25 Ways To Be A Happy Writer (Or, At Least, Happier)

I read this article — “22 Things Happy People Do Differently.” And I was like, yeah, you know, I like some of these. They’re a little simple, a little direct, but still, I liked the point — we have to choose to be happy instead of letting the universe ladle happiness upon us.

Further, I thought, well, writers are a traditionally unhappy lot, always moping around and crying into their manuscripts — the tears streaking the title page and soaking through the first few chapters. And so it seemed a good time to look at how writers can choose to be happy, too.

And thus, another list was born struggling and screaming from my quivering blog-womb.

1. Write

Writers write. If we were little simulated characters in a video game, we’d have various meters to fill up (liquor, pee, self-esteem, tweets) and one of them would be labeled with two tags: HAPPINESS and WORD COUNT. The happy writer is a writing writer.

2. Care Less

We come to the page with too many expectations. Each poor little story is like a trembling donkey upon which we heap tons of weight. We don’t just want a good book, we want a bestseller. If it isn’t perfect, we hate it. If it isn’t 100% right, it’s 1000% wrong. Problem: we care too damn much. It’s all or nothing with us and that’s the kind of dichotomy that shanks our happiness right in the kidneys. So: care less. Ease off the stress stick. Have more fun with what you’re doing. When your kids and dogs play in the mud, you can either freak out that they’re too dirty, or you can laugh and jump in the mud, too. So, fuck it: jump in the damn mud already.

3. Write What You Want To Write

A career spent writing things you don’t want to write is a career spent trying to birth a VCR through your pee-hole. It’s awkward. It’s painful. It won’t fit and it’ll damn sure tear you apart. Writing as a career isn’t so financially fruitful that there’s much value in coming to this thing without the purity of your love and desire on display. Writing what you want to write, on your terms, is a powerful kind of bliss. And the trick with bliss is, it’s up to you to find it.

4. Put Differently: Bring Yourself To The Page

I’m sympathetic that writers sometimes take assignments or write stories to fit parameters they did not themselves design. The same rule applies as above with a slight modification: even in writing something outside your purview you can still put yourself on the page and make it your own without hammering that square peg through that circle hole (or, for a more grotesque version, “hammering that Rubik’s Cube into that pigeon’s cloaca”). If I’m gonna write an article about trout fishing, grout lines, tulip farming, or a brand comparison of monkey diapers, by gosh and by golly I’m going to write that article the way I want and in a way that pleases me before it pleases you. If I’m not doing that then I might as well be digging ditches.

5. Stop Comparing Yourself To Others

You will never be at the tippy-top of the writer pyramid because there is no fucking writer pyramid. No ladder, no mountain, no March Madness-style ranking. You will always find other writers who have more awards, more sales, more books, better covers, sexier author photos, more Twitter followers, bigger advances, more powerful beards (GODDAMN YOU ROTHFUSS), and on and on. One author with a butt full of awards can still end up jealous of another author who has more awards. Or no awards but a bigger audience. Or better hair, or a cooler agent, or the ability to hold one’s liquor. Strive to be better, yes, but don’t strive to be someone else. You are your own person with your own stories to tell. You’re stuck with you. You can’t comparison shop to be a different person, and trying to do so will only drown you in a washtub of misery.

6. Open Yourself

The happy writer is an open writer: open to experiences, emotions, words, ideas, books, authors, tastes, smells, films, travel, unusual liquors, fancy cupcakes, sexual positions, exotic lubricants, animal costumes, and so on, and so forth. All happy thought-grist for our word-mill.

7. Set Realistic Goals

“I’m going to write this book. It’s going to earn me a seven-figure advance. It’s going to climb all the bestseller charts like that giant ape climbing whatever that really tall building is, and I’m going to win all the awards and then I’ll sell the film rights for another seven figures and the protagonist will be played by Baby Goose himself, THE RYAN GOSLING.” Unrealistically high goals just mean a long fall when you miss a ledge or a foothold crumbles beneath you.

8. Recognize The Lengths Of Your Control

And that leads me to this: Happiness lies in knowing the difference between control and influence. You control the quality of your work. The quality of your work influences factors outside your control like, say, whether you get an agent or sell a lot of books or get to make sweet sweet on-screen love to Ryan Gosling. Happiness is controlling what you can control to the best of your ability while letting the rest fall to the misty vagaries of your influence.

