Falling out of love with our writing is something that happens to most writers, and not just in mid-career. We fall out of love with nearly each project and, especially when writing a novel, we likely do so many times. As is the case with any long-term marriage, there are bland days when we wonder why we started this damn thing in the first place. Or, even worse, we fight with a story that isn’t working. We fight and we fight until we have no energy left for it. We think of giving up and leaving the project altogether. Sometimes, as in a bad marriage, we should leave it. Some projects are just practice, where we learn a thing or two, like the relationships of our twenties, when we experiment with lovers until we find a good match.
Even when we do find that good match -- the writing project that “fits” -- there will be days when we want to give up, when we seem to have fallen out of love. How do we heal our relationship with our project or with our writing life in general? How do we reignite that spark?
I’m not entirely sure, but I think I’m beginning to figure it out. I believe the key to keeping any long-term relationship thriving lies in making time for that love, and in bringing back play. Just as we do with our partners, we need to make the time to be with our writing. We often fall out of love with our writing simply because we don’t have the energy for it. When we’re not at work, we’re chasing our kids or overloaded by domestic demands. It’s hard enough to find time to romance our partners, much less our writing.
If that writing life is important to us, however, then we must find that time and energy to romance it, almost daily. I say almost as breaks are important. We need time away from our kids and lovers to charge up, to appreciate them. The same is true of writing. To stay in love with writing, however, we need to make it a daily habit, one we return to because we want to, because we’re driven to, not because we have to. Here was where I ran into trouble in my forties. Between my responsibilities as a parent to four kids, as a daughter to aging parents, as a teacher, and as a wife, I had very little time left to romance my writing.
I had also lost the ability to view my writing as play. As pros, we often come to think of our writing as work, and defend it as such, as something we must do, we should do. There’s nothing like a “should” to take the joy out of any activity. Writers often ask me how I stay disciplined, how I keep writing. I tell them I do my best not to discipline myself to write. When I make it work, it feels like work. Despite what I told these writers, however, writing had become work for me. Writing was how I made my living. I wrote for a purpose now, and not for play. And so, I lost energy for it. My writing had stalled.
I see the importance of play at work most keenly with my children. My two youngest love to write. My youngest son had two novels on the go before the age of twelve. My daughter writes poetry and picture books for fun. For fun. These kids aren’t worrying about getting published, or finding an agent, or getting decent reviews. They are writing because … well, because. They are writing for no other purpose other than to play.
I’m not suggesting we should avoid deadlines, or writing assignments, or writing to get published. Writing professionally means becoming a businessperson, responsible for getting the job done. I’m only saying that our best writing, our most satisfying writing, will happen when we create for the sake of creation. When we play. We can worry about all that grownup stuff later.
I remember that, the feeling of play, the joy of the white page. The possibilities! I wrote for that bubbly feeling I now see crossing my children’s faces as they write their fiction, that feeling of wonder that came when I engaged my own imagination, when I was there, inside the world of my writing. I wrote for that numinous tranquility that came during, and sometimes for hours after writing. I wrote for no purpose other than this.
Then I published, gained some measure of success, writing became work and the experience changed. I was writing to a purpose, to publish, to win competitions, to garner attention, to get an agent, to get an editor, to keep my editor, to win bigger awards, and so on. I had grown up and forgotten how to play.
With the new year approaching, I feel a change coming on. I took on some other writing projects in recent years, short novels for adults struggling with literacy issues first through the Good Reads program and more recently through Orca’s Rapid Reads. In the process, I explored commercial novels, looking for that clear narrative arrow, the fast-paced plot, the page-turner so necessary in engaging a new reader. I discovered I really liked writing the stuff and that led me to try my hand at writing young adult and children’s fiction. And you know what? It’s fun! I have also started to incorporate elements of the commercial into my literary writing, to quit being so damn earnest, so literary. I’m enjoying writing again, and find myself forgetting about what others might think of my fiction, my literary fiction, at least for the time I am engaged in the act of creation. In short, I’m allowing myself to play again, to go back to that original impulse, to write not for an audience, but for myself.
I feel a little giddy, as if I am genuinely falling in love again, with the writing process. Most of my writing days are fun now. The days I worry about what my agent/editor/reviewer/reader will think are the bad days, when the writing stalls. The days when I don't give a shit what anyone will say are the good writing days. So I now stumble some days, and dance others. I suspect it will take me some time to fully rediscover that place my son and daughter intuitively and naturally write within. Like them, and like the writer Lucien in Michael Ondaatje’s novel Divisadero, I’m learning, once again, "to dance with no purpose, with a cat."
A longer version of this piece appears in the winter 2014-2015 of BC Bookworld. The essay originally appeared in full in Event magazine.
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Gail's novels have been national and international bestsellers and two have been short-listed for the Giller Prize, among other awards. She works with writers from around the world on her online teaching forums.