It’s March, and I haven’t yet shared my word of the year. Or plans I have related to writing. Or a summary of what I wrote and published last year. I haven’t even blogged. What does this lack of content have to do with the title of this post? Let’s talk about that.
Joy is my word of the year. I chose it very early in January and I have been pursuing it over these past two months. My quest for joy, so far, has not included writing. It hasn’t even included writing about writing. And that’s precisely why I chose this word—this feeling—for 2023.
Last year was extremely difficult for a number of reasons. I’m about to get a little bit personal, which I don’t often do here. More usually, I generalize, or share ideas and events that matter, but don’t feel too much like secrets. So, here goes: Last year, I lost my sister. Her death was unexpected, and in so many ways, heartbreaking. The same day, my daughter admitted to not being able to cope with her third year of college and asked to come home. Three days later, my dad had triple bypass surgery.
Fast forward the year a little, and we all three (my immediate family) finally succumbed to Covid. Two days later, I fell down the stairs and broke my foot and ankle. In between, other people died. My sister’s partner. My uncle. Colleagues I have volunteered with for over fifteen years. The price of gas went crazy and eggs got expensive. The weather continued to be weird. The deer figured out how to jump over the fence around my garden and ate all of my flowers. After months of delays (months and months) my book, Sundays with Oliver, was finally published—and three months later, had sold fewer copies than other books have during a preorder period.
Though last year featured some definite highlights and beautiful moments, it was severely lacking in joy. I
want need this year to be different.
My dad recovered well. My daughter took a much-needed break and is now back at college, full of drive and enthusiasm. I can finally walk again. But I have no desire to write. Story ideas pop into my head multiple times a day, but I’ve stopped jotting them down in one of my journals.
I don’t need ideas. I’ve always had more ideas than I know what to do with. What I need is a break. What I want is to do things that make me happy.
I do recognize that when it comes to writing and publishing, I have a severe case of burnout, and it’s been building for a while. Probably over the past three years. I’m not lacking in creativity, I’m lacking in creative well-being, and until I can approach a new project without a feeling of dread, I cannot write anything beautiful. There is little more important to me than creating beautiful stories.
There are plenty of other writers exploring why they’ve reached a point of burnout and what they plan to do about it, and I know why I’m here and I even have a plan for how to get there—to be able to find joy in writing again. But, first, let’s talk about where I am finding joy right now—and why these things are joyful.
As many of you know, I decided to go back to college last year. Learning brings me joy. I won’t say always because not all lessons are joyful. So far, however, I have found my classes fascinating, especially as an older student. I’m more mature and I just know more than the last time I tried this—so there’s that. But mostly, I’m more relaxed about the whole deal. I’m not afraid of my professors, and though I’d hate to fail a course, doing so isn’t going to ruin my life. I don’t need this degree. I just want it.
Still, I was very pleased with my 4.0 GPA from the first semester, and you know I’m loving the 98% I have in both classes so far this semester. I can be a bit of a perfectionist and getting something right, learning how to do it, and being able to demonstrate that knowledge, brings me joy. This is why, despite all of my complaining, my Introduction to Statistics class also brings me joy.
No, I haven’t cracked.
It’s a hard class, and everyone I mention it to has asked: “Why did you choose statistics?” (There’s always stress on that why.) My responses (depending on how long it took me to finish my homework that day) range between: “I didn’t know it would be like this” and “I’ve always been interested in statistics.”
The thing is, for every time I’ve hovered in the doorway to my husband’s home office, on the verge of tears, and told him that I don’t think I can do it, I have also bounced in there to report that I just got 98, 99, or 100(!) on a quiz. Because after practicing the problems five, six, or even seven times, the concept clicked and I figured out how to do them without looking at my notes.
I learned something. And learning is such a joy!
I’ve also proven I can do something I didn’t think I could. That’s an absolute joy.
Every day when I open StatLab to do my next assignment, I glance up at the grade at the top of the screen, see 90-something percent, and feel a pure, unadulterated zing of joy.
