Our Work and Why We Do It

March 26, 2020 | 5 6 min read

“I hate to write, but I love having written” is a quote variously attributed to Dorothy Parker, George R.R. Martin, Gloria Steinem, and Robert Louis Stevenson, among many others. The promiscuity of its provenance is, I think, a testimony to its relatability among writers in general. It’s difficult, in other words, to think of someone who couldn’t have said it.

I first heard this quote paraphrased years ago by a fellow writer in my MFA program, an older student who truly seemed to hate the act of writing. As described, it was torture for him. He claimed to sometimes labor over a single sentence for most of the morning and walk away unsatisfied. Getting together a 10-page draft for workshop was, for him, a task that required Herculean, heroic measures. Having drinks afterwards, he would seem limp and wrung out, relieved at having the experience behind him, miserable at the thought of the next one in a month.

My friend may have been an extreme case, but he is not alone. People hate writing. An informal survey of any group of writers online overwhelmingly yields this sentiment. My Twitter timeline is perennially filled with variations on the theme of what a difficult, sometimes even hateful experience writing is. On the one hand, a great deal of this kind of angst, especially on Twitter, is performative and attention-seeking. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t truth in it, too. Entire forums primarily exist to allay and soothe not just the misery of writing, but the anticipatory dread it seems to inspire. Even when many people are away from their computers or Moleskins, the mere thought of writing, or having to write, seems to exert a depressing power on them.

This is not unreasonable. Writing a novel—or short story collection, or memoir—is an awful lot of incredibly hard work that no one asks you to do. It’s a little like playing the office martyr who voluntarily stays at work after everyone has left, except the office martyr gets paid and might get a promotion for their trouble. Whereas 99.99 percent of the time, you will get effectively nothing. Despite all of this, most people gird themselves and get back on that horse. Why? Why do it, if you don’t like doing it?

Overwhelmingly, the reason why most people keep at it would seem to be the prospect of getting published, the feeling that it will all be worth it at long last, holding that contributor’s copy or freshly minted novel in their hands—that the love having written part will outweigh the hate to write that it follows. But there is reason to wonder if this equation has any basis in fact.

The Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the 2002 Nobel Memorial Prize for his pioneering work in the field of behavioral economics. His research is far-reaching, with many implications about how humans apportion their time and resources, and how they might make different decisions with a different understanding of the mechanisms of happiness. In particular, he divides happiness into two types: experiential happiness and reflective happiness.

These types are what they sound like, more or less. Experiential happiness is the pleasure we take in the moment-to-moment experience of living—moments that, according to neuroscience, last about three seconds and are more or less gone forever. Nonetheless, in aggregate, they constitute the fabric and texture of a life. Reflective—or, variously, in Kahneman’s research, “remembered”—happiness is the pleasure we take in thinking about our lives. This is the happiness that on vacation drives us to visit the Louvre when we would really rather sit at a café drinking red wine. We sacrifice that existential happiness for the prospect of remembering the museum in the future and deriving pleasure from that.

This mechanism also accounts for why we pursue many of our ambitions, and, arguably, for the fact of ambition itself. Ambition, very often, if not always, sacrifices existential happiness at the altar of reflected happiness. What, after all, is something like law school, but a three-year exercise in not having fun, for the sake of living a presumably better life afterward? Paraphrasing Kahneman, for various reasons, some of them neurological and some of them learned, we don’t intuit future experienced happiness as being as meaningful as future remembered/reflected happiness.

Another way of putting it is we want to have done things. We want to have made partner by forty. We want to have run a marathon. We want to have climbed Mt. Everest. And many, many people, it would seem, want to have written and published novels.

The problem with this, according to Kahneman, is that as humans we chronically and radically overestimate how happy reflected happiness will make us relative to experienced happiness. In one of his examples he cites a three-week trip he took to Antarctica, surely, he says, the most spectacular and meaningful vacation of his life. In the three years since he took it, he estimates, he derived reflected pleasure from it for thirty or so minutes. Even, he says, if you are someone more predisposed than he is to dwelling on past pleasures, surely you cannot reminisce sufficiently to make the happiness of remembering equal to the happiness of experiencing.

