The Joy Menu #6: Gratitude
In response to a reader's encouragement, your intrepid author tries to...write something positive. (Spoiler: it's hard.)
Last week, I wrote a bit about positivity in relation to failure.
I admitted—to the surprise of no one—that I struggle to express (and feel) gratitude. A friend and loyal reader asked me if I could write about something good that’s come of my writing. Anything good.
So today I’m going to do that.
I often dwell on what happened when, as a young man—a young “writer in New York”—I hit a snag on the creative road, swerved, yanked the wheel, and drove off into the proverbial ditch. Rarely, do I dwell on what was fun about being a young “writer in New York.”
Why that is so might (will) be the topic of another letter, and has a lot to do with why I obsessively try to seek joy in creative expression, rather than whatever else I might aim for—satisfaction, perfection, connection, world peace, etc. For now, I will focus on this simple fact: in my twenties I wrote dozens of pieces on assignment. I wanted to “be a writer” and at that time, such a phrase meant “write, and make my living writing.” And for a time I was and did.
Here are two experiences of when I lived that life—two examples of when I did so with joy.
One. I had an opportunity to pitch a piece to a trendy online magazine I loved. I had no ideas. I opened up another magazine to see what books were due out that fall, and stumbled upon a short preview of the third book of a trilogy by a writer I had never read, but had seen on the (impressive, cramped) bookshelves of my father’s and my uncle’s libraries.
I pitched an interview with this writer. I had no contacts, I had no experience. I had nothing but the brazen chutzpah of a 22 year-old who thought, “I’ll figure it out.”
I got the assignment. I found the name of a publicist. I emailed. That week, I bought all his books and read as many of them as I could. Five novels. Three short story collections. I even found a book of interviews with the author, collected by an academic press, and read that.
When the day came, the author and I spoke for an hour over Skype—which in those days (2005), was a novelty. I can still hear his voice in my ear and remember specific lines he told me (when asked for his advice about love: “Whatever you do, don’t hew to the line of convention”); many of his off-the-cuff phrases guide my life today.
When the piece was published, I thought: “I’m a writer.” It was the first time I felt that way.
Two. After that interview, I created a goal: as long as I was writing journalism, I would aim to speak to or write about all of my favorite writers, artists, and musicians. I figured, as long as I wasn’t making my own art, I might as well serve my own curiosities and connect to those I admired most.
I pitched an interview with my favorite band. I hoped to meet them in person, but instead, was put “on the list” to see them play live, and then the day after, was given a press phone number to call for a twenty minute conversation.
At the concert, I stood by myself at the back and thought about the days when, as a student in the UK, I walked to and from class over slick cobblestones, an entire Discman shoved in the oversized front pocket of my peacoat, their latest CD inside playing on loop.
The knowledge that I was there on a press pass—that I’d walked in for free, and could, if I wanted, walk backstage and say hi—remained private. But thrilled me.
When I spoke to them, we spent most of the 20 minutes talking about a missing toddler shoe that needed to be found and brainstorming where it might be. When it was finally dislodged from a couch cushion, the day felt as if it had been saved.
I may have asked about their music; one assumes I did. The whole thing felt more like a role I’d played than a job I’d done.
When I wrote the piece (in as many minutes as the conversation had lasted) I remember thinking, “This is easy.” It was the first time I felt good at writing. The first time I felt professional.
Why write about this now?
Because everything takes practice. Even joy.
Writing has brought me many things, and I often let those things be clouded by the frustrations that came before or after, unrelated or related, distant or disconnected.
I’ve allowed myself to define what is essentially a gift as a burden. If I want to feel good about it—if I want it to bring me joy—then I have to change that story. I have to rewire the relationship between the task and the feeling.
One way to do that is to remember moments joyously.
That’s my plan at least: storytelling in action.
Feel free to try it yourself, or to write me hate mail about how horrible this idea is.
Both would be appreciated.
Onward to creative joy,