The Fuel of Delight: Embracing Joy in Our Own Creativity
November 9, 2020 § 11 Comments
By L. Roger Owens
“Dad, read what I have so far,” my fifth-grade daughter calls to me as I walk through the family room. She’s writing a “book” for her accelerated English class and wants to share it with me.
I know the routine—she had to write one in third grade as well. I received regular updates on its progress and was interrupted countless times for her to share with me a funny line or her new favorite scene, which happened to be whatever scene she was working on at the moment.
She finished her third-grade book, which her teacher intended to publish via the printer in the principal’s office, about the time my memoir about spirituality in midlife was being released. I asked her if she wanted to read from her book at my book launch party.
“Am I allowed to do that?” she asked.
“I make the rules,” I said.
So she did. She read for ten minutes in a crowded room in the basement of our local library to a bunch of my friends and colleagues and a few curious library patrons who’d seen a sign. She picked a short section, practiced reading it aloud relentlessly, and nailed it.
She was a hit, and she caught the bug. She loved an audience.
But even more than an audience, she loved the images her imagination cast onto the page, the cadence of the words she wrote, a witty line, a character’s antic. Because no one had yet warned her against it, she delighted in her own writing.
And she still does. It’s a delight I wish I could recover.
Take the book she’s working on now. She’s sitting on the couch during her lunch break from virtual school, wearing a blouse and pajama bottoms, because who needs pants for online school? She holds up her laptop, and I can see she’s written one paragraph. I would never show such early work to someone—never my first paragraph, I think. But not her. Her philosophy: If you love it, share it.
So I read it, and it’s pretty good, especially for a first draft. I learn that the middle-school protagonist has had her foot amputated, that her parents are divorced, that it’s her birthday and her mother is terrible at baking cakes, but is trying anyway. There’s already a little suspense and humor and reason to empathize with the protagonist. I tell her how much I like it, that I can’t wait to see where this leads.
She says, “I really like this part,” and reads to me the sentence about the mom’s baking disaster. “And this part,” she says again, until eventually she’s read to me the whole thing.
She delights in her work.
As I head out to the front yard, where I will sit in the fall afternoon sun and do some writing of my own, I wonder: Where has my delight gone? Have we grown-up writers had the delight in our own words schooled out of us by criticism, rejection, or the well-meaning advice of the writing sages?
Advice like: Keep your hand moving so your inner editor doesn’t have a chance to interject, to offer premature criticism that will only cramp your creativity.
Advice like: Be prepared to kill your darlings, and the best way to be willing to kill them is to have no darlings at all, to cultivate a cool detachment from your work. Whatever you do, don’t like your own writing too much, or you’ll never be willing to make the necessary excisions, to let your darlings fall to the cutting room floor.
Advice like: Don’t judge a work in progress, for, as arch-sage Annie Dillard writes, “There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality.” In the middle of a work, there’s no way to know how good it is, so you might as well table delight for later.
All of this advice makes sense, and I’ve taken it to heart and repeated it to my students. Enough that I’ve become the stoical writer at his desk, coolly getting words on the page, neither rejoicing nor despairing at their quality, impassively meeting my daily word count, withholding judgment for a later time so that my tendency to evaluate a work in progress won’t stymie the progress itself.
But I write this way at what cost? At the cost of joy in an artful turn of phrase, delight in telling detail, pleasure in my own act of creating?
Maybe we can have it both ways. Maybe we can learn to stifle the critic, but loose the cheerleader. Maybe we can muster the courage to kill our darlings when it’s time, but enjoy them until then. Maybe we can allow ourselves to take joy in our writing, joy in our own cleverness, joy in our creativity, but hold that joy loosely so it doesn’t prevent us from making necessary changes down the road, knowing that the joy only grows when we’re able to do the honest work of making our writing better.
An interruption. My daughter is bringing her laptop to the front yard. “I’ve finished the prologue,” she announces, as she hands me the device. I read, and now know more about the dad who left (he eats pistachios in the front yard, like I do), and that the mom is as bad at cooking pasta as she is at baking, and that the protagonist has a crush on her best friend’s brother—a development I’m not surprised to see, knowing, as I do, the author’s eagerness to be inducted into the world of middle-school romance.
“I just had to get a little romance in there,” she says, her face beaming. “But don’t worry, she’s going to learn he’s a jerk pretty soon.”
And then I realize the truth: Far from getting in the way, impeding her progress, it’s the delight that is keeping her going. No doubt later some of these lines she’s written will have to go; some will need revision in ways she might later resist. But without this delight, she might never get to later.
This joy is her fuel, and it’s a renewable resource. And I’m discovering just now, as she heads back inside and I resume my writing, that, thankfully, it can be shared.
L. Roger Owens teaches spirituality at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and has written two spiritual memoirs, Abba, Give Me a Word: The Path of Spiritual Direction and Threshold of Discovery: A Field Guide to Spirituality in Midlife. You can connect with Roger at lrogerowens.com.