9. Gaze Not Into Publishing’s Demon Eye

You should know how the publishing industry works, but you don’t need to know it biblically. Pretend that you’re in a Lovecraft novel, right? In the world of a Lovecraft novel it’s enough to know that the Great Old Ones are out there beyond time and space in an astronomical mind-destroying fuck-tangle. You have your knowledge, yay, great, now go home. Don’t study it. Don’t stare. Don’t go fucking around with the Necronomicon or ululating foul entreaties of Azathoth the Blind Idiot God because that’s how you lose your sanity. Same thing with publishing. Know it’s there. Know how it works. Then go home and write your books. Because you start picking off those cosmic, spiritual scabs and you’ll start shedding sanity faster than a Collie blows his coat.

10. Don’t Give Haters Real Estate In Your Brain

Creative folks put themselves out there further than many by the nature of the work: you create a thing whose value is reflected only when it is held and beheld by the community that receives it. But that also means you’re a kind of antenna receiving both good vibes and venomous ones, too. Fuck the haters. Piss on any negativity that comes flinging your way. Letting haters have real estate in your head is like letting a strange dog shit in your kitchen.

11. Stop Looking At Your Amazon Ranking (Or Other Internet Numbers)

I don’t even think that number means anything. I suspect one day Amazon will reveal that the entire Amazon ranking calculation is the invention of an insane spam-bot staring into a snowglobe. And now authors are ranked separately from books? Oh boy. Pinning your self worth to an Amazon rank is no better than measuring your value by the pH balance of your front lawn. For that matter, stop obsessing about blog hits, Twitter followers, Facebook likes, Myspace wongles, OkCupid tickles, or any other pokes, peeks, clicks, views, twists, tweaks, or other agglomerated purple nurples. Those numbers will never add up to your happiness.

12. Give Yourself Permission To Suck

You ever get the opportunity to play with an artistic medium in which you have no experience? Photography? Fingerpaints? Erotic botany? When you do that, there exists this level of freedom where you’re like, “I have no stake in this, I’m just going to spackle some paint on my fingers and — I don’t know, fuck it, I’m going to draw a turkey on a jet-ski.” And then you’re there dicking around and fingerpainting like a boss and suddenly you realize: this is fun. And it sucks, but yet, there’s something real in there. Something of value. (“I WILL BE A CHAMPION FINGERPAINTER.”) It’s a cool moment where by creating art with no limits or no pressure and with jizz-buckets of fun you still managed to do something interesting. Something different. Carry that into your writing. Leap into the beyond. Fingerpaint like a boss. Remove the pressure of quality and give yourself permission to suck. Remember: with writing, you can always fix it in post. Why do you think Word Jesus invented the Editing Process? PRAISE WORD JESUS.

13. Deal With Your Shit

Happiness is active, not passive; it’s a decision, not an award someone gives you. Happiness takes adjustment. When something is broken, you adjust that thing with a wrench, a screwdriver, maybe a flamethrower. Writers, as it turns out, bring a lot of shit to the table. Other people have baggage. Writers have cargo. (By the goddamn tonnage.) This burden will stand in the way of your happiness as a writer because, worst of all, it will stop you from writing. Whatever it is that blocks you, it’s up to you to unblock. Deal with it on the page. Deal with it in therapy. Deal with it with medically-approved happy pills, whatever. Hard as it may be, it remains your choice to atomize the obstacles in your mind and on your path.

14. When Something Isn’t Working, Change It

We can usually tell when something is off. We know when our process is wrong. When we’re writing the wrong thing. When a behavior we’re committed to isn’t yielding the results we expected. You can only try to pick a lock with your dick so many times before you realize it just isn’t gonna work. (Or, for the lady version, “You can only try to open a stuck pickle jar with your vagina so many times…”) We often repeat mistakes out of some combination of stubbornness and laziness, but all that does is sink our boots deeper into the mire of dissatisfaction. Change your game. Mix it up. Approach your problems from a new direction.

15. Take Care Of Your Body

Move your body. Don’t fill it with a ton of crap. Your brain is the thing responsible for your writing but that brain is just a passenger in a car that needs to be working in tippy-top shape. Fill it with the right fuel. Take it out driving. Keep it maintained. Your body isn’t some unmufflered explodable rust-fucked jalopy. Give your brain the best ride you can give it.

