The One Thing Every Writer Needs

Billy CoffeyGuest blogger: Billy Coffey (@BillyCoffey)

I’d heard how it sometimes happens—quick and violent, like a spasm that spares the body and strikes the soul. I never really believed it was true. Couldn’t happen, not to me. It was just another myth, on par with writer’s block and the notion that persistence without talent will eventually lead to success.

But then it did happen. Last Tuesday afternoon to be exact, though not in the way I’d heard. It wasn’t quick but it was violent, a wave that built with a sense of silent ease before crashing over me. I felt it in my body just as much as my soul:

Writing no longer brought me joy.

To admit that feels like a confession. Even a week later, I find I cannot not write those six words straight through. My pen stopped between “longer” and “brought.” My hand went to my forehead, as though I was trying to hide myself. Writing has become a pillar of my life over the years, just as much as family and faith. To have one of those pillars shake and buckle was not an easy thing to endure. Writing is what I do. In many ways, it’s who I am. To find the delight and purpose gone from it brought a sense of hollowness.

I felt I’d lost one of the most important things in my life, and at the worst possible time. I was in the middle of promoting one novel while editing the next and writing the one after that, trying to keep up with my website, trying to stay on social media and discover new contacts and seek out new opportunities—everything a writer in this modern age was supposed to do.

I’ve been coming here to Rachelle’s blog since before she became my agent. The advice she gives is solid and practical, and even now there is much she writes that is new to me. I don’t have much to offer you in the way of nuts and bolts that she hasn’t already covered. I don’t consider myself an experienced enough writer to offer any insights to the craft. I have little authorly wisdom.

But I do have something solid and practical to tell you, and it’s this:

You think your problems will be solved once you’re published. That isn’t true. You only exchange one set of trials for another, and you’re still faced with the very same obstacle as before—you’re trying to be found in a crowd of thousands of other writers out there. You’re trying to scream and wave and say I’m here and they’re all trying to do the same, and the result is an unending clatter that drowns everyone out. And you know what? It gets tiring sometimes. You begin to wonder if it is worth it, or if what you’re really doing is gazing at solid ground while mired in quicksand.

That, maybe, was what finally crested that inner wave. It all became too much.

It’s hard to feel joy while you’re sinking. Hard to keep moving forward when everything tells you you’re not.

There are few callings higher than that of a writer. We inspire through story. We remind others of truths that have defined humanity since the beginning. We provide a necessary break from the monotony of the everyday. We create worlds. The words we string together serve an invaluable function: They become a mirror the reader holds to himself. They show us not how we are so different from one another, but how we are so much the same.

Perhaps it is because that calling is so high that it is also so fraught with peril. Writing is not for the weak or timid. It requires courage to face the page every day. To send out queries that may not even be answered, to pour yourself into a story that may or may not be read, and to lay yourself bare to a world that may only reject you.

We can endure all of those things only so long as we have joy. Joy is how we can laugh as we fight the good battle and how we can dance even in the rain. Joy is what we need, just as much as platform and presence, plot and characters.

It is a tenuous thing, delicate and at times fleeting. And I’m here to tell you that losing it is not a myth. It happens. But as long as you can find that joy again, as long as you can hold it tight, hope is never lost.

Have you ever lost the joy in writing? If so, did you find it again?

 

When Mockingbirds Sing - cover

Billy Coffey’s critically acclaimed novels combine rural Southern charm with a vision far beyond the ordinary. His latest is When Mockingbirds Sing, and he is also the author of Snow Day and Paper Angels.

Billy lives with his wife and two children in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. Visit him at www.billycoffey.com.

See below for a video in which Billy explains the truth that gave him the idea for his latest work of fiction.

 

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  • http://www.porterandersonmedia.com Porter Anderson

    And did you find it again, Billy? Or still looking?

    Many thanks for the trenchant post.

    -p.
    On Twitter, @Porter_Anderson

    • Andrew Gilmore

      Yes, I want to know too: Did you get it back? How?

  • Julie Garmon

    I understand. It happened to me once. Terrifying.
    Not writing for a while and taking a break felt like taking the chicken way out, but it helped.
    Love your honesty.

