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Contemplating Joy

What fun is chronicling the wonderful when there is life's assaults to write about?

What moves me to write? What is it that spurs on the creative muscles? Do I put fingers to keyboard to express joy, or am I driven to exorcise dark demons?

Put differently: what is my muse?

These thoughts arose recently because I ran into a friend at Target last week, one who happens to read this column weekly. After chatting about the challenges of finding time to write –or in her case, paint – she requested that perhaps the next piece I write for submission in this space could be about something joyful, the words "for a change" lingered in the air, unspoken but palpable.

Her suggestion gave me pause. Is joy not one of my muses? While some essays I write are light and wry and some are more serious, I have to admit that almost none have at their core, joy.

And yet, I am not unmoved by joy. I love when darkness falls, a sky sprayed with stars, a full moon, a fire pit surrounded by laughing friends. October's rich colors are deeply satisfying, even if a harbinger of the long chill that's heading our way. Fireworks. All aspects of the beach, and of course, sunsets and sunrises. The first snowfall. A well-written book is a savory and consuming distraction, as is a well- observed poem. Wind. Hot chocolate with fresh whipped cream from Burdick's. Snuggling a newborn baby, fresh from a warm bath. Puppies are sweet, if a little smelly. Spring blooms and the return of birds. Yo Yo Ma performing Bach or anything, really.

I may as well burst into song with "Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens ..." and let it go at that. It's a little prosaic, isn't it? In fact, I've gone and bored the spit out of you, haven't I?

And yet ...

Sometimes there are moments like this: My son and I were puttering in the yard. We were talking about all the kids who had come and gone in our neighborhood over the long years we'd lived there.  

"You know," he said, "I've loved growing up here. I've had a really happy childhood."  

In that moment, I was overflowing with joy, an unexpected exultation that transcended more mundane everyday joys.

So it's not that I live a life bereft of delight. But why don't I write more about those happier times, and instead devote my attentions to difficulties, broken connections, the death of loved ones?

Perhaps the answer is simple: happiness does not move me to write because it does not require active processing to get past. The good stuff in life just ... is. If you're lucky, you'll take the time to relish those moments when they present themselves, and then move on, braced better for the drudgery that will inevitably fill the space between the occasions of joy.

I write, in contrast, precisely to process the hard stuff, life's assaults: grief, loss, longing. The act itself is satisfying, sure, and sometimes transformative, but even writing does not bring me great joy. Which isn't to say I don't take pleasure in the challenge of wrangling words and harnessing language until it reflects a thought or feeling.

Simply put, joy is a lousy muse. Her gifts are so wonderful and complete that there's nothing left to work through. And writing for me, my particular art, is this very working through process.

Joy is complete; she leaves nothing more to say. What can a writer do with that?

Next week: a return to the grim and sardonic. Or at least something with gravitas.

Joanna Dunn May 28, 2011 at 12:06 AM
What a wonderful thing to hear from your son, his reflection about a happy childhood, and so nice that you both had time for "puttering in the yard" so he could reflect and express that to you. I know that a mix of joy and frustration and sorrow all mixed together can sometimes be the best muse...
Lisa Gibalerio May 28, 2011 at 05:35 PM
Thanks, Joanna. The "puttering in the yard" was him watching me rake leaves -- while we chatted. (We need to do better figuring out chores at our house.) But I agree -- a muse is complex and variable. Photography, for me, comes straight from joy . . . while writing is more of a mix. Either way, they're both about documenting life so when I'm old, I'll have some memory prompts!
Johanna Swift Hart June 06, 2011 at 10:46 PM
What wonderful observations, Lisa. I sometimes feel like I spend too much time "complaining" when I'm with my friends or choosing dark subjects for my art projects, but I think you capture a reassuring truth that challenging times and complicated situations require a lot more processing -- whether through art, meditation, exercise, or a good conversation with a friend -- than that which is more simply joyful. How lucky for me that my friends are good listeners, and that our conversations also include lots of joyful laughing!

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