Pleasure Principle

Sunday Letter | #321

Some author friends and I were chatting about waking up early in the mornings to write – or at least, the difficulty of doing so – and one of them relayed this bit of advice, originally given to her by a stranger in an airport:

You either have the pain of discipline or the pain of regret.

I wrote it down with the full intention of putting it on the wall above my desk. With the full intention of waking up at five o’clock in the morning for the rest of my life. It only took me until the next day to realize that it’s exactly the kind of advice that’s never worked for me. I know myself enough by now to know that I’d stick with it for the first few days, go to bed too late one night, wake up cranky and exhausted and feeling worthless, and then take that lost day as an excuse to rebel.

Framing everything as various forms of pain or struggle, using that frame as motivation to do things you don’t want to do, and subsequently revolting from the frame, strikes me, in these first ten days of 2021, as very American.

But I can easily imagine another approach, far more carrot than stick. You could seek out things that are inherently pleasurable. Find work or art that has its own gratifying energy, and pursue it with abandon. Follow hobbies and interest not because they’re stepping stones to future vocations but because they are inherently fun. An approach that’s, maybe, much more Italian.

When I think of why most systems of productivity or organization don’t necessarily work for me – why I’ve rarely been able to fill one journal or planner before moving onto another – it’s because the motivating thing for me wasn’t the system; it was almost always the thrill of trying something new. Once that pleasure was gone, it became drudgery.

When students ask me how I deal with writer’s block, I tell them that a lot of times when I’m stuck, or haven’t written anything in a while, I discover that it’s because I haven’t read anything that’s really excited me. Because there’s nothing that gets me to write more than reading books that I love. When I read a book that I love, it makes me want to do for someone else what the book or story did for me.

A pleasure-oriented approach to writing, then, could start with reading. Instead of setting daily writing or word-count goals, you could try to read more books that excite you and compel you to write. For me, that’d likely mean more-aggressively abandoning books – or skipping sections of books – that aren’t holding my attention. Maybe I need a set of reading rules like the blogging ones I mentioned last week. Rules that assuage guilt and provide immediate relief.

Reading and writing are quantumly entangled; I like the idea of effecting more spooky actions at a distance.

It already sounds like fun.