  • ChristianSpeakers

    As a writer, there’s only one way to get your message out there … to write it. That’s why I try to get people to realize they are communicators and that their audience needs the message this communicator has to deliver through various media — speaking, writing, video, music, etc. As a speaker agent and manager, I feel as if I’m one of only a few in this industry of Christian writers/speakers who get this, however, I will keep trying to help people expand their ability to communicate their message beyond just speaking or writing.

  • Tina Hoggatt

    I think the great thing is to realize you’ve lost joy – the only way you can begin to make your way back. Thanks for making the video. I look forward to the book.

  • Kathleen S. Allen

    For me it’s isn’t that I’ve lost the joy in writing, I still get a charge out of writng a new story and revising it until it shines. It’s the hope I feel every time I finish a story and think, “Maybe this is the one that will get me an agent” and it never is. Yes, I’ve gone with small presses and did the Kindle/Nook thing but I feel I really need an agent to get to the next level. I have a steady small royalty check, enough to buy groceries but not much else and sometimes not even that. I’m tired of the rejection even when an agent says my writing is stellar but the story won’t sell (dystopian/zombie–understandable in this market) so I write something different. I feel like I’ll be ninety years old and still thinking, “This is the one!” ARGH. So the joy of writing keeps me going but the endless rejections feels like I need to stop querying and just write. It’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I’m taking a break from querying, entering contests etc. I can’t keep getting rejection after rejection and still believe in my writing. So for now I’m working on a WIP and have another one in the queue so to speak. If I can I’ll put them up on Kindle and stop the whole, “This is the one that will get me an agent” merry-go-round. At least for a while. Thanks for a great post!

  • dianadart

    My necks hurts from furious nodding. Recognizing the absence of joy takes courage, and I’m grateful for your brave and passionate plea written here.

  • Lawrence J Caldwell

    Ironically I wrote this on FB yesterday:

    I had a wonderful insight this morning. As an athlete training up for my first mud run, I get very excited before going to the gym. A lot of the routines and obstacles are new to me so I have a sense of anticipation and tension. My heart rate goes up. I can’t wait to start. I know I will be ready for that race.

    As an author writing my first historical novel manuscript, my excitement level and sense of anticipation and tension are not quite so high. If I put myself in the place of a reader, I want their senses on high when they read my work. So when my senses and heart rate go up each morning as I write and edit, that’s when I know my work is ready for an agent.

    I’m getting there.

  • dabneyland

    Oh the irony. Just today I thought if I never wrote again I’d be okay with that. Transparent posts like these keep me going.

    Thank you.

    Dabney

  • http://xtheredangelx.blogspot.com/ Wendy Lu

    Whenever I lose joy in my writing, it’s because I’ve forgotten the reason I write: to tell stories, to bring life to the characters in my head, to stretch my imagination, to find meaning in the things I have experienced. When I lose joy in writing, it’s because I’ve started comparing myself to others and writing what I think other people want from me. This happens every once in a while, but I’m usually able to get out of my funk.

    Also, this is very true: “Writing requires courage to face the page every day.” Thanks for sharing, Billy.

  • Barbara Robinson

    I lost joy in writing in 2004 after my youngest sister’s death, but I did find it again. Yes, it does happen, but the good news is, we can find it again. Blessings, BJ Robinson

  • http://cherylbarker.net/ Cheryl Barker

    Loved your paragraph about the high calling of a writer, Billy. A perfect description of what a writer does. I’m going to save your post — filled with such honesty and great insight. Thank you — and hope you’ve found the joy again!

  • Richard Mabry

    Billy, Thanks for saying what some of us–I daresay, a lot of us who write–have thought and experienced but never dared share.

    The feeling is probably more common than we’re willing to admit, especially when we’ve been butting our heads against that stone wall called getting a “contract,” or trying to meet a deadline, or struggling to fit writing into a busy schedule where there’s no room.

    I’ll join you in your admission, and expand. I’ve lost the joy…and found it again…and lost it…and found it again. And, as another commenter has already said, each time that has happened it’s because I’ve forgotten the reason I write. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Terri

    So Very well said. I daresay not only writers but doctors, nurses, teachers, those in sales, and almost every other career lose their joy at some time. It is the finding it again that makes it worth working towards.