16. Fuck Money

When the time comes to send my son to college in 16 years, it will cost about as much as it does now to send him to Alpha Centauri. So, I’m no enemy of cash. I like money. I need it. To eat. To live. To whiskey. (Is “whiskey” a verb? It should be. CALL OXFORD, CAMBRIDGE and tell MERRIAM to stop playing grab-ass with WEBSTER, stat!) I’m not saying you shouldn’t write with money in mind — but writing with only money in mind is a tram ride into Disappointment City, population: you. You gotta find a reason to write that isn’t just a pouch of imaginary chits and ducats. You gotta write because you want to write, because the story is about to pop out of you like a chestburster. You must love the writing more than you love the money from writing.

17. Recognize The Limits Of Shame

Shame sure seems like a powerful motivator, doesn’t it? I once thought it served me well. “Ah, if I don’t write X,000 words a day I’ll be ashamed of myself and that shame will be a burr in my hiney-hole to get me working!” And it does motivate, to a point. But you have to realize that shame is only half a ladder. It only gets us part of the way and it does so for the wrong reasons. We should try to be better writers because it makes us feel good to do so not because it makes us feel bad to do otherwise. Become addicted to the positive feelings, not the negative ones. Give shame its due — which is to say, flick it away like an errant booger.

18. Treat Your Audience Well

There exists what I consider to be a positive feedback loop, which is to say, giving positivity into the world returns it like a boomerang and uhh, hello, BOOMERANGS ARE FUCKING RAD-GRAVY (“rad-gravy” is superior to “awesomesauce,” by the way). Treat your audience well and they will treat you well in kind. And it will magnify and multiply.

19. Help Nurture Other Writers (And Be Nurtured In Return)

We seem like a big community, a formless and faceless blob — but the writing community is actually a lot smaller than you think. Be a part of it. Nurture relationships. Help other writers find opportunity and they will help you in turn. Hell, just make friends with other writers. (I mean, not all of them — some of us are quite scary with our pantsless whiskey rages and our bone-woven beards.) Like with one’s audience, feeding into it feeds back upon you — that’s true of positivity and true of negativity as well. More to the point, imagine there’s a communal fountain: you can either poop in it or fill it with vodka and Kool-Aid. CHOOSE WISELY.

20. See Failure As An Instruction Manual

Failure is illuminating. It reveals every broken board beneath our feet, every crack in the wall, every pothole in the road. Do not shun failure. High-five it. Hug it. Engage in lusty pawing with it. Failure means you’re doing. Everybody fails before they succeed. Failure is how we learn. Failure is part of the grand tradition of figuring out how to be awesome.

21. Make No Excuses

We tell excuses to other people as if they’re reasons, but we know the truth: it’s just some nonsense we say to absolve ourselves of the sin of Not Doing The Shit We Were Supposed To Do. Every excuse uttered is another squirrel nibble out of our happiness. Soon your excuses amount to a whole swarm of squirrels. They’ll make short bitey work of your self-worth.

22. Long-Term Satisfaction Over Short-Term Happiness

The happy writer knows that not every day is spent as happy writer. Every day isn’t, “Open Word processor, giggle as a rain of puppies and panda babies fall upon you, proceed to breathe brilliance onto screen, go take a nap.” Some days are hard. As intellectually grueling as back-breaking labor. Some days feel like you’re pulling out a wolf’s teeth by going through his asshole. What you need to realize is that even a bad day of writing contributes to a sense of long-term satisfaction which is far more valuable than the short sharp cookie-pop of temporary happiness (though that’s good too, and needn’t be avoided).

23. Let Your Voice Find You

An author doesn’t find her voice. An author’s voice is what’s on the page when she writes without trying or pretension. You are your voice. Trying to find it is often an act of digging a deep hole to discover what was standing next to you all along.

24. Love Some Part Of What You Do

Sometimes we get an idea in our heads to do a thing (go to the moon, climb Everest, learn bondage knots, cross-breed a panther and a pony into an adorable predator known as the PANTHY), but it turns out we try it and don’t actually like the process it takes to get there. Love of the end-game isn’t enough to keep you happy. It might be enough to get the job done, but happy-making, it isn’t. You have to love some part of the process. The writing. The editing. The rewriting. If the only thing the act of writing earns you is a mouthful of ash and a pair of rage-throttled fists, fuck it. Writing ain’t worth doing if it fails to tickle your inner monkey.

