If it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong

by | September 21, 2018 | General | 4 comments

Smiley balloons

About a week ago, I had an “aha!” moment. I’d been feeling terribly stressed due to increased demands at my job and my author commitments, plus some impending travel that will make it all the more difficult to fulfill my obligations. I was obsessing about everything, when it hit me: even though I have way too much to do, I enjoy almost all of the tasks on my long list —writing, teaching, research, making covers, reading, writing reviews, creating blog posts, entertaining friends, sending birthday cards, cooking, even exercising. When I asked myself what I’d give up, if I had to make a choice, I really didn’t have a good answer.

That realization flipped my thinking and drained some of the stress. First, I felt a surge of gratitude that my life is so full of meaningful activity and so rich in joy. Second, I understood that joy is a reliable signal as to whether you’re on the right path.

If it’s not fun, you’re doing it wrong.

Am I talking about sex? Yes. Writing? Yes. Keeping fit? That too.

The Calvinistic/Puritan tradition views life as bitter and hard, an exercise in self-denial, a continuous series of trials one must endure in order to reach the promise of Paradise in the hereafter. I just don’t buy that. It doesn’t make sense, and it doesn’t match my personal experience.

For me, life is something to celebrate, a continuous unfolding, a twisting and often surprising path. And when I’m wondering which branch to follow, I’ve learned to turn within first, to ask myself how the path feels. Does it feel right? Does it generate joy?

I remember when I got my first job in my second career. (I’ve had several since.) I had no prior professional experience in this field, just a couple of university courses. I got hired on the strength of my academic credentials. When I started working, though, something clicked. I really “got” the concepts. I found I had an aptitude that I would not have expected. The job tapped into my creativity and developed my interpersonal skills. It was definitely the right path at that time.

When I met my husband (at a technical conference), I tried to give him the brush-off. We lived on different coasts and I didn’t want a long-distance relationship. Besides, I was already juggling four lovers. When he persisted, however, I discovered that being with him felt inexplicably comfortable. We spent the first three weeks of our life together driving across the US, a trip that could strain even a well-established couple. We had a fantastic time—and despite the newness of our relationship, the whole process turned out to be incredibly easy and natural.

Thirty nine years later, I understand: it was so much fun because we were obviously doing it right.

Note that joy is not exactly the same as happiness. It’s not about pleasure or entertainment. Joy is something deeper, a spiritual quality, a sense of satisfaction, order and symmetry. Sometimes it’s a quiet, soothing warmth humming under your solar plexus. Sometimes it’s laughter bubbling up out of nowhere, an urge to sing or to dance. Joy can be wordless, or it can spill out in poetry or paint.

I believe we are meant to feel joy and that when we do, we can trust we’re being our best and truest selves.

The fact that something kindles your joy doesn’t mean it will be easy. Climbing a mountain, running a marathon, getting a degree, raising a child, or writing a book all take a huge amount of effort, but joy is the ultimate reward. And of course every life has its pain and its tragedies. But joy makes you more resilient.

Writing can be tough, frustrating work. We all complain when the words don’t flow or the characters don’t obey. We fight with incompetent editors, flinch at poor reviews, feel discouraged when our royalties don’t even begin to reach the level of minimum wage. In the face of all these negatives, why do we—why do I—keep writing? Out of love. Because of the joy.

Almost nothing compares to the sense of delight when I am in the groove, the words are flowing and the story is unfolding just as I’d imagined. It’s worth every bit of aggravation and every ounce of effort.

At least that’s how I feel. Your mileage may differ. But if you are truly suffering for your art, why bother? If what you’re doing doesn’t fundamentally satisfy you, give you that deep level feeling of rightness, maybe you are doing the wrong thing.

Not that I’m counseling my fellow authors to give up. Just stop and ask yourself: is it fun? And if not, what can you change so that it will be?

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Rose

    Hi, Lisabet,

    Good blog piece and very true, in my opinion. Life is way too short to spend too much of it doing things that aren’t fun.

    Unlike you, I wasn’t born writing; I was born drawing. I came to writing, as an actual thing to do, a bit later. I don’t know if either drawing or writing was a “passion.” I’m not sure I’ve ever had what people call a “passion.” When I do things I like to do, but that I don’t HAVE to do, I enjoy them, sometimes even “passionately.” It’s that “in the moment” feeling, where everything else around me just fades away and I’m totally engrossed in the creation of whatever it is I’m creating. For me, though, that feeling of joy and in the moment is squashed and trampled on as soon as I feel pressured to do more with it than just enjoying the doing of it. As soon as it becomes something someone else believes i should be doing better, or different from the way I’m doing it, the joy evaporates and I’m back to the time when my efforts are being expended so that someone else is satisfied and pleased with my performance, whether or not I am.