  • Carol J. Garvin

    Life itself is cyclic… full of mountaintop and valley times in between long expanses of flat prairie. Remembering that helps me when I’m mired in a funk and despair of ever climbing out. My writing is always a joy to me. It’s where I go for solace when everything else becomes overwhelming. Of course my fiction isn’t published yet, so I don’t face your dilemma of writing to schedule and marketing. But the return to joy may happen the same way. I periodically turn off to the world… take myself away on a camping trip, or lose myself in a musical concert, a Christian retreat or a weekend writers’ conference… do something that will nourish my soul and spirit.

    That being said, I’ve read both your books, and based on them, if you were to disappear entirely from social media, I would still buy anything else you ever write. :)

  • Cherry Odelberg

    There are some things you keep doing in life even when you have lost the joy or can’t find the joy in them – loving, caring, serving, etc. Writing is not one of them. When the joy in writing stops, dammed up like an ice flow, I must release my grip, tell myself I am okay. And then, I read a good book, take a hike, enjoy a new experience, sleep-in, eat a good meal, laugh with a friend – somewhere along the way the joy and inspiration will return.

  • JP

    Ouch. Been there, in graduate school, thanks to an aggressive classmate.
    On summer break, I tried to go back to square one to rediscover the joy and ease. I even took up photography, which was fun. But once I was back in class it was four times worse, since the classmate was out for blood.
    I took it to higher levels to resolve the problem, and was able to focus on work again, but I’m not where I was before, mainly due to illness.
    Burnout can be a physical issue, not just emotional, so it’s important to connect the dots and take your concerns to a doctor.

    • JP

      Also, be gentle with your writing doldrums if you’re under high stress from other causes. You will find the joy again, even if it’s only in short bursts. Trying a new field may be the play you need.

  • Jillian Kent

    Loved your words and especially loved the video, Billy. There’s something about publishing that has sucked some of the joy out of writing. I imagine for me it’s something to do with the pressure of the entire process when under deadline and wondering if it’s all worth it. Does the effort make a difference? I really don’t know, at least not at the moment. I think those of us who write though want others to care about our words, the effort it took to complete a novel we value and the hope we foster for each story. I hear a lot about having product to sell, lots of it, but I don’t think I’ll ever be a writer who can produce quick quality, Maybe finding joy in writing when it’s lost is about pacing ourselves and talking to the rainbow man.
    Hoping the joy returns,
    Jill

  • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    Wow. What an honest, searing post. I’m in awe. You write like REAL writers write.

    I’m not sure if I find joy in writing or not – or, for that matter, in any of the work I do. It’s not a matter of depression, or nihilism. Many years ago I was trained for a line of work in which emotion was simply put aside, placed in closed boxes in the mind’s basement. One did one’s duty, and that was, simply, that.

    It’s never left, and I find that when I write, I just…write. I’ve been told that my work has a tremendous amount of feeling and humour, which is honestly surprising. Maybe it’s a Zen thing.

    At any rate, if I’m remotely qualified to offer advice on this subject, it would be this:

    Losing the joy is innocence betrayed – it’s the fairy tale you realize can never have been true, the rocks in the hills that were always rocks, and that were never struck by moonlight to dance. It’s Ariel, tag-teamed by Donald Trump and Lee Iacocca.

    Just write. Put words together, and don’t worry about whether you like them, care about them, or will have to rewrite them.

    Choose a word count that is consistent with your average, and meet it every day.

    And I hope that you will one day be surprised by (and surprise!) the Joy that fled under the pressures of the Illusions of the World. She will come roaring back, fiery sword in hand, to cleave and cleanse your soul.

  • sue

    Yes, I’ve had it happen to me, Billy. This probably doesn’t apply to your situation, but for me it was when it stopped being about telling my stories and following God’s lead in my life and started being about ME.

    How many readers do I have, how important am I to my publisher, how praise-worthy are my words? God solved the problem. He set me aside so that I had only an hour or maybe two to write each week. The rest of the time I was the caregiverfor my husband’s parents 24/7, one functioning at the level of a one year old, the other angry and emotionally abusive. Those 5 years were the most difficult period in my life. I whined, I complained (mostly to God), I wallowed in self-pity. But notice it was still all about me.