25. Finish Your Shit

Every time you fail to finish your work, a little girl loses another kitten. A unicorn loses his horn and becomes a regular stupid old horse. A sweet old lady chokes on her dentures. But worst of all, every time you fail to finish your work it wears another small hole in your soul. You can feel it there — that ragged tear in your cloth, wind whistling through the gap. Because you know what it means. You’re giving up. Giving in. Handing over the keys. Letting the terrorists that are your Doubt and Fear and Uncertainty win. You know what all the books published and movies made and comics inked have in common? Someone finished what they started. And finishing will give you a bliss-boost. All your happiness circuits will fire like a 21-synapse-salute. Even if it’s not the best thing you’ve written. Even if it’s the worst.

Because the best thing you never finished is always less than the worst thing you did.

Want another hot tasty dose of dubious writing advice aimed at your facemeats?


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114 responses to “25 Ways To Be A Happy Writer (Or, At Least, Happier)”

  1. Great to hear more of the Tao of Chuck. The points you made are something we all should know and practice, but sometimes just seem to forget about when we’re raging at our computers. And the great thing is, if you take your article and change the words ‘writers’ and ‘writing’ for ‘musicians’ and ‘composing’ or ‘actors’ and ‘acting’ or ‘artists’ and ‘painting’, it would still apply 100%, because it’s not so much an article about how to be a happy writer, but a philosophy about how to be happy in life.

    Maybe you should start your own religion, give those Scientologists a run for their money (I will happily serve as the High-Priest of Whisky, should such a vacancy arise (and should said whisky be the finest single malt a writer’s wage can buy.))

    • You should not encourage me to start my own religion.

      Because I’M TOTALLY IN.

      As long as I get Temple Snickers. Like, what I mean is, when you enter the temple, instead of a dish of holy water it’s like, a bag of Snickers.

      — c.

    • That is so true. I just read the best freaking novel I’ve read in years. It was like it was written for me. One of those rare books with enormous healing power. How many people can write a book that changes someone’s life?

        • Depends what you’re into. Chaim Potok’s novel “My Name is Asher Lev.” It’s about a Hasidic Jewish kid living in 1950s Brooklyn who scandalizes his family and community by wanting to be an artist. The entire conflict is about whether or not he can have both or has to make a choice between making art and being part of a community. Had me crying my guts out for about the first half. Your mileage may vary.

          • Sounds stirring and intense. I’ll look it up and see if I can get my hands on it.

            Thanks for sharing.

  2. I’m sorry Chuck, that it had to come to this but I have to disagree with you. NO BEARD IS SUPERIOR TO THE WENDIG FACE FUNGUS! I will fight all who disagree. (Tickets at the door, all rights to the video reserved) 🙂

  3. Beautiful thing about this list is that it works for most creative endeavors with minor edits. My sister is a photographer, and I linked her to it, as quite a few of these I’ve told her before. I’m particularly fond of #24. If you don’t love at least SOMETHING of what you’re doing, you’re not going to be able to get through the really awful parts.

    I think my favorite part of writing a book is the outlining process. The way I handle it is, to steal a metaphor from Stephen King, like archaeology. I generally get an idea, be it a word, phrase or image in my head, which I write to paper–I generally outline by hand, then copy to XMind as a timeline / mind map. Once I have that first line on paper, I dig away at it, dusting off the limbs of the idea, finding the characters, fleshing them out, until I have this skeleton of a story. I can look at the skeleton, and I can see what its all about. Then I dig a bit further, finding not just the general outline, but where each scene is, then fleshing each scene out. Once that’s finished, I have something that’s more than an outline, and less than a draft. I then use that, deviating from it where the all-powerful force of writing requires, but generally I stick to it in most scenes. If I have to deviate too far, I rework the outline.

    Finding those stories, that is the best part. Then I write them, which is awesome. Then comes editing, which I hate, but once THAT is done, the stories get read, which is awesome.

  4. Chuck, may I please use this article as a handout at the RT Booklovers’ Convention? Full credit, natch. I’m teaching on this course:
    I’m teaching GMC to complete beginners, so it’ll be a hard class, and something like this would help them to remember why they’re doing it. I’m teaching dialog too (they pick me because I’m a Brit!) but I think I have that sorted.
    Not that it’s something I don’t need reminding about all the time. I might just stick it on the wall next to my computer. One of my books is taking off on Kindle, and I’m checking it every hour. Must. Stop.
    If you say no, I’m giving them the URL anyway.

  5. I wonder whether I can somehow make #9 into my password at work – so I have to type it multiple times each day.
    PS – I’m happy to help fill the temple Snickers bowls on alternating Wednesdays, if someone starts a roster for the duty.

