“There are two kinds of discontent in this world: the discontent that works and the discontent that wrings its hands. The first gets what it wants, and the second loses what it had. There is no cure for the first but success, and there is no cure at all for the second.” Elbert Hubbard, writer
“Discontent” — a loaded word, isn’t it? Just writing it here makes me feel itchy and twitchy, as if something was vaguely wrong, gnawing at me. I don’t know why. Maybe the answer lies in one of its synonyms, so I’ve pulled out a battered but cherished old red Roget’s Thesaurus donated to me by a friend and looked it up; here are some entries: “dissatisfaction;” “dissent;” “labour unrest;” “disappointment;” “cold comfort;” “regret;” “repining;” “vexation of spirit.” There’s a long list of more words, but I’ll stop skip them, because, well, it’s vexing my spirit. I’m sure you know the feeling: labour unrest.
“Discontent” — what a double-edged sword! As our friend and fellow writer Elbert observes, it can drive us to get to work or to wring our hands, give up. Or we can do both: wring our hands, then get to work or get to work, then wring our hands. What a pickle! What to do, what to do?
First let’s give discontent its due: Without it, where would we be in whatever project we’re working on? A sense of dissatisfaction with what we’ve done, that feeling that we can do better: find a more precise word, build a more muscular sentence, vary our pacing, draw our readers in more fully — without this, we’d never get past a first draft. Revision: re-visioning our work is largely fueled by discontent, isn’t it?
So let’s be at ease with discontent, let’s even be grateful to it. It’s what pushes us out of our comfort zone and forces us to do more and be more. It’s a gift. But there’s no getting around the fact that it can be a treacherous one.
Help is at hand! My good friend and mentor Dr. Rob Gilbert* has a powerful solution: “When you have a problem, don’t get frustrated, get fascinated.” Frustration is a dead end: it’s the place where we wring our hands and come to a stop. But fascination snaps and sizzles: it offers a world of possibilities. If we can let ourselves be intrigued, excited, and energized by a plot problem or a character running amuck across our pages, then we’re in a very different place.
Fascination is fun, playful, hopeful — it’s the kind of curious, how about this? attitude that inspires us to go for something new, find a fresh angle, challenge ourselves to get out of a rut and explore different pathways.
Let’s get to the bottom line: Discontent is part of our territory as writers. It’s the home of the brave, the land of writing dangerously, the sense of unrest that pushes us to make our work better, deeper, truer. But if we’re not careful, it can overwhelm us. So let’s remember this mantra: Fascination fuels; frustration depletes — and all write on!
* Be sure to check our Dr. Gilbert’s fabulous Success Hot Line: 973.743.4690.