J is for Joy


J is for Joy. That’s what I decided. It could have been Julia Cameron, Jane Austen, Jabba the Hut or jetlag. But it wasn’t. It was joy.

Joy? Isn’t that a bit tree-huggy and misty eyed? Evangelical, even? The realm of New Agey self-help books teaching us how to get back in touch with our inner child? Yes! All of the above. And why not indeed. But there is one thing I have found to be true, and that is this - (insert pearl of wisdom here) - joy is fundamental to writing. Without joy, writing is just a mechanical act, a dead dance, a tired man dragging himself through a bog.

The joy of discovering new life, lives, worlds, stories, sounds through the happy combination of words is what keeps us going. They may be words that we combine or words that have been combined by others before us. But they bring us joy whenever we happen upon them, like the sweet delight of meeting an old friend on the street. When I am blocked or just feeling like I have lost sight of the way, the moment when I know I am okay again is when I rediscover that sense of joy.

How to explain it, how to describe?

When laughter or tears bubble up inside and I am moved to read a particular combination of words again and again for no reason I can rationally explain other than that they fit in a way so beautiful and unexpected that they have taught me a new way of seeing. When I wonder at how the light comes down through fresh new leaves and a couple of words arrive in my mind that captures it exactly! That is the joy. And as any writer will tell you, it is the purest kind of happiness there is.

Now for someone on the outside, it might appear quite mad - indeed, for anyone else (anyone who doesn’t themselves write) standing by and watching our muttering, smiling, laughing selves. But those moments of joy mark us; they sear an incandescent memory of perfection on our souls.
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I remember, for example (since Google told me that yesterday was Maurice Sendak’s 85th birthday), one such moment came for me when I must have been, oh five? Six? Seven? To be honest I have no idea, but anyway I was small and it was a long time ago. And yet I still remember the image of Pierre pouring syrup on his hair. Yes, even at that age it struck me as so exquisitely gross a thing to do that it made me laugh and squeal in delight and remember it to this day. In case your memory of Pierre: A Cautionary Tale in Five Chapters and a Prologue is a little hazy, the dialogue between Pierre and his mother went something like this:

"What would you like to eat?" | "I don't care!"
"Some lovely cream of wheat?" | "I don't care!"
"Don't sit backwards on your chair." | "I don't care!"
"Or pour syrup on your hair." | "I don't care!"

Today I even – unbelievably – found and dug out my old copy of Where the Wild Things Are ("Oh, please don't go – we'll eat you up – we love you so!") and reminded myself of that wonderful smell of old books we have loved.

I often find sources of joy in children’s literature, I realise. As well as, of course, in many of the great classics, contemporary novels, nature, poetry, and the simple observation of tiny details. I started listing “a few” examples earlier before realising this blog could, quite easily, go on for ever.

So I offer you, instead, a few flashes of joy from Salman Rushdie’s wonderful Haroun and the Sea of Stories - another I remember my father reading to me at bedtime (ah the inestimable value of those bedtime stories!). In it, we learn about Alifbay, “the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad that it had forgotten its name. It stood by a mournful sea full of glumfish which were so miserable to eat that they made people belch with melancholy...”

And the Plentimaw Fishes, too, that Iff explains why he calls ‘hunger artists’:

“Because when they are hungry they swallow stories through every mouth, and in their innards miracles occur; a little bit of one story joins on to an idea from another, and hey presto, when they spew the stories out they are not the old tales but new ones. Nothing comes from nothing, Thieflet; no story comes from nowhere; new stories are born from old – it is the new combinations that make them new.”

Finally, I leave you with a poem by Polish writer Wislawa Szymborska, offering you her vision of joy.

The Joy of Writing

    Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?

    For a drink of written water from a spring

    Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?

    Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,

    She pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.

    Silence-this word also rustles across the page

    And parts the boughs

    That have sprouted from the word "woods".

    Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,

    Are letters up to no good,

    Clutches of clauses so subordinate

    They'll never let her get away.

    Each drop of ink contains a fair supply

    Of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,

    Prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,

    Surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

    They forget that what's here isn't life.

    Other laws, black on white, obtain.

    The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,

    And will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,

    Full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.

    Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.

    Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,

    Not a blade of grass wig bend beneath that little hoof's full stop.

    Is there then a world

    Where I rule absolutely on fate?

    A time I bind with chains of signs?

    An existence become endless at my bidding?

    The joy of writing.

    The power of preserving.

    Revenge of a mortal hand.
Sara Roberts


  1. Beautiful Sara! I didn't skip down to the bottom to see who wrote this one, but I recognised your style immediately. Thank you for introducing me to these sublime passages. And why didn't my father read Rushdie to me at bedtime?!

  2. Reading this post brought me joy! I too, like plantagenta, enjoyed the excerpts, but I really enjoyed your description of how writing brought you joy. I feel the same way, but about reading! I'm really enjoying the A to Z challenge - thanks Cafe Aphra!

  3. Thank you Sara! It's so easy to become bogged down in the nitty gritty of editing, rewriting and pushing through blocks that sometimes we lose sight of the joy we feel when we write.


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