No Pain, No Gain, Idiot!

On New Year’s Day 2024, I found myself in my favorite bookstore, the Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino. As I leafed through a new book about the famous battle between the eco-activists and the logging companies in the Humboldt Redwood forests, my wife held a book in front of my face: Novelist as a Vocation by Haruki Murakami. 

“I thought you might like this,” she said with an expectant smile.

I don’t really buy books on writing books, but something told me to get this one. Turns out it was meant to be. Thirty-five pages into it, I was sold on Murakami. When I got to the following passage, I understood why it had been important for me to pick up this title: 

“To tell the truth, I have never found writing painful. Neither (thankfully) have I ever found myself unable to write. What’s the point of writing, anyway, if you’re not enjoying it? I can’t get my head around the idea of “the suffering writer.” Basically, I think, novels should emerge in a spontaneous flow.”

This, in case you didn’t realize, is a very controversial statement in the world of writers. Writing is supposed to be hard and unpleasant. If it’s not, you’re just a poser and a wannabe. A real writer is like a literary bodybuilder who puts in the hard work to gain the bulging prose biceps that s/he can then show off at book fairs and literary events, insinuating to all his/her fans that it’s all about the grind. Imagine if a bodybuilder said, “What’s the point of working out, anyway, if you’re not enjoying it? Basically, I think muscles should emerge in a spontaneous flow.” There would be a chorus of meatheads yelling, “NO PAIN, NO GAIN, IDIOT!”

But what if there’s another reason for the fact that so many writers actually detest the act of writing? Could it be that they are trying to recreate themselves in the image of the reader, in the image of the critics, society, and everybody else rather than their own inner voice? What is that much-talked-about “voice” of the author, anyway? Isn’t it simply the authentic self? Isn’t it our vibration, our psychic radiance we put out every second into the environment without even realizing it? Isn’t it the condensation of every belief, every premise about existence that we hold to be self-evident? In short, isn’t it our uncensored take on reality?

If this is what “voice” means in writing, how could writing be painful and a struggle if we truly were in touch with our voice/self? It should flow as spontaneously from us as our personalities do.

But. It’s very easy to lose yourself when trying to cater to everybody else’s expectations (real or perceived) rather than your own. When you tune into others’ expectations long enough, you get so confused that you forget who you are (trust me, I know). You lose your voice to the cacophony of the world. And it seems to me that that’s when writing becomes painful. That’s when you have to weigh every word against how it makes you look in society’s eyes, in the eyes of your family and friends, community, and so forth. Suddenly, self-expression feels profoundly unsafe, dangerous even. What follows, then, is anxiety and writer’s block: the writer has an insatiable desire to share stories and ideas, but the terror of going against the tribe and “thinking too much of oneself” keeps the writer in a constant state of internal paralysis, her words stifled.

I was acutely feeling this angst when attempting to start my first book, The Recovering Materialist, in 2019. Every time I even thought about sitting down to write, my chest would get tight, my breathing forced. And in that state, I did have to think like a bodybuilder and push through the pain and discomfort. But Murakami made me realize that it doesn’t have to be like that if you’re truly willing to listen to yourself (admittedly not an easy task!). On New Year’s Day 2020, I had to go on a Blackout to get enough distance from the tribe and their values to be able to finish my first draft. I still struggled, but at least the distance made it doable, and in three months, I churned out seventy-one thousand words. It was a hot mess, but the important part was to get over myself, and I did—at least for the time being.

Back to Murakami: What he has taught me is that my life project of becoming more genuine and rooted is in fact fully in line with my writing; they are two facets of the same effort. And perhaps my writing can work almost as a thermometer in measuring how well I’m doing in being “real.” If writing gives me anxiety, it’s a sure indicator of me not being grounded in who I am.