  6. You just made my morning 100% better. Needed to hear this and love the delivery. (“hammering that Rubik’s Cube into that pigeon’s cloaca”) HA! Also, “to whiskey” NEEDS to be a verb.

  7. Yeah, I like that. My downfall is listening to people who tell me I can’t do things – that they’re “real” and I’m not “real” so I have no hope and am breathing too much oxygen and shouldn’t try. I’m happier when I stay alone in my weird little corner writing what I want to write, and don’t venture out to be dumped on by assholes with gigantic egos who want to tell me I suck, or that I’m wrong in a hundred fifty different ways. There’s a book title for ya: “150 Ways to Be Wrong, All Day, Every Day”. Some people are supportive about a learning process, and other people are too busy trying to be right and to reassure themselves of their own greatness to be helpful. It would be NICE if other writers were supportive, but I’m not holding my breath. I’m not sure why everyone has to be such an asshole. Like if you make someone else feel like shit, that makes you a better person by comparison? It is so not cool and so not necessary. Plus, it’s exhausting to deal with. /venting

  8. “Failure is part of the grand tradition of figuring out how to be awesome.”

    I like permission to fuck up. I tell everyone to try to fuck up at least once under controlled circumstances, so when things fuck up out of control, they already know how to go about fixing it. [insert Wendig-esque out-of-control asshole/dental surgery metaphor here, include beard]

  9. As always Chuck I like your advice. Your writing advice and blog are what inspired me to walk away from a work I could never just finish, give it space and try something totally new. I realized that I wasn’t ready to finish the other book, because I didn’t have the skill I needed…yet. Someday I will finish it, but when I am ready. In the mean time I have finished an entire book, and am finishing the final edits, with the second one outlined, and ideas for number 3. Your advice on getting published, the process etc have also helped me set realistic goals. I truly appreciate it.

  10. Thank you for the lady version, because I couldn’t have visualized it as well without it. 🙂

  11. Fear & Panic! What about the fear and panic? I love to write, but I am terrified of having someone read what I wrote. Since I have always enjoyed reading I have a high regards for writers. A novel is much less mundane than television, sometimes so highly imaginative that I feel transported to another world. Devouring a lifetime of novels, magazines, true stories, newspapers and cereal boxes has left me with the slightest notion that I may be able to write after all. A thought provoked from the mind, turned over and over like a shell at the seas shore, brought to life on the pages, or more appropriately, on the screen of another. My lofty goals are that these ideas, these writings, will resonate, for a fleeting moment with another. Then I panic, what if there is no connection. No resonating?

    I have been writing this fucking blog that I have NOT published for two years. I gave myself deadline after deadline then finally just paid someone to make the navigation for the website and post it. However, he is still waiting on the content from me. I explained my fears and he gave me a deadline of March 30th which is like, 3 fucking days away. It is just a simple blog but it feels like my writing is my baby and I have to hand it over to SATAN and his hooves are sharp not to mention that his tail and horns are so pointy.

    So here I am …. A closet writer and I WANT TO COME OUT OF THE CLOSET.

    p.s. I love your site, I use to daily to procrastinate publishing mine 🙂

    • Nobody’s asking me…but in my opinion, if what you’re writing is emotionally honest, it will have resonance for other people. Your comment right here has resonance, OK? I keep a blog, where I say whatever the fuck I want. If people don’t like it, they don’t have to read it. Also, I never check to see if they’re reading it or not, because I really don’t give a shit. I write it for me. If I were trying to sell my work, that would be different. Then I’d be worried. But posting it? Nah. Just post the stuff. Fuck Satan and his pointy hooves. Satan’s a jerk.

  12. Thanks for the awesome post, I’m another one in the “I needed to read this” chorus. I liked your post so much that I linked it to some friends of mine and, man, you made their day 🙂
    And since I live in a country where the number of English-impaired is huge and this list MUST be shared with as many people as possible, I’m asking, no, begging you: can I translate it in Italian an post it on my blog, along with the rightful backlink? Pretty please, oh, Wonderful-Bearded-God-Of-Wiskey-And-Snickers? 🙂

  13. Can I just say that this blog is totally awesome and I agree with every word you said here. The in-your-face tone rams it home all the more. It’s like reading a kind of Thomas Payne-like guide or bible for writers to just not making excuses any more, and just doing our sh*t, and getting it done.

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