Some folks say that the hardest part about writing is starting. It’s difficult, to be sure, but I reckon the harder part is continuing. So let’s get both of those ducks in a row and discuss the importance of motivation, the lucrative subject that really doesn’t need to be monetized nearly as much as it is.

I guess we’d have to start with the age old question, “What compels you to write?” There are a lot of answers to this ranging from the dismissive (“Because I have the sickness.”) to the delusional and grandiose (“Because I’m rad at it.”), but nearly all of the answers fall into either internal or external motivations.

External

In a lot of ways, writing was easier in an academic setting because you had teachers giving you deadlines and feedback. There are rigid rules– I need to write a short story, because I’ll fail if I don’t. Or, I need to edit this short story, because my teacher will make fun of me in front of my entire class if I don’t. I had a good writing professor. Those are external motivations, but they are contained in an academic setting. There’s no assignments in life (unless you give them to yourself) and no grade (except Amazon reviews). Yet there are still external sources of motivation to write.

There’s a lot to be said about the support of friends and family. These people love you and want you to be happy. I hope. Accept their support. Ask them if they want to read something you wrote. Make it perfectly clear that they don’t have to. Also make it clear to yourself that they support what you’re doing and they’re going to have your best interests at heart whether they read the piece or not. So then you might need to question why you want their approval.

Perhaps you have the need for attention. I’m going to go ahead and say it’s OK to be driven by self-validation. It’s OK to use your talents to impress people. Some people will disagree, but those people aren’t funny. Perhaps you want to connect with your readership, in part because you find it hard to communicate your ideas any other way. That’s also fine. Maybe you’ve got this grandiose vision of Truth and this book is your way of clearing the wool from all these damn sheeple’s eyes, and you want people to recognize your genius 100 years from now in the annals of literary history. That’s… yeah, whatever, that’s cool, too. You might be kind of a pretentious asshat, but hey, I’ve been one myself a few times.

But there’s a limit to external sources. Because inevitably, you will fail somehow. You will get a bad review on Amazon. You will write a story your partner thinks is stupid, because it’s really stupid. A friend or family member will tell you to focus on a real job with health benefits. That can all be crushing. But were you writing for them?

The other problem with external motivation is that its currency is usually imaginary at the beginning. Sometimes it’s a helpful fantasy to keep you going. The rest of the time you might find that there are easier ways to validate yourself– like Twitter, or Yoga I guess. Point is, you might find yourself entertaining the fantasy of success instead of making moves towards it. I know this, because I’m not what you’d call a “successful” writer and have “entertained” a lot of “fancies.” And I know that kind motivation has an expiration date if you want to complete your projects, because it’s easier to dream than to write.

Derek Sivers strikes the notion that by stating your goal out loud, you are less likely to follow through with the goal, because you’re brain interprets the fact that you said it out loud with actually doing it. Now, if you’ve already spilled the guts to your novel, there’s a good chance that you did it for social recognition. Again, that’s fine. We need social recognition to maintain sanity. But you could’ve also shot yourself in the foot if you haven’t gotten that idea down on paper. I’m guilty of this too– a lot of would-be projects are lost to the wires of long distance phone calls and late night hooliganism when a friend inevitably asks, “What are you working on?” And I bank on the immediate gratification of having formed a good idea and I feel like a good boy and get a pat on the head for being super smart.

Internal

But to maintain a consistent work ethic, you need to dive into the well of internal motivation. The primary example that I keep going back to is a pride in quality– that if a work sits unread in a vacuum, I can still enjoy it for what it is. Not perfectionism, not necessarily feeling like it is even good, but a sense of satisfaction that follows labor, concentration, and thought.

Another: the love of reading– a reminder that I’m participating in a creative capacity that involves my favorite, and perhaps, most meaningful activity. It might be trite to repeat that good writers read, but, there you go. When I delve into works of fictive masterpieces I try connect to the author writing it and remember that, often, they think that it’s utter garbage. They aren’t attempting a grasp for fame or acknowledgement, but that they are simply trying and their efforts spilled brilliant minds onto pages.

Then there’s the practical approach: the old, “ass-in-chair-time” as it was once described to me. Making time for this can be hard but whether or not the motivation is there, there’s work to be done. The mind resists aggressive creation when it would rather be passively ingesting digital gossip from Facebook. I’ve been progressing towards setting an amount of time apart in the day to write, instead of word count quotas, à la Chuck Palahniuk’s egg timer method. The quota is still there if I get distracted, but by and large, human eyes detest empty spaces.

More often than not, forcing oneself to work leads to a genuine joy of writing. It creates a mental space that’s separate from the rest of the world, a workshop wherein one can place intense focus into solving logistical problems and turn a clever phrase, a place where the rules of Hell are reversed: agonizing labor becomes pleasurable and a certain sense of freedom is regained. In a world where meaning is constantly being questioned, it feels liberating to be able to create content that speaks Truth to the author as well as, one hopes, a readership.

2 thoughts on “Root Cause

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