    I’m still enmeshed in parent care, but now I can usually depend on at least 6 hours a week to write, maybe 8. The words are alive for me again. The joy has returned. Why?

    Gratitude. Simply that.

  • Jessica Thomas

    “you’re trying to be found in a crowd of thousands of other writers out there. You’re trying to scream and wave and say I’m here and they’re all trying to do the same, and the result is an unending clatter that drowns everyone out. And you know what? It gets tiring sometimes. You begin to wonder if it is worth it, or if what you’re really doing is gazing at solid ground while mired in quicksand.”

    Yes. This discouragement washes over me about once a week. But I keep pushing forward. I think I’m addicted to the process, and that’s not a joke. My challenge is to pursue this goal in a healthy manner. I’m still not sure it’s possible, but I haven’t given up trying.

    How to regain the joy? Well, sometimes (perhaps oftentimes) I just choose to write without it. I consciously decide to approach writing as I approach my day job, breaking larger projects into much smaller tasks that are doable in small increments. Is it a shame not to always have that “feeling” of joy? Yeah, but it’s life…sometimes just the satisfaction of pursuing a goal, refusing to give up is its own joy.

    I understand the desire to place the calling of writing on a high pedestal, but I think doing so can be damaging as well. Sometimes it’s okay to take it off the pedestal, sneer at it for awhile and remind it, “You’re not as important as you think you are!”

    On a separate note, I have a love/hate relationship with Disqus. Right now I’m disliking it (I shall use a gentler term than “hate”). While it’s very fancy and all, and it offers some nice tools, it is also big brother-esque and it’s dratted hard to use, especially when one is constantly forgetting their passwords. However, I don’t like posting without a link back to my identity, so sometimes, I just decide not to comment and move one, which is potentially bad for traffic. My five cents (despite no one asking for it…)

  • Joanne Wiklund

    There’s a scripture that says Joy comes in the morning. I have through the years thought of it as Joy comes in the Mourning. When we’ve lost someone or something we loved, we mourn. We try not to, we try to go to other things. But I believe joy will not return until our mourning for that particular person or thing brings us first to gratitude. Gratitude that makes us realize what a privilege it was to have it in the first place. In the case of lost loved ones, moving from mourning to gratitude is difficult until we think of what a privilege it was to have known and loved them. In the case of writing, it is also again a privilege. To be able to put down words in a way to help someone else understand what we mean is a privilege. Joy is the reward for the effort we put forth to understand, love and nurture the human condition in others and in ourselves. Onward is the only way to go.

    • Carol J. Garvin

      Joanne, there’s a lot of truth in what you’re saying. Ann Voskamp’s suggestion that joy comes from first being thankful was an eye-opener for me. Find things in the everyday for which to be thankful and the joy will come.

  • http://sandraheskaking.com/ Sandra Heska King

    I don’t have a book–yet–but I’ve had this feeling. Like what’s the point? Why am I working so hard? I’m just a wee song in the sea. My house is a mess, and there are so many other things I leave languishing, and so many other pulls on my time. I’ve spent a ton on books and conferences.

    A publisher just came to so-and-so and asked her to write a book, and an agent asked to represent another. Someone else gained 600 new followers in one day. And here I am, just treading water. Who’d even notice if I just threw my fingers into bread dough instead of on computer keys?

    And then I remember that I’ve felt this pull to write since I was knee-high to a toadstool. That it’s then my responsibility to keep on keeping on. That I do my part, and trust Him to do His in His timing. That I don’t know the end of the story or who I might touch along the way.

    Any your words, Billy, are touch oh so many.

  • http://www.AnyShinyThing.com/ Lynne Spreen

    Maybe think you’re tired, trying to do too much. Probably not unique to writers, if that helps. You’re a businessman, in addition to being an artist, and sometimes it’s hard to conjure that uppermost level of creativity and soul while you’re pimpin’ the product. Try to sleep, eat, exercise. Nourish the core. Best wishes.

  • lesli westfall

    As a recent published author this rings so true! Thanks for your timely post.

