Many of the adult writing clients I work with suffer from the same challenge both my sons encountered when they were first given schoolwork: It’s hard to do something when you think you don’t want to do it. It’s understandable. Human beings are built to seek pleasure and avoid pain. We want to feel good. If we make ourselves do something we don’t want to do, we won’t feel good, and so we usually find reasons not to do it. It’s almost mathematical.
It took me a while to understand what was happening with my clients. They had sought me out because they had a book they wanted to write. When I asked them about their book, they would become animated. This book had their attention. It was a bright, interesting, delicious idea they wanted to share with other people. And yet they couldn’t seem to bring themselves to write. They were lazy, they’d say. Not disciplined. Scattered.
None of this was true. These people are never broken; rather, they made writing the book a chore rather than a pleasure. They turned a new passion into something they should do or must do. My job as their coach was to help them understand that the pleasure in the doing is enough to motivate us to do it regularly. In fact, it won’t even be motivation; it’ll simply be what we want to do, the way we want to eat when we are hungry.
Adults often have trouble believing this. We’ve taught ourselves to work, to chop wood because we’re cold not because we feel like swinging an axe, and to do the dishes because we need something clean to eat off of not because we want to put our hands in soapy water. Indeed, the daily business of being a successful adult human can sometimes feel like a triumph of duty of desire. When we lay down on our deathbed we can look back with satisfaction knowing we spent our lives doing what we were supposed to, not what we wanted to.
In this way, I have to teach adults to think like children, who arrive on the planet knowing – as everyone once did – that the best reason in the world to do something is because it’s fun to do it. Unfortunately, schoolwork does not look like much fun to most kids, certainly not my boys when they were younger. And so they were being asked to do something against their best and most creative impulse, and they rightly rebelled.
As Sawyer’s father and now teacher my job has been to help him find the pleasure in what often appears pleasure-less. This was not easy for me at first because I too have long believed that certain things are fun and certain things simply aren’t. But, being a responsible adult, I made myself do those pleasure-less things because they needed doing. This was a meager and dishonest view of my life. Pleasure exists within me independent of what I am doing. I need only find how that pleasure expresses itself in whatever I am doing, and lo! I am enjoying it.
Teaching someone how to find pleasure in something that appears boring is a delicate business. No force can be applied; no carrot or stick should be insinuated. The pleasure must be allowed to appear effortlessly and naturally. Often, my best strategy is to do nothing at all, but instead to find the pleasure in watching Sawyer find his own way in to whatever he’s doing. The moment I stop enjoying this experience is the moment I cease to teach him anything; the moment I resume is when I learn again what he has come here to teach me.
I am the author of Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write with Confidence, and Write Within Yourself: An Author's Companion. Learn more here.