I’ve struggled with motivation mightily in the months since I started working on my novel.
Some days I feel buoyed by powerful waves of motivation, a deep, slow-burning desire to write and create and push this thing forward. On those days, it’s all I can do to get myself in front of the computer before the ideas and the words start clawing their way out of my skull. The plotlines and characters and conflicts dance around in my headspace subconsciously all day, sometimes resolving themselves in time to be written down in neat orderly arrays, other times becoming tangled and spilling out onto the page like intestines from a vicious gut wound. Motivation isn’t a question on those days. I’m going to write, regardless of what else I may have going on.
Other days I’m Sisyphus, and my novel is a big boulder the size of six or seven giant men and the hill I have to push it up is high indeed. Even thinking about the task makes me feel weary and exhausted, and my mind starts thinking of all the other things in my life that need doing in this moment, and wouldn’t it be easier to focus on those things and then, maybe after I’ve done those things, I’ll feel like writing and I can get some work done. Except, as anybody who’s ever put something off knows, you arrive at the end of the day and you still don’t feel like working on the novel, and what’s more you don’t have time to work properly on it anyway, and also you feel crappy about the fact that you haven’t gotten anything done with it today. The simple act of even reading your own work to see where you’ve just come from and where you might go next seems like a slog through an endless swamp. These days it feels impossible to write.
But the writing doesn’t change. The book is just a book, just a story waiting to be told. The characters, lively as they may be, are but lumps of clay looking for hands to shape them. It’s only my perception of the work that seems to affect my motivation to work on it. So how do you cultivate motivation? Here are some humble ideas.
And I realize as I edit this post that while this dubious advice seems to fit for writing, I think it applies for staying motivated at just about anything, and if that’s the case, so be it.
- Eyes on the Prize: On those days when I just don’t feel like writing, I have to remind myself that if it was easy, everybody would do it. Anything worth doing is worth working hard for, and the book isn’t going to write itself; the words aren’t just going to arrange themselves on the page for me. Yes, I may be a bit stuck on the story. Yes, I might be a bit confounded by what this character is trying to do. But these are Writer Problems, and it’s a writer’s job to solve those problems. If I want to be a writer — to have that success, to have that recognition, to complete a Story Worth Telling — it’s no good hiding from the work. When it gets hard, when it gets overwhelming, when it seems impossible, I start asking myself, “do you really want it?” And almost always, I find that I can get some work done after all.
- Plan of Attack: If you were to ask me if I were an organized person, I would begin by laughing hysterically. Then I might offer you a picture of my garage, or my desk, or my bedroom, and you’d quickly realize that not only am I not by any stretch organized, I might not even know what the word means. But organization has been key to staying motivated and keeping the boulder rolling uphill. But I don’t mean organization in the general sense of having a place for everything and everything in its place. (I strive for that, but I often miss the target.) I mean rather knowing what I want to accomplish within a given time frame, having a clear idea of what’s to be done on that day, seeing the obstacles and knowing perhaps not exactly how I will deal with them but at least that I am capable. Notes to myself are invaluable for this. Every day of drafting I’d finish with a little note to myself: “introduce this character tomorrow.” “wrap up this scene tomorrow.” “go back and establish that the main character carries a Taser in her purse so that she can zap this guy now.” I need to know what needs to happen next more than I need to know what I’ll be doing in three weeks.
- Window of Opportunity: One of my favorite quotes of late says something along the lines of, “never put off a dream because of the time it will take to achieve it. The time will pass anyway.” And to say that time is a factor when it comes to motivation is a ridiculous understatement. You need time to do the work. You need time to do the other stuff in your life so that you can focus on the work. And time doesn’t give a slippery sharknado about you or your work. Time is going to roll on past you like a bus rolling past a pile of dog vomit. If I’m sitting around waiting to find time to get the writing done, then the writing just isn’t going to get done that day. I have to decide, early on during the day if not the day before, when I’m going to get the writing done. Maybe tomorrow I can carve out time on my lunch break. The day after, my wife has a class, so I can do some writing that evening. However I do it, I have to seize the time, carve it from the still thrashing carcass of the beast, if I want to write that day. I have to create the window of opportunity for myself to work in.
- Achievable Goals: It’s too big to think “I need to work on the book today.” What the balls does that even mean? Character outlines? Plot diagrams? Word count? No, if I’m going to be focused and motivated to do the writing, I need a goal to work toward that I can actually accomplish during a working session. Write 900 words today. Introduce this character into the scene. End this scene. All these little goals are part and parcel of the big goal — work on the book — but the difference is, they are things I can get done. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
- Embrace the Suck: There are days wherein, despite the best of intentions, I’m going to write crap. I’ll read back over a passage and wish that somebody else had written it, because surely, surely, I can’t be that bad, that uncreative, that uninspired. And it’s all too easy to see that happening, to take stock of the growing puddle of sharknado on the page, and say NOPE, the work sucks, I suck, writing sucks. I’m taking my ball and going home. And I think that’s a normal reaction (correct me if I’m wrong). But nobody works perfect the first time around, or for that matter, the second or the third. There came a point where I realized that it was okay to write something terrible, as long as I was working toward the goal. It’s easier to rewrite something, to clean it up and tweak it, than it is to start from scratch. It’s easier to bust a thing apart and start over, even, because you still have all the pieces to work with when it’s time to put it back together. If I can hold it together and write through the bad days and write when it’s awful, then it keeps the pipes clear for when the ideas want to flow on their own.
To put all this in perspective, here’s a turn that’s happened in the last few weeks. A few weeks back, I lost the notebook I’ve been using to keep notes for my edit. I keep notes in the draft as well, but big stuff that needs fixing in the work as a whole went into the notebook. And it was just gone. It’s still gone. And with it went much of my motivation. I’d lost a significant portion of work, lost a ton of time, and felt overwhelmed at the prospect of going back and doing much of the same work again. And my work over the past few weeks has suffered. I’ve been dragging my feet, doing the work at the last minute, doing the bare minimum, even skipping days. I was dreading the writing.
Well, yesterday I accepted the fact that the notebook was gone and started a new one. And yeah, it sucks looking at those blank pages that I have to refill. And it’s painful writing down notes that I’ve already written and retreading ground that I’ve covered before. But somehow, just accepting the loss and refocusing my effort has given me the best couple of days of editing that I’ve had in a month. I’m not saying I’ve done the best work, I’m saying I feel better about the work. Perception is everything. I refocused from the lost notebook to getting the book done, I made a new plan around my new notebook, I got serious again about making my own time to work, and I accepted the lost work and moved on. Suddenly, working on the book is that thing I can’t wait to do again.
Tomorrow, the pendulum may swing back the other way, but I’ll keep working anyway. Motivation isn’t some magic elixir you can drink and suddenly be filled with purpose. It’s just another thing to be worked at.