Writing Joy: A Reclaiming

Writing Joy: A Reclaiming 2
Nadia Colburn // May 10, 2023 // 3 Comments

It’s spring here in Cambridge and the sun is out. It’s a great pleasure.

When we write into pleasure and joy, our writing comes more alive–just like our landscape. But one of the biggest challenges many writers have is writing joy (a word, which, by the way, shares a root “jewel”--both are precious!) 

This week, in my Align Your Story class, we’re working on the Joy Module and students are often surprised at how tricky writing this emotion can be–but also how rewarding.

Why is writing joy challenging?  It’s partly that we turn to writing to express those things that we can’t otherwise express. We don’t need to write our joy; we can live it. When we feel most alive, we often don’t turn to the page. 

But writing joy is also challenging because many of us are not trained in exercising our joy muscle or in giving joy language. 

And many of us also shrink back from fully sinking into and staying with the experience of joy. 

Brené Brown calls our discomfort with joy “foreboding joy.” In her book Daring Greatly, she writes:

“…I’d argue that joy is probably the most difficult emotion to really feel…In a culture of deep scarcity—of never feeling safe, certain, and sure enough—joy can feel like a setup…We’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

When I first read that passage many years ago, I had a moment of recognition. I realized how often I didn’t allow myself to experience a moment fully because I was scared of losing what I had; how often I’d played small to protect what I already had, as if by daring to go out and experience more and be bigger, I would put the life I had at risk. 

In my class, because we also work with our bodies, students sometimes notice how just naming joy might bring a muscle contraction. We might feel we need to protect it or we are not worthy of it. Writing about joy can also bring up feelings of loss, regret, and fear.

When we recognize what is happening, we can change our habit energy. 

And when we work not only with our mind but also our body, following our breath, strengthening our core (where our fear, creativity, and joy are centered), and allowing our body to let go, we have a larger range of motion.

The 19th-century English poet William Wordsworth has a beautiful sonnet that begins, “Surprised by joy—impatient as the Wind.”

It’s a striking line that reminds us how unexpected joy can be—how wild and unruly. 

But as soon as he feels joy, Wordsworth turns to share his moment of joy with his daughter and remembers she is dead. Wordsworth then feels guilty for his moment of joy, for forgetting the loss of his daughter for even one moment. 

But joy is not an either/or. We can have both joy and grief. In fact, often what prevents us from feeling joy is our unprocessed grief or fear or rage.

Writers often notice that if they allow themselves to feel and write their shadow sides, they have more space, as well, for their joy and pleasure. 

One of my favorite passages of joy is from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, when Pierre is a prisoner of war. He has lost all his possessions. He is cold and hungry. He has just witnessed an innocent prisoner be hung in an act of despotic power and his city burned. He does not know if he will live through the week. But he has a sudden feeling of joy and freedom. 

Here is part of the passage: 

“On the road he was stopped by a French sentinel who ordered him back.

Pierre turned back, not to his companions by the campfire, but to an unharnessed cart where there was nobody. Tucking his legs under him and dropping his head he sat down on the cold ground by the wheel of the cart and remained motionless a long while sunk in thought. Suddenly he burst out into a fit of his broad, good-natured laughter, so loud that men from various sides turned with surprise to see what this strange and evidently solitary laughter could mean.

'Ha-ha-ha!' laughed Pierre. And he said aloud to himself: 'The soldier did not let me pass. They took me and shut me up. They hold me captive. What, me? Me? My immortal soul? Ha-ha-ha! Ha-ha-ha!...' and he laughed till tears started to his eyes.”

Tolstoy reminds us of the complexity, multidimensionality, and unexpected nature of life and what it means to be alive. We become more alive reading his work because his writing is not scared to take us to the full range of human emotion. 

I invite you to write into joy. While it can be challenging at first, it can also be one of the most rewarding writing experiences. 

Think of joy as a jewel, a flower–something precious to be admired and appreciated. 

As you’re writing, stay with your body.

If your joy morphs into something else, there's nothing wrong with that; don’t control it–let whatever arises arise. Allow your writing to guide you. It has a wisdom of its own. 

I have a few joy prompts for you. below. 

Be gentle. Be curious. Listen to your body. 

And give yourself the permission to write and feel into the complexity of joy. 


1)Use the five senses: write on each of them: what is something that brings you joy to taste? to smell? to touch? to hear? to see? Write a short piece on each of the senses. The more we can wake up our body, the more we can exercise our joy muscles. 

2) Write about a book or piece of art that gives you joy. Be specific.

3) Write about an encounter with the natural world that brings you joy. Be specific. 

4) Write about an encounter with another person that brought you joy. Be specific.

5) Write about something that you find precious--write about the relationship between preciousness and joy--I am thinking here of the shared root between the words joy and jewel. 

As always, enjoy the writing process itself. And please share below. I love to hear from  you!

<3 Nadia

  • Beautiful prompts! To write about joy brings me joy 🙂 Joy indeed is rare as a fine diamond.Will work on these prompts. Hope to hear from other writers too!

  • Thank you for sharing this information and the prompts on joy. A feeling that most people wish would stay with them longer.

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