When writing goes well it can generate great personal satisfaction. As Franz Kafka said “Writing is a sweet, wonderful reward.” Say that to someone battling with a draft and they might pummel your head with their laptop. It seems, however, that the challenge of writing is precisely what makes it so rewarding.
Intrinsic rewards: the gift in in the act
To look at this further I spoke to writers about how they reward themselves when writing. Many writers said there’s no need for an external reward because the gift is in the act of writing.
“Writing is a sweet, wonderful reward.” Franz Kafka
However, if you’re struggling to write, being told that writing is its own reward could provoke grievous bodily harm against smug wordsmiths. How is it fair they get to churn out words in state of bliss? And why the hell haven’t I achieved this state of writerly enlightenment?
Satisfaction of a job well done
The fact that writing is difficult is what makes it so rewarding. I’m not going to pretend it’s the equivalent of heart surgery but artistic endeavours produce a particular type of satisfaction. One writer told me:
“There’s such an essential sense of peace and satisfaction from getting a decent number of words and ideas in the bag, and such inner psychological tension when I haven’t for a while, that it could be said that this is one of the times I actually feel most myself and truly relaxed. That ‘job well done’ feeling when you’ve created something from scratch and pulled a scene and dialogue from mid-air. Can’t match it.”
Peace and satisfaction line the path to writerly nirvana, though pretty much every writer experiences the opposite: the torment of an empty page. It seems that the struggle is the way to reach the reward.
Overcoming a challenge to achieve a state of flow
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has spent a lifetime researching the state of flow. He found that challenges are an essential ingredient, saying:
“Flow also happens when a person’s skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable, so it acts as a magnet for learning new skills and increasing challenges.”
Csikszentmihalyi coined the term flow to describe the state of focus and absorption experienced by writers and artists who lose themselves in their work – so much so that they would disregard the need for food or sleep. Flow has become a cornerstone of positive psychology due to the feelings of enjoyment produced.
There are three conditions that need to be met to achieve a state of flow:
- The activity must have a clear set of goals and progress, basically a structure and sense of direction.
- There should be feedback while doing the task to help the writer adjust their practice to maintain a state of flow.
- Finally, there should be a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task and the writer’s perceived skills – a sense of confidence in the ability to complete.
Csikszentmihalyi says that the sense of deep enjoyment is so rewarding that people will expend a great deal of energy to feel it. As we know, writing takes a lot of effort and you need to dedicate years of practice to get good at it. Thankfully, writers are some of the most likely to experience flow.
“That ‘job well done’ feeling when you’ve created something … can’t match it.”
So next time you’re struggling to write remember that enlightenment is achievable – if you work hard enough. And when you get that amazing sense of satisfaction, you must savour your reward. Enjoy!
Why not find out more about flow by reading the classic text by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Flow: The Psychology of Happiness