Intrinsic Rewards

There’s a scene in the lead up to the climax of Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre where the Autodidact character – in this part of the novel essentially playing the foil to the lead character Antoine Roquentin, in whose first person perspective the book is written – reveals that he is a Socialist and that he thinks that, like him, Roquentin lives for “the people”, and further that the historical biography Roquentin has been writing is perhaps also being done for “the people”. Roquentin, for his part, sees in the Autodidact all of the humanists he has ever known, of all the varying stripes of humanism, and internally derides the lot. He denies that this is why he writes, to which the Autodidact then rather predictably challenges him with, “Would you write on a desert island? Doesn’t one always write in order to be read?” (From the “Wednesday” section, page numbers will vary with versions; incidentally, this entire commentary is made somewhat more interesting by the fact that only a few years later Sartre’s famous lecture and essay “Existentialism is a Humanism” would appear.)

That old chestnut. It’s a topic that comes up often for any writer, and it’s been considered here a number of times over the years as well. (Way back in our archives is this post, and much more recently this one.) It’s a question, the question, that we all must struggle with, and what I think helps to put some perspective on it is the nature of the rewards being sought, or anyway the nature of the potential rewards of any (creative) endeavor. Those rewards come in two stripes: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic rewards are in part indefinable as they tend to be emotionally-based and wholly, or almost wholly, internal. The joy of doing I suppose would be one way to put it, or the pleasure taken from the activity while the activity is being undertaken. This joy or pleasure or bliss or “high” or whatever one wishes to call it may last beyond the time of the actual engagement, but it just as well may not. If it does last then it will be a lingering pleasant subtlety, perhaps something like a feeling of satisfaction at having done it, or a sense of accomplishment. Neurologically speaking there is probably dopamine or another brain reward chemical involved, but I’m not sure so don’t quote me on that.

External rewards, on the other hand, are what the Autodidact and everyone else on planet Earth is typically focused on. Readers, riches, fame, adoration, flirtations at cocktail parties with the debonair literary flame, book signings and speaking tours, fanzines and a whole scholarly cottage industry rolled out in your honor to dissect and celebrate your work. This is the stuff dreams are made of, and comparing a soft and fleeting notion of satisfaction or accomplishment with that is about as enticing as a frozen convenience store burrito over the real thing served fresh and steaming from a mom-and-pop Tex-Mex diner in El Paso.

The problem with all of this, of course, is that the first lies fully and always within reach while the second is attained by… Luck? Prayer? Beneficial circumstantial alignment? All of the above? Note that hard work goes into this no matter what kind of rewards come out of it. At least, hard work, discipline, and strenuous and continuous effort will go into it if one is anything close to being a dedicated writer. (If one is a scribbler, or a first-draft junkie, then maybe not. But any writer worth their salt will know.) The choice of what we chase is ours, and while the extrinsic does shine brightly, and while daydreams can be a lot of fun, I do think that it’s entirely possible to base one’s writing life solely and fully on the intrinsic aspects involved. Getting there likely does require equipping oneself with a fresh perspective, a point of view that hasn’t been born out of the capitalist claptrap we’re all surrounded by and indoctrinated with, and that process might well mean quite a bit of mental gymnastics, but it is possible. And given that we tend to appreciate what we can control a whole lot more than what we can’t, I’d also say it’s very much worth whatever it takes.


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