  • Roger Eschbacher

    Writing is hard for me. That, coupled with the fact that I write for a living,
    means I rarely feel joy when doing it. I do, however, gain immense
    satisfaction from writing — whether it’s completing a
    novel or an animation script or a blog post or whatever. It’s the satisfaction of a job well done, of using a God-given skill set in a craftsman-like manner that gets my wheels turning. I like writing, but I love being finished with it even more.

  • Brenda K.

    When my joy in writing wanes, I pray for encouragement. Perhaps that sounds too simple or trite, but the encouragement always comes, often in some surprising manner.

  • Terry Shames

    As a writer who tried for many years to get published, and with my first book coming out in July, I have to say some of the joy left me a week or so ago–but not the joy of writing. I had thrown myself into the branding/promo/sales effort that seems to be expected when a new book comes out. But every time I completed one promo task, another one presented itself. More! More! More! Suddenly last week I stopped and said, wait there will always be one more opportunity. Step back, decide how much you are willing and able to do, and then get back to writing. It isn’t the writing that I found joyless, it was the promo. So I’ve set myself some reasonable goals, and that includes, “Writing comes first.” When that’s done, I can do whatever promo, sales, etc that I have time for. But writing comes first.

  • Lori Folkman

    Beautiful post! Glad to know I’m not alone! Thank you for sharing.

  • Dee

    Yep, sure did. Lose joy, that is. I got so caught up in the chaos of the writing life that I crashed and burned. God plucked me out of the ashes, dusted me off and said, “Sweetie, you’ve forgotten why you write–and Who you write for. We’re gonna take a break.”

    So we did. For over a year. I wrote, but personal journal stuff. Reflections and insights. Ponderings. With Him. About Him. And me. Pouring words on the page with no concern about who would read them or love them or correct them. Words for me and for Him.

    As time crept on, I noticed a change. A ray of joy appeared here and there. Playfulness and childlike abandon bounced on the pages. My shoulders lighter, I wandered back to my story in progress and peeked. Then I tiptoed in. And sat down.

    I’m on the writing journey again. I walk lightly now, pausing to observe the new signs posted along my path:

    Why?
    Who is it for?

  • J.M. Bray

    I really appreciate your transparency, thank you. The last month or so I’ve felt that same hollow feeling when attempting to write. With book one in the bag, book two nearly done editing and book three rough drafted I’m “ahead” on my work. However, that feeling is still there, completely at odds with what “should be” because a publisher made me an offer recently.

    What I wonder is this: It seems from your closing statements that you found joy again. What prompted it? Did it just suddenly appear?

    JM

  • Connie Almony

    Mr. Coffey, when you wrote those words—I hesitate to repeat—my
    heart sank, because it’s the thing I fear. The truth is, I have relied a lot on
    the joy of writing to get me through the slog of writing. Yet, I know it can
    (and at least at times, will) happen. I pray about those times already. I’ll
    add your name to my prayers :o).

    However, I will disagree with you in one point. Writing is
    not the highest calling, it is only YOUR calling … and the calling of many who
    read this blog. At the moment, it is mine. I only say this because it’s
    important not to make it too big with expectations it wasn’t meant to have.
    Stephen of the Bible was appointed to “wait tables” in the ministry. Because
    his work freed up the preachers to preach, the numbers of the faithful grew!!!
    That was HIS calling, and Oh what an effect. Yes, he did more, but the numbers
    were increased before he did.

    Oh don’t get me wrong, I believe that story can inspire in
    ways nothing can. But that’s cause I’m a reader. For some it’s music, others it’s
    a sermon and still others, it’s food :o). We are all made different to perform
    the work of the Body of Christ. He will give you what you need. I pray He gives
    you your Joy for writing back, because—having just seen the video and read the
    description of your novel–I have a feeling I could be inspired by it.

  • getaclewis

    Billy, you can borrow some of my joy until yours returns. I feel it each time I read your writing.

  • Erin Healy

    Losing joy reminds me that I am connected to billions of other people who have experienced the same thing. It keeps me connected to the human race, to readers, to characters. And it reminds me that writing is not my source of joy, and that perhaps what I’ve lost isn’t joy but focus–on others and on God, both of whom will bring me joy even if the writing is taken away.