I think a part of it is the challenge. I’ve always enjoyed tackling something difficult and working my way through to the other side, and writing used to represent that for me. I’d have an idea for a story—a character, a setting, a problem—and the process of turning that into a plot, an outline, and a novel, was something I very much enjoyed. It’s like a logic problem. How do I get from A (this random idea) to B (a readable novel)? It’s magic. I love it. Even as I write these words, knowing that fiction writing isn’t working for me right now, I can feel the magic of the process and my love for it.
I would love to regain that sense of magic and feel the story stirring inside me. To wake every morning excited about what that day’s chapter will bring.
The other part of why school brings so much joy, while writing does not, is that when I submit an assignment, I get a grade that reflects both my effort and my understanding of the material. That doesn’t happen in publishing. You can produce a story—a novel—that succeeds in every way and have it fail.
And… I can’t do that anymore. Not right now. Not for a while. I can’t keep putting this much effort into beautiful things that fail. I don’t see my books as failures. My readers don’t, either. But the publishing world in general isn’t interested in books that don’t get a lot of reviews (regardless of whether they’re good, bad, or neutral) or sell thousands of copies. You get nothing for writing a great book that gets a five-star review from the one person you don’t know who bought a copy.
Technically, you get the satisfaction of having written something wonderful. Of knowing you had a book in you, and that you had the persistence to write it to the end, and shape it into something readable. But then… that’s it.
I love to draw and I have some of my favorite drawings framed and hanging on my wall. I don’t care if other people like my art—these framed pictures bring me joy. But I can’t frame a book and hang it on my wall. So what do you do with something you’ve written? Do you print off a single copy, store it on a shelf, pull it out every so often, thumb through it, and say, you know what? This is a really good book!
There are probably dozens of philosophical answers to that question—but here’s mine. Stories are meant to be shared. (Art too, but let’s stick with stories for now.) It’s the reason they exist! Yes, you could write them for yourself, and I do write my books for me. They’re the stories I want to read. But I also want to share them.
But the way I’m sharing them really isn’t working for me right now.
So, is there an answer to this quandary? (Are you still here? Sorry, this is a long one!)
- I need a break from publishing. I will be setting no time limit on this break. It will last until I feel ready to submit something I’ve written to an agent or editor, or am willing to publish it myself. This may be never and… I’m okay with that.
- I also need a break from writing. I do have a soft limit for this one. My break is over at the end of this semester (May), and then I’d like to poke through my ideas notebook and start something new. I have a lot of unfinished and nearly finished projects tucked away, but I really feel that to break this cycle, I need something fresh. But if I don’t feel the magic in May, then I’ll push this back to whenever. I’m not looking for a quick fix.
- I need a break from publishing social media, which is pretty much most social media for me (why, oh why did I choose to publish under my own name?). So, I’m not going to be around much online. I do like blogging, though, and I’ve missed it. I will be trying to blog more. Maybe.
- In the meantime, I plan to go back to a form of writing that not only brings me joy but has absolutely no expectations attached: flash fiction. I used to write it weekly and post it to a Tumblr blog and I never cared whether anyone liked it. I stopped when I became overwhelmed with publishing contracts… which is probably when I started to feel creatively stifled.
That’s it! That’s my plan.
I will find joy this year. I will win at Statistics. I will hike on my mended foot (there’s a plate and five screws in there now). This summer, I will drive to Canada to visit my bestest bud. This October, I will hang with my dad for two whole months. I will pickle new and interesting vegetables (my latest obsession). I will continue to draw pictures I can hang on my walls.
I will do things that make me happy, and I will find a way to spin the things that don’t (unloading the dishwasher) into happy moments (yay, my favorite salad bowl is now clean).
I will take the break I’ve been promising myself for years and maybe even find a way to redefine publishing success. And if I don’t… well I don’t. I’ll find something else that inspires that feeling of magic. Because 2023, for me, is going to be all about joy.