Falling in Love With Purposeful Pain

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When we go to the gym, we all understand that growth will involve pain. When we sit down to write, we forget that all growth—mental and emotional included—involves pain, too.

When we exercise, we understand that taking a break from the routine will make it harder (and more painful) to go back, and yet, we forget that the same applies for that novel, that longform narrative, and that essay, too.

When we run, we know that once we start, it’s literally about putting one foot in front of the other until we’re done. And with writing, it’s no different. You write one word, then another, and keep going until the timer goes off or the chapter is finished.

When we challenge ourselves physically, we expect the initial days and weeks to be difficult. But when we write, we expect it to be easy. We expect it to be comfortable. Isn’t it crazy that when we fly through an hour of writing, we call it a good writing session but when it’s uncomfortable and has led to growth, we feel pained and full of angst and often beat ourselves up for not having done enough?

You know why this is?

Because we’ve been trained to believe that word count is a marker of success. That if you write more words in a session, it is a good writing session and that if you write fewer words, it’s not. Now don’t get me wrong. You can be in a state of flow, pump out 7,000 fantastic words in three hours, and be very proud of yourself, as I routinely do. When this happens, you feel like you’ve won, just as if you’d run a marathon. When you arrive at the finish line, despite the exhaustion, you feel damn good about yourself.

There SHOULD be pleasure in the writing process, otherwise why would you be doing it? Just as there should be pleasure in fitness or you’ll never stick to it. But just as with any kind of athletic activity, there is often pain and growth (of a different kind) involved in writing. When athletes feel pain, they lean into it further, knowing when to rest and when to push harder. But writers often retreat. The pain of not finding the right phrase or having to sit with an uncomfortable emotion or knowing that the last book didn’t sell scares them and makes them think it’s not working.

Athletes understand incredibly well that in order to achieve the result they want, they have to fall in love with the process. But writers often don’t. Writers will frequently—with a straight face!—claim to “hate writing but love having written.” Show me a writer who hates writing and I’ll show you a writer who is much too focused on the result. The athletes who fall in love with the grind are the ones who succeed eventually. And the writers who show up day after day, enjoying the writing, loving the work, pushing and challenging themselves even when the result is nowhere near in sight are the ones who become the “overnight” successes that everyone dreams of.

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