The Key Insight: Joyce Carol Oates and Catullus on Writing Productivity

Some writers seem to have been born with an understanding of how to be productive. Here’s the super-prolific Joyce Carol Oates in her 1978 Paris Review interview:

“One must be pitiless about this matter of “mood.” In a sense, the writer will create the mood. If art is, as I believe it to be, a genuinely transcendental function – a means by which we rise out of limited, parochial states of mind – then it should not matter very much what states of mind or emotion we are in. Generally I’ve found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I’ve been utterly exhausted, when I’ve felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes…and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.”

This fits in with the idea that the writing life, and each individual piece of writing, should be a journey without a fixed destination. You can’t even set a nebulous goal, like “to sell” or “to write well” – because even a nebulous goal contradicts the very point of the exercise. (And the liberated, creative mind won’t stand for it – it will just shut down. That mind demands freedom, and balks at control.) As Flaubert said, “Success must be a consequence and never a goal.”

Or, as Catullus put it more 2,000 years ago: “And so, have them for yourself, whatever kind of book it is, and whatever sort, o patron Muse.”

This is the central insight: that if we trust in writing – and our writing, specifically – it will take us where we need to go.

This shouldn’t be news. After all, experts use journaling to help everyone from war victims to kids in jail to cancer survivors. And we all know that writing expands the soul (both our own and society’s). But in a world soaked in perfectionism and other anti-productive ills, the message often gets reversed and we’re taught that only after we write something “worthwhile” do we earn the right to feel good.

The goal of productivity work is thus not just to help you reduce or eliminate internal and external barriers to productivity, but to get you to trust in the process of writing, and in yourself – and in the specific knowledge that you are not, in fact, lacking, but have everything you need to succeed.

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