Generally speaking, according to behavioral research, “wanting to have done something” is usually not a good reason to do it, if the something in question is something you dislike doing. However much pride, for example, a person might feel in thinking about or mentioning that they once completed a marathon, that flash of happiness could never make up for the months of miserable, painful training it took to run 26 miles. That is, of course, unless the runner in question loves training itself: loves 10-mile early morning runs in the freezing cold, loves pushing their limits, loves making schedules, loves incremental success, loves adjusting their diet, and so on. In that case, running a marathon is a pleasure in both experiential and reflective terms, with a quantity of reflective and experiential pleasure gained by running the race that pales in comparison to the months of training.

And so it seems to be with writing. Professor Kahneman, I think, would agree that for a person who does not really enjoy the act of writing—like my old workshop friend—the pleasure of having written a thing could never, for him, outweigh the pain of the writing itself. Novel writing presents a radical example of trading experiential happiness for anticipated reflective happiness, surely one of the most extreme examples of this kind of activity that humans regularly engage in. Yet it is a widely held article of faith that all the suffering it takes to produce—and maybe publish—a novel, will be worth it.

But it won’t. It couldn’t possibly. Getting a novel written and published is a rare achievement and should be a matter of great pride—but pride is thin gruel that becomes thinner by the day. It is not sustaining. What is sustaining—if you are lucky enough to enjoy the work—is the work, full stop.

This seems like a fact worth meditating on, at this particular moment, more than ever. Things that, as an author, you usually take for granted as bedrock facts of your world—a healthy reading public with disposable time and income, or the continued solvency/existence of major publishers, for example—suddenly seem made less of granite than of sand. We are advised to isolate and quarantine, and we have no idea, really, what is to come. Now, more than ever, if you are a writer, there is only you and the work-in-progress. But then, that is really always the case.

I so often have to meditate on this fact, despite counting myself in the fortunate camp of people for whom the act of writing is an act of pleasure, even, at times, joy. I am never really happier than when I’m opening a file in the morning, my first cup of coffee beside me. I am capable of enjoying a years-long novel writing process, excluding possibly the very last draft or two, which are almost invariably brutal slogs.

Nonetheless, like most people, I find myself making the same mistakes, over and over, forgetting that it is only about the work. In the lead up to the publication of my last novel, I was a kite flapping whichever way the wind blew that day. A good review might send me off into the clouds; a bad review would certainly plummet me to the ground, reminding me of the unlikelihood of the book achieving any kind of success.

Success. As I have done many times before, I interrogated this word. What is success in writing? I came to, as one so often does at these times, an unsatisfying bromide that nonetheless possesses the dull and stubborn ring of truth. Tertiary success in writing is actual or “actual” success, what we are conditioned to foolishly hope for: sales, awards, packed readings, a large and vociferous readership. Secondary success is simply getting a novel written and published—again, a huge feat for anyone to accomplish at any level of publication. But primary success—the real success—is the days and weeks and months and years of satisfying, engaging work it takes to produce the book, no matter what happens to it afterward.

We are dust, after all. Most books are dust. Nothing lasts, and short of believing in a conventional afterlife where you are admitted to some kind of successful writers’ VIP lounge, there’s no sound reason to obsess about writing a successful novel. To return to Kahnemann, what behavioral science teaches us, over and over, about happiness is that success does not really make us happy. A minimal level of financial security is a precondition for happiness. Connection with people we love makes us happy. Physical exercise and movement makes us happy. Food makes us happy. And doing something meaningful makes us happy. This is the real value of writing: it is the search for meaning distilled in an act.

Writing is, ultimately, an act of meditation, an act of prayer. It is giving yourself over to sustained concentration, thinking deeply about the world around you, about your life. It is a way of communing with yourself, and even if this regular practice results in publication, the real hard-won value is in the millions of moments that led to the book’s existence. Every day that you sit down, for as much time as you have to work, you should be grateful for the opportunity to do a meaningful thing even if—maybe, especially if—it is only meaningful to you. As much as possible, you should inhabit the act itself, seeing the success in each new word that appears on the page.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

is a staff writer for The Millions and the author of two novels: The Grand Tour (Doubleday 2016) and The Hotel Neversink (2019 Tin House Books). His short fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, VICE, The Iowa Review, and many other places. His podcast, Fan’s Notes, is an ongoing discussion about books and basketball. Find him online at adamofallonprice.com and on Twitter at @AdamOPrice.

5 comments:

  1. This is wonderful. The last paragraph gave me chills. Thank you for the honesty, encouragement, and (most importantly) the reminder.

  2. This is exactly what I needed to hear about now–the moment when writing fiction seems somehow frivolous, but also necessary to help keep us sane, in a world filled with uncertainty and without basketball to distract us.

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.