Recently I have been thinking a lot about the universal drive to find happiness. There are happiness tests for kids, happiness scores for whole countries and in any self-help section of the book store you will see a whole shelf of various guides to happiness. We are becoming a little obsessed.
It was only when I read ‘The Antidote – happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking’ by Oliver Burkeman that I considered that perhaps we should not be looking for happiness, but rather contentment? Happiness, like sadness, is an extreme in the spectrum of emotions. It is something that we pass through, and it can often be triggered by external factors over which we have no control. Is it natural, or even possible to be in a state of happiness all the time?
For the first time in about 15 years I am in a place of contentment with my work. I enjoy what I do, it challenges me each day, and I get to mix with a lot of intelligent and friendly people. I don’t bound out of bed each morning with joy in my heart and a song on my tongue, but I don’t dread the alarm and prey for traffic congestion on my way in either. I am content, and I have to admit, I like it.
So I decided that contentedness is something we could strive for instead of happiness. Having reached this conclusion I thought my pondering could come to an end and I could move onto the next big question in life… Until Monday.
Sunday night for me is usually mellow-out time, but last Sunday I wrote a flash fiction story from start to end. I went straight into editing it, and by bed-time I was pretty pleased with what I had produced.
Then Monday morning came. I was doing the same work, with the same people, but I was restless. Really restless. Achingly restless. Each time I walked between meetings, or as I watched my lunch spinning around the microwave, all I could think of was that I’d rather be writing.
I really like my job, I do, but I think that drive for happiness is what makes me sit down, turn the computer on and write. Writing does make me happy, even if only fleetingly, but it is a wonderful feeling that you can get addicted to.
I know several writers now who have ‘made it’ and were able to give away their day jobs. I’m under no illusions that these writers are happy all the time, or even any happier on average than I am now, but I’m sure they get those moments of happiness when a cool idea hits them, or they write those magical two words ‘The End’ –and I would like to feel that more often.
So really, what’s the harm in chasing happiness as well as contentment? I think I’ll try for both!
I recently read a book called ‘The ethics of what we eat’ by Peter Singer & Jim Mason. As I was boiling up the carcass of my roasted free-range chicken (to make stock) and ensure I got every nutritional morsel the poor creature could offer me, I realised what a significant influence reading that book has had on my eating choices.
I have previously seen several documentaries which have showed me big slabs of what this book told me, as well as hearing others espouse the virtues of what this book shared. But until I read the book it just didn’t seem to stick. Now, every time I make a decision about what I’m going to eat, aspects of this book flicker through my thoughts.
I know a big part of this is a me thing; I really get into books. I’m sure for others a book will not have as much impact as seeing something on the screen, or hearing the story from the lips of someone who has seen and knows. But I’m sure there are many others out there who do gel more strongly with what they read.
It makes you realise, yet again, what power there is in the written word. If only more of us could use that power to do good 🙂
I’m really liking my new mantra; sit down, write something, and finish it. It has really helped to get me to… sit down, write something, and finish it. Only one problem. My characters don’t like it.
I made some very logical and scientific decisions about what I was going to focus on, based on how close I was to the end of the stories, what effort was left to finish them off, that sort of thing. As you can imagine it involved some spreadsheets and conditional formatting to make cells change colour, a few drop-down boxes and a meaningless pivot table just to show myself that I hadn’t forgotten how to do it.
So I’m focussing on ‘James’ (one day I’ll win an award for least imaginative working titles), I’m liking ‘James’, I making good inroads into ‘James’, but guess who starts visiting me in the shower, when I’m vaguing out on the bus, when I’m going for a long walk… It’s not ‘James’… It’s ‘Lore’.
‘Lore’ is only 6 chapters long and has at least another 15 to go. ‘Lore’ comes about 12th on my spreadsheet of stories to focus on. ‘Lore’ is meant to be ignored for at least the next 6 months and possibly put on the scrap heap. ‘Lore’ wants to be written.
I’m very aware that ‘inspiration if for amateurs’* so I am trying to resist ‘Lore’ –writing longhand what gets revealed to me, and even then only notating those parts that I have watched play out. But soon I think I’m going to have to give in and dive back into the story.
Maybe the mantra needs another tweak; sit down, write something and finish it, then sit down again and keep working on the things I want to work on as well. Not quite as punchy, but maybe it will put the phantoms to rest?
*quote from artist Chuck Close.
I had a good time at Adelaide Writers’ Week this year, though the 35 degree days did lead to a few headaches and a bit of heat exhaustion! I discovered a few new authors and was made both richer (in experience) and poorer (in book purchases) for having been there.
A funny thing that I noticed with a number of the authors was the concept of when they started to write. A lot of them did not start writing, or even think about becoming writers until their late twenties, thirties or even forties!
Having been writing books since I was in primary school, this shocked me at first. How can you just decide to write? Just knock out a book and get it published in a couple of years? I had been slogging away my whole life and still did not have a publishing contract to show for it.
Instead of drowning in my jealousy (I may have dog-paddled in it for a while) I kept listening, and a theme emerged, both in those who, like me, had always wanted to write, and those who came later to the idea; they all wrote a story.
Yes, it is a crazy idea; to be a writer one has to write a story and finish it. Sure, I have been writing most of my life, intensely over the past 10 years, and I have hundreds of thousands of word to show for it, but how many novels have I written to completion and put through at least one editing round? How many? One.
When you look at it like that it makes perfect sense, in fact the ONLY way you can become an author is to write a story, finish it, polish it and send it off. Everything else is just practice.
I may have seven novels on the go, but until I finish them, it can only ever be a hobby. That was my big take-away from Adelaide Writers’ Week. I’ve always laboured over the fact I need to write, but it is the finishing and polishing that I really need to focus on.
The streets are packed, everyone is running late for work and it is standing room only on the bus. Adelaide’s mad March is on again. It kicked off with the fringe a couple of weeks ago, then hit a bit of a low with the Clipsal 500 starting Friday morning, countered somewhat with the launch of the Arts Festival on Friday night, lifted again by Adelaide Writers’ Week starting on Saturday.
This year there are a lot of authors I have never heard of at Writers’ Week. There are also a lot of authors who specialise in areas I don’t read a lot of; poetry, biography, political commentary. At first, I must confess, I was a little disappointed with the line-up; there are very few speculative fiction writers, and very few commercially popular writers, but I guess a big part of what the festival offers is discovery.
A lot of people have asked me what I get out of it, and in truth not many of them know I write, so the appeal for me may not be obvious. But when they asked me this, it struck me as odd that I couldn’t really answer them with any great clarity.
I do find it fascinating to hear writers talk of their process for bringing a novel into the world, but would I change my process based on their experience? I doubt it. When authors tell of where they get their ideas, does it change my idea-harvesting technique? No, not at all.
All I can conclude is that I love to hear people talk about writing, whether it be well published authors with 50 publications to their name, or my writers group friends who are still trying to find a publishing house for their first novel.
Writing can be a very lonely pastime. Sure it is also wonderful and magical, but when you resurface into the real world, you realise it is just the cat there (or a human loved one) who doesn’t fully understand where you have been for the last three hours. Writers festivals are full of people who understand, and that is a nice place to be… At least for a little while.
The Adelaide Writers’ Week runs from March 2nd to March 7th (no, not a whole week, but Adelaide Writers’ Six Days doesn’t have the same ring to it).