    This tendency is coupled with my penchant for going gangbusters into something and having fun doing, until I’m not having fun doing it, which transition can happen slowing or quickly…I never know for sure when I start something how long my interest in it will last, or how fast it might wane. This is often called, by others, being flighty, or indecisive, or lacking perseverance, sometimes laziness, even immaturity. Whatever it’s called, (and I just call it changing my mind, or wandering off down a different trail) when I’m doing something for the joy I get from doing it, I stop doing it when something else catches my eye and my interest, I don’t really see anything wrong with that in the pastimes for which I’m not getting paid a living wage and excellent benefits. My work ethic is not in question. My employers have always gotten their money’s worth and more from me.

    For me, there is no work ethic involved in doing something just for the hell of it, the stuff I do, at least at the outset, just for me. The fun stuff…the drawing, the writing, the cooking (later in life, when I got married and discovered that cooking was a fun and creative thing to do that pleased me and someone else), those are the things I do for joy.

    I knew early on that none of those things would net me the kind of money I would need to have the things I wanted, but rather that the steady jobs with pay and benefits would buy me the time, outside of work, to do the fun things, as long as I felt like doing them. Stopping one fun thing to do another fun thing wouldn’t have any negative financial consequences. No one else would suffer if I decided to switch from highly-detailed pencil drawing to going crazy with acrylics in abstract. I might sell a single abstract painting for thirty bucks, or a single short story for a hundred, but there are no guarantees for a consistent income when I wander out of “the zone.” The fun things, the creative pastimes, don’t place any pressure on me to keep doing them better or I’ll be sorry. There are enough angst-creating life events with which to cope, without my enjoyable pastimes creating more angst. In fact, they shouldn’t (in my opinion) create any angst at all. At least, that’s how I feel about them for me. Others may feel very different. If I’m writing a story (which I haven’t done for about four years, now) or painting or drawing, and I look outside and it a perfect (for me) day out there, I want to have the freedom to totally ignore the artwork and go outside and play, which might simply be hopping into the van and going for a two- or three-hour drive. There are enough real “should dos” in my life (things that really need to be done to make my life easier — like cleaning up the collected items of 45+ years and having a honking huge yard sale — plus the daily should dos, such as doing the trash run, vacuuming, whatever, that just keep things from getting out of hand) without the sense that the things I really *enjoy* doing are “chaining” me to a particular spot and pressuring me to finish them, before I’m “allowed” to do anything else. To me, that’s no different than the voice saying to me, “You can’t play, until you finish your homework,” or “until you polished your shoes,” or “until you tidy up your top drawer,” or whatever chore HAD to be done.

    I don’t expect too many other writers are like this and that’s okay. Writers, who write with a passion, and whose writing IS their passion, are the reason we have so much to read, but I also believe that the “occasional” writers enjoy what they do, *while they’re doing it,” just as much as those who write for a living and who feel driven to write. I think it’s great that there are writers who love what they’re doing so much that they do it for a living, or, at the very least, devote themselves to their writing when they’re not doing whatever else they do to make a living and pay the bills. I don’t think I can ever really understand that because it has never happened to me, the same way they probably don’t understand how I can “switch” passions and leave some behind, sometimes for years, before I pick them up again, if ever.

    Though I don’t anymore, I used to envy those people, because they seemed so sure of what they wanted, whereas I’ve spent a good deal of my life trying things out and deciding what I didn’t want. (One of the few things that I did and stuck with, during even the not-so-fun times, was being married. That truly was and remains the greatest joy and passion of my life. Nothing can or will ever be better than the 42 years I got to spend just being with my husband.) As for my other interests and transient passions, I don’t know, maybe I’ll narrow it down to a single passion by the time I die. In the meantime, I’m having as much fun as I can doing whatever catches my fancy while I can still do that. As my Joe used to say, “I’m here for a good time, not a long time.”

    Rose 😉

    PS: I’m really sorry that my response is an essay, but it inspired me to write a bit, which I don’t do much anymore.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      Thanks so much, Rose. I agree, having to force yourself to do something you love, or feeling pressured, can really strip the joy from it.

      And why should you have to narrow yourself to a single passion? You’re blessed to have several activities that inspire you.

  2. Darnell

    I dread Friday, the day I promised a new post. But as I prepare the story, rant, or review, I get a joy that cant be described. Its work, its my 3rd job, but it brings joy in the end. I got it right.

    • Lisabet Sarai

      The secret is to look for the fun, Darnell!

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