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Joy for Joy's Sake

On taking pleasure seriously...

After reading my last entry, my partner James suggested I write something joyful. What I've written so far has centered around fears and hard thoughts: scarcity, anxiety, rejection, and embarrassment. As I've pondered James’s suggestion, I've spent a laughable amount of time wondering how in the hell to approach a topic like joy in a space where, more than anything else, I write about my feelings.

I don't have trouble writing about joy because I don't experience it. On the contrary, I'm sure James suggested this because he knows I'm full of it. He knows I believe  one of the benefits of living a life creating and consuming art is that you can regularly commune with beautiful, pleasurable experiences and people. The reason I have trouble writing about joy is because when I consider my own work, I tend to value hard work over pleasure. In fact, I can be suspicious of joy for joy's sake.

Notably, I have no trouble with work for work's sake. It's how I was taught. So much of my arts education was about discipline and rigor. In school, my colleagues and I wore fatigue as a badge of honor, comparing the amount of work we had to do and one-upping each other with how few hours of sleep we got. On the first day of graduate school my incoming class was told, quite literally, "every day here is an audition," as though wanting to learn and grow were some kind of test. Even before that, as a young kid with musical talent, I was pointed toward a world of academic and professional benchmarks.

I think a significant roadblock to my creativity in recent years has been the belief that in order for work to be valuable it has to be hard. James says, why don't you write about joy? I protest, what on earth do you mean? That's not what my project is about! My project is about negative patterns of thought! My project is about pain and fear and grief and loss! These emotions are the serious ones, and hard work is about serious things. 

What's missing from this protest is that joy deserves to be taken seriously. It is an ecstatic, motivating state of creative bliss. I started singing because I loved it. I loved to sing with my family, loved to be in choirs, loved musical theatre, loved singing when no one was around. It was this joyful connection to the act of performing that fueled literally years of creative growth when I was a child. Many aspects of my experience as a music student minimized this connection, maximizing labor and achievement at any cost (including, in various ways, the sacrifice of my own comfort, safety, and financial stability). Pleasure is restorative and sustaining. It is a helpful teacher and a delicious gift to give away. It is abundant and contagious. Joy is serious work.

  When the pandemic hit, many of us had to confront a sudden loss of opportunities or momentum. In the midst of immense uncertainty and loss, a by-product of isolation for me was having to consider what my creative work could look like without the pressure of meeting anyone else's expectations. I'm learning to work for myself, to do things that make me feel good, to follow my instincts and worry at least a little bit less about how "the public" might receive me. I'm learning that playfulness and experimentation are two of my most liberating tools. I'm even learning to let myself be bad at things sometimes. 

This blog may often be about hard feelings — about speaking against patterns of thought that inhibit creative progress and confidence — but it is vital for me to underscore that what I am mainly trying to do is bring pleasure and healing into my working life as a creative person. It is about reviving the kid in me who loved to sing in the car, dance in the yard, draw on the walls, put on wigs and necklaces my grandmother kept in a suitcase, and whatever else. I don't think you can get all that much better at what you do, at least not in the ways that count and last, without centering a tenet of artistic excellence too often at the margins of our education: the power of joy.

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Bryce McClendon

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