This week I had a phone meeting about a writing project that has extremely long odds. The meeting itself was a blast. After the call ended, I kept checking in with my feelings, trying to imagine the disappointment I’d feel if the project fizzled. But no matter how I pressed and pinched, seeking anticipatory emotional bruises, I couldn’t locate the pain. Why not just take it day by day, and enjoy?
As a thirty-something writer, I often suffered even in the midst of apparent good fortune. Setbacks felt crippling. Angst and self-doubt awaited me around every corner. Even the best news was potentially worrisome, because it felt like a peak I’d never experience again.
In my early fifties, I find myself tolerating uncertainty, seeking bigger challenges, and bouncing back quickly from rejection. Even that last word—rejection—isn’t quite right, because I now interpret most less-than-ideal turns in my writing life not as a clear rejection of me or my material, but rather as a simple mismatch or happenstance.
Just as I once sought answers for why the writing life felt so hard, I now find myself curious about why time and experience have made it easier. A recent Washington Post article provides a tantalizing clue.
The article suggests that while humans (like all animals) are naturally lazy, because saving energy makes sense, we also have an appetite for challenge, even for challenges that yield no extrinsic reward.
Furthermore, in a very short time we can train our brains to increasingly value effort over outcome, writes journalist Richard Sima. When effort itself is rewarded, researchers found, study participants were motivated to seek out more difficult tasks later, even if they didn’t get additional rewards.
In other words, we can train ourselves, or be trained, to enjoy the journey instead of the destination. Even more intriguing, we can—with the right feedback loop—begin to welcome and enjoy ever more challenging journeys.
This concept has strong implications for parents and teachers—but it also has nifty application to our lives as writers, artists and creatives. We are the ones who choose when to trigger a celebration or incentive.
As a younger writer and despite a precariously low income, I used to buy myself cheap flowers each week as a reward for getting writing done. If the flowers stayed fresh, because they were traded out on Fridays, I knew I was sailing along. If they withered, I knew I should work harder and earn myself the next $5 bunch.
For years, I’ve recommended the same kind of reward system to other writers—whether it involves flowers or something else—as a way to honor, make visible, and motivate further work.
There is nothing to be gained by waiting for the biggest turning-point moments, like a major publication, to party. All too often, festivities at those high-stakes times fall flat. Instead, it’s the private little rewards that add up: the special new mug to commemorate a good writing streak, or the special chocolates or fancy cheese to go along with a weekend editing session, or the beautiful journal to log submissions made.
I’ve always believed in being one’s own kindest and most generous coach. But the research reminds me of a subtler nuance that had escaped me until I read Sima’s article. It’s not only necessary to reward ourselves for the small steps along the way. It’s necessary to reward ourselves for the act of stepping—the effort, however it’s measured, and maybe even if it can’t be measured at all.
A new idea is as important as a new chapter. A good attitude is as important as a good wordcount. A willingness to risk more, to share work you haven’t shared, to try something new or to find delight in some aspect of writing that previously brought you discomfort, is all worth incentivizing.
If we can not only reward our efforts, but find meaning in those efforts, we have a better chance of overall life satisfaction, Sima writes, citing another preliminary study.
Imagine how powerful we all would be, if we not only embraced challenges, but found ourselves craving yet bigger ones with every passing year. Imagine how resilient we’d be, if we rewired our brains to truly enjoy the journey, not the destination.
Writing is hard, it’s true. But there is nothing that says hard can’t feel good. Our brains are ready to save energy or spend it, to focus on outcome or effort, according to what messages and rewards our brains have garnered along the way.
Andromeda Romano-Lax is a book coach/developmental editor and the author of five novels, with a sixth expected in bookstores in 2024. She is also an aspiring Ironman triathlete who is blogging about the physical and mental aspects of her training process in a Substack newsletter called UNLIKELY.