There’s a quote from Sting I think frequently about. It was from an interview around the time of, I think, the release of Mercury Falling in 1996. He was asked about the different, lighter tone of the songs on that album compared to the dark and deeply contemplative material not just from his tenure with The Police but on his first three solo records as well.
In response he said – and I’m paraphrasing heavily here – he’d had the revelation that he didn’t actually have to be in pain to write, that music could come from a place of happiness and satisfaction, not just angst and sorrow. That new approach was evident in the songs on that album, which have a (slightly) more optimistic tone than much of his earlier work. He was still Sting, but he was clearly not mining the depths of his woeful soul here.
Sometimes I wonder if the same holds true for writing as a whole. Do we need to be bleeding from the eyeballs in order to produce valuable work? Is it necessary for us to commit to the kind of constant repetition and self-flagellation the drummer in Whiplash endures to hone our craft and be the best?
Often I find the moments where I’m most uninspired to write are those where things are going relatively well. I’m relaxed, I’m content and generally happy and writing is among the last things on my mind. Eventually I realize I could be spending the time I’m otherwise enjoying by writing any of the number of items on my list, be they blog posts or continuing work on a novel or a freelance assignment. And I feel the twinge of guilt in my brain.
If I do, then, sit down and begin to do the work, it still comes. I’m still a writer, even if I’m not agonizing and struggling over every word and sentence. I don’t need to be miserable to write. And I don’t find the act of writing to be miserable.
Quite the opposite. I feel I’m a better writer when I’m coming at it from an optimistic point of view. My writing, I find, is more free and easy. Not only that, it’s less torturous to read after the fact. The worst times are when I look back at something I’ve written and can clearly identify when I was just in a bad mood or feeling embattled. There’s too much riding on it, it seems. It’s better for me to come at the assignment with a smile on my face and a song in my heart (or headphones, as it were) and let the words come pouring out from a place of joy and satisfaction.
Everyone’s mileage will vary on this point, of course. Some people, I know, can’t produce a single word without the kind of agony usually associated with medieval monks who felt anything less than arduous physical pain meant they weren’t truly committed to their calling and vocation. I get that for some ending a piece or coming to the conclusion of a novel or script is the equivalent of a gravely injured horse finally being put down by its owner.
This is not to say that writing isn’t for me sometimes difficult. I can be chipper and optimistic and feel I could take on the whole Empire myself and then when it comes time to write my figurative feet become engulfed in tar. There are times when writing feels very much like work.
Most of the time, though, I revel in it. Writing for me is the equivalent of a carefree romp on a pristine beach at the height of summer.
Are you a tortured or joyous writer? Does the feeling differ depending on the type of material or assignment? What do you do to cope with those shifting emotional winds?
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.