For most fiction writers, creating stories is a passion, something they would do whether or not they had any hope of being published. In fact, when I reflect on my writing life so far, it’s those years before I was published—when I was striving for truth, daydreaming about characters, building story arcs, experimenting with language—that were the most exciting and rewarding for me. And I think it’s because that time truly belonged to me. It was my choice whether to spend an hour of the day writing or seven. My choice to try my hand at contemporary or magical realism, women’s fiction or young adult. It felt like I was in a giant sandbox of imagination playing with dozens of toys. And best of all, no one was watching.
Now that I’m published and contracted, those toys have become tools, and that sandbox has become a workshop, one with glass windows through which any number of people can peer in and pass judgment. And my time no longer belongs to me. Now I’m in the business of creating a product, and people are waiting on the sidelines to judge what I’ve created. Somewhere along the line, I stopped playing because of those eyes on me, because of the voices seeping through the windows telling me that what I was making looked wonky and strange, that it was neither functional nor beautiful.
And then those voices became so loud that I stopped listening to the most important voice of all—my own—the one that was trying to tell its next story.
So how do I find my voice again when all those other voices are shouting at me? How do I find the joy in writing when it feels like a job? How do I get myself back into the sandbox?
A writer friend of mine gave me a great sports analogy that has helped me immensely. She said that when she's playing tennis, occasionally the ball hits her racket so soundly that she can feel the impact of it in her bones. That satisfying feeling travels all through her body, telling her she's made perfect contact, that she's hit the “sweet spot.”
When I told her how I'd been feeling lately, she reminded me that when you’re writing freely and tapping into that reservoir of imagination and possibility, you can find that “sweet spot”in writing too, that place where you know instinctively that you've hit on a truth, made a connection, done something well. If you can somehow immerse yourself in the game and play like no one's watching, then the words will come pouring forth and it will feel like magic. Like joy.