That Excruciating Joy

June 24, 2014


I’ve been chopping down trees again. I should be using an ax — but instead, I’m using my head. Ouch.

There’s this popular myth about the creative process that goes something like this: In the throes of creation, the artist becomes a blissful, empty vessel through which flows the sweet nectar of inspiration from on high, words spilling out onto the page in a heady stream of exhilarating prose…

Yeah, well.

Maybe that’s how it is for someone else. It sure isn’t how it is for me. For me, writing is tough work, often uncomfortable, at times downright excruciating.

Times like this.

I’m working on that book, the one I started in the middle of April. I’ve assembled two months’ worth of raw material, much of it vague and either redundant or incomplete, and a rough outline that keeps shifting under my feet.

Okay. That’s as much prep as we’re gonna get. Now I have to actually write the thing.

There are parts of the process that are easier than others. For example, editing and polishing something I’ve already rough-drafted. Piece of cake! Earlier this year I spent a month revising the manuscript for the next Navy SEAL memoir Brandon and I just wrote together. Rewriting is a blast.

But the original writing part? The part where you start with a blank sheet of paper (or blank computer screen) and try, by dint of sheer mental focus, to make something magically appear there that feels seriously worthwhile?

Sheer murder.

And I’m not the only one who feels it. Writers are famous for their angst over facing a blank page. “Writing is easy,” said the late great Jeff Mac Nelly, Pulitzer-winning political cartoonist and creator of Shoe. “All you have to do is stare at a blank piece of paper until beads of blood start to form on your forehead.” When Ernest Hemingway, a war correspondent who had covered numerous bloody conflicts, hunted grizzly bears, and was nearly killed twice in two separate plane crashes, was asked what was the most frightening thing he had ever encountered, he replied, “A blank piece of paper.”

There are times, trying to wrap my brain around an idea and wrestle it from the ether onto the page without ruining it or turning it into mush in the process, when I almost can’t stand to sit in the chair. I look for any excuse to quit. I check my email, clean my glasses, think about much fun it would be to pay my bills (Aha, now you know where last week’s post came from), or possibly see if there was a bit more laundry that needed folding, or convince myself that playing solitaire on my phone is “good for sharpening my mind.”

After twenty or thirty minutes of this I leap out of my chair, head upstairs, and tell my wife, “It feels like I’m chopping down oak trees — with my head.”

She nods sympathetically. She’s heard this before. She knows what it means. She pops me and the dog into the car to run out for a quick latte, knowing we both need (or at least want) a car ride. Then leaves me and my latte to head back to the desk.

She knows I’m only squirming from this familiar discomfort and trying to avoid the process, when I know very well I’ve got to go back downstairs to my office and face the dragon. She knows I’m only being like the little kid who protests, “But I’m not [big yawn here] tired!” when it’s well past bedtime.

She knows how it will end up, too: I’ll write the book — and feel ecstatically happy about it.

And that’s the weird thing about it. This painful part, the part where I fidget and evade and do everything I can to escape?

This is the best part.

When I feel like a toothpaste tube that’s being crunched and squeezed empty, is exactly when the really good stuff happens. Because that’s when I’m stretching myself.

And it’s the part, even when I think I can’t stand a single minute more of it, that makes me happiest.

You may not relate to the act of writing. But you may have had moments like this, when you’re doing something you know is worthwhile, that you know you’re going to feel tremendously good about, yet it feels like it’s stretching you almost to the point of impossibility. (“This is your brain. This is your brain, on the rack.”)

Writing a book is very much like living a life, and every day you face is a blank page. You’re making it up as you go along, creating the story you see. There are the easier parts, the times when you’re just going through the motions, or (to switch back to that carpentry metaphor for a sec) sanding the edges of joints you’ve already assembled — and then there are the tougher parts, when you’re hewing whole new 2×10’s out of raw tree trunks and trying to figure out exactly what the heck it is you’re building.

I was talking with my friend Scott once about life, and we ambled over into the topic of death and dying. We both agreed we did not especially want to die of long lingering illnesses. I asked him what, if he could choose, he would want to die of.

“Use,” he replied.

I love that answer. I believe that is exactly what my father died of, when he went in his sleep at the age of nearly-ninety: he had been used up, and used up in ways that he loved and that fully expressed his gifts, abilities, and passions.

That’s the thing about the hard part. If you love it and it uses the best parts of you, then it’s worth it, because it satisfies you in a way that nothing else quite can. It’s what genuinely makes you happy — even when it’s excruciating.


  1. Adrian

    Write on, Bro!

    • jdmann

      Vielen danke, mein broheim!

  2. Adrienne L.

    Wow. I don’t know how you do it. With each post you somehow manage to speak to me exactly where I am at that very moment. I am very new to the agonizing process of writing. I needed this gentle nudge from you today to keep going. I am so thankful for your encouragement. Keep it coming!

    • jdmann

      Thanks, Adrienne – and you know, the encouragement goes both ways. So here’s a proposition: you keep writing, and so will I!

  3. niki

    Keep chopping, John!
    You create nice mulch, wood chips, wood for the fire, and a wonderful read.

    • jdmann

      Thanks, Niki! (You give a whole new meaning to “log on.”)

  4. marthazkristi

    Boy do I love your blog posts! In my line of work, I run into this block quite often, and the deadlines are very scary. I’m writing in a very structured form, and the memos and research are pretty constrained, and I’ve been doing it for more than 20 years, but still — AAAGGH! The fun part for me is when I get to go into that special spot, up past the bar, and argue my point before a live and very critical audience. And then I get to wait for the results . . .

    • jdmann

      Thanks, Kristi! Arguing before the court – I can only imagine. I so admire what you do! (I’ve often thought if I had a second life, I’d be torn between being an actor and being a trial attorney. They both seem thrilling to me.)

  5. Mary

    Most wrenching = most glorious. Great recipe for appreciation of life. Thank you for this insight/wisdom.

    • jdmann

      Thanks, Mary! You are so welcome.

  6. Gwen Abitz

    Hi John: I like your blog as it reminds me of what Steve Pressfield writes about in his books, “The War of Art,” “Turning Pro,” “Do the Work.” He calls it Resistance. It’s like what he shares in “The Authentic Swing,” when he was writing “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”

    • jdmann

      Hey Gwen — My wife loved “Turning Pro,” one of her favorites. I confess I haven’t read it, but she’s been urging me to … and now it’s turning up on my blog commentary! Looks like it’s time for me to go with the flow here and pick up the book!

  7. Beverly Bellmore

    Hi John,

    So, I guess being a writer is what I was thinking it would be. Like having to research and write a thesis several times a year. Plus, it’s a combination of a very private process that becomes so public it’s almost embarrassing. That’s what it seems like to me, anyway. Interesting. Best wishes on this project. You are so much fun to read, John. I do enjoy your blog posts alot.


    • jdmann

      Hi Bev – Love seeing you here! Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Free E-Book on iPad

Get “How to Write Good” download FREE

You may not be a published writer. But everyone tells stories. For a limited time, you can download “How to Write Good (Or At Least, Gooder)” for free. Right now this 130-page book is a JDM Readers Club exclusive. PLUS when you do you get an additional bonus free gift.

Find out more Logos