasonable to me.
Writing can be a rewarding experience. There are still difficulties in writing, of course. But the rewards of writing are significant. Writing—the act—can be valuable, even if we set aside the possibility of some reward from having written well. Regardless of what happens when to your writing after you send it off to others—whether accepted or rejected, celebrated or vilified—the process of writing can itself be rewarding.
One angle to take on the rewards of writing is to look at it as a “flow activity”—one of the activities that suits the characteristics necessary to create the experience of “flow”, as described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi describes the experience of flow as being one of the best experiences in life. Flow activities are challenging activities. They are activities where your skills are stretched to their limits, where you have a chance to grow, and also where you have a chance to fail. The best experiences, according to Csikszentmihalyi, are not many of the things that we might think of as fun—watching TV or a movie, enjoying a gourmet meal, or other more passive activities—precisely for the reason that they don’t challenge us, because there is no growth, and no development.
(On a side note, I think even connoisseurs of something—wine, music, art—gain as much pleasure from the difficulties overcome to become a connoisseur as from the simple sensual experience of the good [wine/music/art]—the sense that one has refined taste, and the experiences of bad [wine/etc.] are part of the pleasure. Or at least I have heard many who liked to think of themselves as connoisseurs speak with enjoyment of the unpleasant things they have done that help them think of themselves as connoisseurs—bad wines tasted, unpleasant concerts attended, distasteful exhibits viewed. They may not have liked it at the time, but after the fact, they find value in it, and perhaps an anecdote they like to relate. Of course, as I describe it this way, connoisseurship starts to take on some of the characteristics of flow activities—the necessary effort, the occasional failures, the challenges and opportunities for growth—that the simple pleasurable experience—the wine, the movie, etc.—doesn’t, by itself, have. The act of tasting one wine—which might be pleasurable—gets placed in the matrix of developing connoisseurship, and is no longer judged just in terms of the pleasure of drinking, but as part of a fabric of knowledge.)
As a flow activity, writing does require effort and it does have the possibility of failure, and thus it’s not an activity that is guaranteed to deliver pleasure. There are days when writing is more difficult and less pleasurable. There are days when it takes a lot of effort to get started writing. But as a flow activity, writing can be absorbing and positive. And when it is, then it can serve as a refuge of sorts from other problems—at least from emotional ones.
Writing requires skill, and it develops with practice. If you only know writing as an occasional task that you avoid, then, of course, it won’t become any sort of refuge—it will only remain distant and difficult. But if you develop a practice of writing regularly—if you work on writing, and you regularly work through difficult patches in your writing practice—then the practice itself is more likely to have pleasurable moments—moments when you feel like writing is going well—and therefore it is more likely become a refuge.
There are plenty of activities that people use as a refuge. Hobbyists typically find refuge in their hobby. And realistically, many hobbies are flow activities—building models, artistic pursuits, athletic skills–all of these share the characteristic that they have difficulties, failures, and the possibility for growth. Most people wouldn’t view writing as a hobby, but there are those for whom it is, of a sort. Other activities that might not be considered “hobbies” might also be considered refuges, for example, mediation practices or yoga.
Writing, of course, can be part of a job or a set of responsibilities, not just a hobby. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be both hobby and work. Nor that it is impossible to mix a hobby with work—indeed, many people do mix a hobby with work by pursuing a passion that started as a hobby and turned into a career, for example, an artist who leaves a day job to make an art career, or an amateur cook who decides to open a restaurant. And I think, on an emotional level, one can move in the opposite direction: if writing is a job, one can, with practice and the right attitude, turn it into something of a hobby. It may be hard to imagine enjoying writing, especially if you’re required to write in your career, but it’s possible.
Writing in any setting can be absorbing. It is challenging, and for all that reason, it can become some sort of refuge from other problems, if you focus your attention on overcoming the specific challenge of writing. If you get absorbed in the attempt to describe or discuss or reveal a certain issue, or the attempt to relate a certain narrative, it can take your attention away from other issues, at least temporarily. And that is the refuge. It is easier to find this refuge when you believe your ability is equal to the task—but that’s why practice is so important: practice improves your ability, and improves your understanding of how to apply your abilities successfully.
For my own part, I have various issues that trigger me and create negative emotions when I focus on them—anything from the un-scooped dog poop in front of my house, to reckless drivers who endanger my life and those around, to political malfeasance, and other larger social or global ills. When I write, and I start to focus on putting a focused set of ideas on the page, on finding good ways to express those ideas in writing, and on trying to find a good way to reach an audience, all of those considerations may take my attention from the things that trigger me. Sometimes I write about one of those things that trigger me, but even then writing can be a refuge if it directs my attention to actions that could be taken to resolve those difficulties.
I’m over 1,000 words, which has been my rough goal for these posts, and realistically, I’ve made my point and may be getting redundant. Writing can take your mind from other problems—and that’s something that’s more likely to happen if you practice writing. Not everyone is going to become a writer, but if, for any reason, you have to write in your life, then turning it into a regular practice will help writing become less of an ordeal, and more of an opportunity to find refuge from problems.