Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 30, 2022

Why You and Your Characters Deserve some Ikigai

by Jenny Hansen

ikigai - interpretation of Japanese concept  - a reason for being as a balance between love, skills, needs and money - handwriting on a napkin with a cup of espresso coffee

Every so often, I read an article that makes me ponder this writing life and the characters we create. The one that prompted this post was Harvey Mackay's Try IKIGAI; The Secret for Happiness. "Ikigai" (pronounced Icky Guy) has been a hot topic in the business arena for a few years, but I hadn't stopped to think about the fiction possibilities until now.

What does ikigai mean?

This definition comes from Domestika.org:

"Ikigai is a Japanese word that loosely translates to 'a reason to live' or 'reason for being.' It’s a combination of the words iki (生き), meaning life and gai (甲斐), meaning worth.

"According to Japanese culture, we all have an ikigai: something that makes us happy, that we’re good at, and that allows us to make a contribution to our community. Finding your ikigai involves setting out on a continuous journey of self-reflection and personal growth that leads to the ultimate reward: a happy life."

You are here at Writers In the Storm because you have found your ikigai.

Or you're on a journey to find it, and you feel down in your bones that it's writing. You are at least facing forward toward your dreams, which is a mindset many people never achieve.

I am totally impressed with you, by the way! I hope you're impressed with you.

There are principles and books and tons of resources on ikigai. You can google and find scads of info. But data is not what's lighting me on fire today. Inspiration is what's lighting me on fire today.

This post examines how we can get some ikigai in our writing lives and how we can use our own journey for our characters.

How can you find your ikigai?

Circling back to that Domestika.org article I mentioned at the beginning of this article... "there’s no magic recipe, but two things can guide us: self-observation and a flow state of mind."

The authors recommend you ask yourself questions like:

- What do I enjoy most?
- What do I spend my happiest moments doing?
- When do I lose track of time?

You can ask yourself these questions, and I'd also recommend you ask your characters. What puts you into that "flow" state of mind?

What are the "Big Parts" of ikigai for writers?

Check out that photo up above. (Don't be distracted by that big cup of coffee or shiny pen. Look at the napkin.)

  • Outer Circle (going counter-clockwise): Love, Skills, Money, Needs
  • Inner Circle (going clockwise): Passion, Mission, Vocation, Profession

Now think about your writing life and what you like and dislike about it. Think about what frustrates you about it.

Some Outer Circle scenarios:

  • You love to write so much, you go get some skills. But the money doesn't come, and you still have needs.
  • You love writing so much, you stay at a day job to meet your needs while you get skills and (hopefully) start to make some money.
  • Maybe you don't love writing but you are so good at it that you make money doing it. You stay because it has become your passion and your profession.

An Inner Circle scenario:

  • Writing is your passion so you make it a mission to get some of that outer circle stuff. It becomes your vocation to get those stories out of your head. If you do great on the outer circle, it might become your profession.

I could keep going on all this around and around the circle, but it isn't my interpretation of it that matters.

It is your interpretation that matters.

Give Yourself An Honest Assessment

Sometimes when we get frustrated with the writing life -- or, heaven forbid, envious of someone who seems to "have it easier" -- it can help to take a look at that diagram and see if we are stuck in a particular place.

It's important to be honest, at least with yourself about where you are stuck and why.

For example, I have a day job that takes care of the money but I struggle with needs, which I see as time. Without time (because of the three-job-juggling act of day job, family, and writing), fiction can't be my full-time profession. Yet. Not without some unacceptable sacrifices on my part.

My Personal "Hard Road"

It was a long hard struggle for me to figure out how writing and publishing would fit into my life. I didn't really figure it out for my first five to eight years of parenting. Eventually, after many blows to my morale, I made the choice to let my writing take a back seat to parenting.

I'm not going to lie - I had to wiggle around and wrestle with my decision (a lot).

  • I tried multi-tasking
  • Writing on my lunch hour each day
  • Waking up one hour early
  • Going to bed one hour late
  • Giving up reading
  • Doing social media during tasks like cooking and movie-watching

And it stressed me out because I had no time for myself, and I was tired all the time. Babies teethe, get sick, wail, giggle, crawl, walk, and seduce you with that yummy smell on the back of their necks. I was so exhausted from trying to cram everything into my days that eventually writing became just another task on my parenting to-do list.

To put it into the perspective of this post, there was no ikigai in sight. No passion. Subsequently, there was no joy or meaning in my manuscript.

My biggest struggle?

Two messages -- inner and outer -- entwined and nearly choked the life out of me.

First of all, the dreaded "Should." The voice in my head lectured that "I should be able to be a new first-time parent while I work a part-time job, shop, cook, clean, blog, write, and complete any other number of tasks."


I could do all those things. But no, I absolutely shouldn't do all those things. Doing all those things made me lose my passion for almost everything.

The second (moronic) message bombarded me from the outside. You know the one. That sly innuendo society whispers, particularly to women, that "you can have it all" if you just [fill in the blank].

These two particular inner and outer messages were my death trap until my little one was about 6 years old.

Note: It doesn't have to be parenting kicking your behind. It might be caregiving, being the sole income in your house, or chronic illness.

For the record, you can indeed "have it all" IF...

  • You are independently wealthy, retired, or make enough money to hire out jobs like housekeeping, shopping, cooking, and childcare.
  • You give up things like leisure time, reading, and sleep.

I know so many writers who fall into these two ikigai-smashing traps. I know writers who give away all their energy to expectations and things outside themselves. I know writers who conserve nothing for themselves and their own joy.