  • Grace Linde

    This is exactly what I was thinking about yesterday and today! I came to the conclusion that true joy in writing is rooted in your identity in Christ. All writing goes back to the ultimate written word, the Bible. No room to elaborate here, but this is where I mulled it over: http://gracelinde.webs.com/apps/blog/show/28081070-what-s-your-identity-

    Thanks for your insights! I think it’s something every writer faces at one point.

  • Lara Van Hulzen

    Thank you. I really needed to hear this today. I think it’s easy to get into the mindset that once published, it’s all downhill from there. That once that goal is reached, it’s easy and the muse is always there and the writing is blissful. Writing is a journey and like everything else in life, there are good days and bad. I have days where I LOVE writing. And then days where it feels more like work. I’m grateful to you for sharing and making me feel not so alone. :-)

  • Neil Larkins

    Lost my joy – oh, I guess some seven years ago. I’ve been searching for it ever since. I’ll get an occasional glimpse of the thing and psyche myself into believing it’s back, but it isn’t. My wife, bless her, keeps telling me to get over myself, that what I once had isn’t really gone…but like your innocence, you know when it is. Nevertheless, I slog on, having convinced myself that this state is more realistic – for me, at least – than the other. I expected more from the writing process than is there. I shouldn’t grieve. But I do. And that only makes it worse.
    Thanks for this great post, Billy. Even though you have lost your joy, you’re a great and inspiring writer. I’ve been told that too, and so even if I never get my joy back, I’ll keep writing.

  • http://www.danerickson.net/ Dan Erickson

    So far I haven’t lost the joy, but between writing two novels and keeping up with the blog and promotion, the third novel (part of a trilogy) feels like an overwhelming project hanging over my head. I’m taking a week off everything else to write after finals week (I teach at a college). We’ll see how that works.

    One thing I do when I feel overwhelmed with writing is play music or do photography or take a hike.

  • Adam Cothes

    Billy, your blog post was so well written, I could not stop reading. You write like a poet. If your joy is gone, perhaps it’s time for another season in your life. But I must say, I was reverse engineering your post to grow as a writer.

  • Amber L Argyle

    I’m so there with you, Billy. The process (not the writing itself) sucks the joy out of even the most tenacious people. I’m taking some time off.

  • Peter Frahm

    That must have been very hard to share. I hope you find joy in your writing again soon.

  • Jasmine

    Words cannot express how you made me feel. Thank you.

  • Connie M. Welch

    Billy,
    Thank you for sharing with honesty from your heart. I know it’s not easy for a writer to get to the place where we run out of gas and admit it. You have touched a cord with me through your story. I am currently working on my first book, my memoir about a painful event in my life where God turned tragedy into triumph. Right now I feel stuck and it’s been hard to write lately. Yet I know in my heart this is a learning opportunity and God has much to show me through this experience. Meanwhile, I am writing for my website and paddling through social media trying to keep up. At times I feel depleted.

    My saving grace has been taking time to spend with the Lord and in His word. I have to continue to go back to the root of my passion of why I am writing and never forget it’s all for Him.

    I know He is going to use this experience for my good and His glory. I feel grounded in the passion God has given me, so I continue to take His hand and trust Him to lead.

    Even your story of losing your joy, is not wasted, God has used it in a great way to refresh others. I hope in turn you are refreshed as well.

    Thank you for sharing from the heart.
    Praying you will have overflowing joy!
    Connie M. Welch

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  • Ariel Paz

    I take a break. My best writing comes when my mind is clear and I am not pressured. Then the joy and then the ideas flow. I call it going with the flow. When my writing isn’t flowing, I don’t force it or resist. I go with it. Something is blocking the flow and when that block is cleared, the ideas come. Forcing myself to write only makes the pressure worse. When I cam calm and relaxed, the joy naturally flows back in.

    • Kate

      I am the same way. Taking a break is the only thing I CAN do. My sentences won’t flow right and my wording sucks if I don’t, and I can’t come up with things to keep the story moving. My last break was probably close to four months, unfortunately. But it has passed (knock on wood!) and I am writing again. For now…

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