What I wish for you, now and in the new year, is that you prioritize your own joy - that you chase your own ikigai.

It took me about five years to become 100% okay with my choice but when I did, my creativity blossomed. When I stopped stressing, I started writing more. It was magical.

This process of honest assessment about writing choices makes me think of Laura Drake's favorite quote from Randy Pausch.

Your Characters and Ikigai

You can put your characters through the same questions and scenarios we talked about above. Maybe they achieve ikigai through numbers, healing, childcare, building, farming. Maybe it's some other endeavor that transports their souls. Whatever their dream endeavor, you want to clearly identify the hurdles they must overcome to achieve it (so you can create some super-tall brick walls along their journey between page one and their dreams).

You are here at WITS, building on your writing dreams and creating community, so I expect that your ikigai is in your sights. Brava to you!

Have you ever explored the concept of ikigai? Which parts of the inner and outer circles are a struggle for you? What activities put you in a state of "flow?" We'd love to hear your story down in the comments!

* * * * * *

About Jenny

By day, Jenny Hansen provides LinkedIn coaching and copywriting for accountants and financial services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.

Top Photo purchased from Depositphotos.

Inspiration Sources:

23 comments on “Why You and Your Characters Deserve some Ikigai”

  1. Fabulous post, thank you Jenny!

    I hadn't heard of the Ikigai concept, but I love the idea. I think I'm somewhere on the the left of the circle - I love writing and I'm developing my skills, but I haven't crossed over to the money-making side yet 🙂 Some day.

    And that's okay. I think I've learned the same lesson as you - when I take the pressure off myself to be a 'success', the passion and the fun come back, and for me right now, that's enough.

  2. Jenny,

    Thank you for this affirming and encouraging post. I'd never heard of ikigai but, throughout my life, I've known that writing is the thing that gives me great joy and that it's one of the main ways I want to contribute to society. For a while, I worked two jobs and was a caretaker. When I snuck in some writing time, it felt like a guilty pleasure. Recently, some things have changed, and I have a little more time.

    Initially, I still felt guilty spending my time writing fiction. Finally, I've accepted that it's a legitimate activity. Currently, I am finishing the submission draft of a novel I've been writing during stolen moments for a few years. I'm hopeful it will get published and give those who read it joy. And that will mean that all the stolen moments were a part of my way to give to others.

    I wish you joy.

    1. Christine, I am so delighted that you are getting more time back for yourself and your writing. Fiction is a beautiful way to spend your time - don't let anyone dim your joy in it!

  3. Wonderful post, Jenny.

    I understand the concept, but didn't realize there's a name for it!

    I have come to terms with my own, but see that I need to supply more brick walls for my characters.

    You've given me more to ponder.

  4. Hi Jenny,
    It is a constant balancing act of the internal versus the external. "Icky Guy" is another way to analyze my journey as a writer and enjoy it the most.

    Not so icky, I may add. 🙂

    Thanks for the inspiration.

    1. You are welcome! I thought of you especially when I wr0te this post. I've been watching you align those inner and outer circles, step by step by step.

  5. I hadn't heard of this concept before, but the core principles are very familiar to me! Working from my passion is a big part of what drives me. I love this so much and will be going around and around this circle for a while!

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful concept with us!

    1. Everytime I see those circles, they speak something different to me. Ikigai is such a profound concept. Bless the spirit of the Japanese...they really get the creative life.

    1. It took me a good long while, Laura. Plus, I got derailed for a while with the madness of you-know-what. But I am BACK to the joy and the creativity. Hugs to you!!!

  6. In a way, you could say what you've done is take the long view, which in present day society is a rare thing. It's also wise. By broadening your view, you've made it possible to have it all, just not all at once. Doing so enabled focusing on family while in the background the Love circle returned, and so on.

    My situation was similar. In the midst of a long illness, I was short on energy and finances. What I did have was creativity and time. It was 2015 and I decided to take the long view, despite the nagging fear that, at my age, I was running out of time. I wrote and I learned and my love for writing only grew. It's now years later and my situation has improved. I find myself on the other side of my obstacles having nurtured what I need to move forward during that time. That's the long view and it's making ikigai more likely.

    1. This is it exactly, Christina. My long view is that, against all odds, I got to be a mother, and there was no way I wasn't going to embrace that gift and experience every drop of joy it offered.

      My writing and my community are still here, being nurtured by me, but I just wasn't willing to sacrifice the power and joy of either side.

      Like you, taking the small steps while I wait for the time to immerse in it, has put me in a far better position than juggling both of these important passions together. My daughter is 12, and is starting to need me just a bit less. Writing as a career is just over the horizon!

  7. Great post, Jenny. I'm so glad you've found your joy again. I love the concept of ikigai. I hadn't heard of it before. Over the years I have learned to look inside myself (and my characters.) Learning to find a balance of all my loves, needs, and skills (and money) has been a lifelong struggle.

    During a productivity talk I heard recently, someone said, "There is no life balance." I think this was referring to the idea that you can't balance everything all at once. All any of us can do is find peace and joy within the particular pieces of the circles that we are juggling at any one moment. I would argue that giving ourselves grace to balance what we can and still be able to find joy _is_ balance.

    Thank you for posting this. It's helped me clarify- balance- what had been bouncing around in my head since that talk.

    1. THIS, Lynette...exactly this: "I would argue that giving ourselves grace to balance what we can and still be able to find joy IS balance."

      That giving ourselves grace part was the very hardest part of all for me. I had to literally learn how to do from scratch because I'd had few examples.

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