In the course of my writing life, people have asked me over and over about motivation. “How do I get motivated?” or “Can you motivate me?” Few things strike as much fear into my heart. It’s not that I don’t have any concern for people. I genuinely want to nurture other writers. But I hate “motivating” people.
Does this make me a horrible person?
When someone asks me how to “get” motivated, I immediately pull back. To me, this sounds like an invitation to play a guessing game with their psychology, to start pulling wires in their heads until I make them do the thing they want to do. This takes an unimaginable amount of energy and patience on my part. Some days I just don’t have it.
When I hear this from a growing writer, I worry about two things. First, I don’t want to give the appearance of hoarding the Special Magical Mystical Writing Knowledge That I Surely Possess ™. Second, I don’t want to give the appearance I don’t care about other writers. But at the end of the day, I believe in tough love. To write, you have to write. It’s as simple and impossible as that.
The necessity of pulling back
When you overwater a plant, it becomes wilted and soft. The stem grows mold and the plant can die if the gardener doesn’t hold back a little. Sometimes I think one has to hold back to the sake of the writer. I don’t want them to wilt. I want to see people confident and self-actualized just as much as I want to preserve my own energies.
So how do I help people get off their metaphorical couches? How do I help them to overcome their training that “writing is impossible” and you have to “write it right the first time”?
RX for writing motivation
Motivation is not something you can find, and it is certainly not something someone gives you. There is no magic button or pill. Motivation is a series of choices we must all make. As writers, we are not automatically afforded the respect and dignity given to more popular professions. We must nurture ourselves, empower ourselves, and claim our own work as work. We must learn to motivate ourselves.
Give yourself the gift of the draft
Produce. Produce. Produce. You are not a writer until you are writing. There is no pizzazz in this, there is no glamour. You are translating thought and impression into the code of language, and making that code understandable to others. This is work. This is labor. Own it.
When you actually work on something , you become intimately familiar with the process. You learn the needs of the format or genre you’re working with, and you learn your own habits and foibles. The experience of working draft by draft is more valuable than a hundred writing books. There is no substitute for drafting.
You can’t spit out the Mona Lisa
Distance yourself emotionally from your draft and learn to edit. Your first draft will always be flawed. Your second, third, and even fourth will have issues. Sometimes projects have fatal flaws, and sometimes they need heavy-duty restructuring. This is not an indictment on your as a writer.
You are under no obligation to write a perfect poem, essay, or paper the first time. Waiting until you deem something “perfect” to move on is going to prevent you from writing anything. Excellence is a good goal, but perfectionism is a very bad habit.
Identify your High Order Concerns
Take this session by session, and have definable goals for each one. In tutoring, we have to prioritize on the fly, and we usually only have 30 minutes with a student. A successful tutoring session triages a paper: both individuals ascertain what the biggest flaw in the work is and address that first. If there’s time left in the session, they work on small fry. This empowers the student to work on their own errors, not just accept criticism, however well deserved – it puts them in the drivers’ seat.
Do the same for yourself. What do you want to accomplish this afternoon? Today? This week? Limit these goals severely. If you can’t place it in the top three slots of your to-do list, it’s not a High Order Concern. Not every part of the writing process is priority one at every single step. Pull back, consider, identify, and act.
There will be days, even weeks, where you can’t get “anything done”. That is ok. You are allowed to have a life outside of writing. But you must develop the reflex to return over and over to your worktable. Over time, the choices you make become habit.
If you choose to put off a project until you find the perfect word, detail, mood, whatever – you are ultimately choosing to not bring this project to completion. You will develop and reinforce fear, anxiety, and perfectionism. You have developed the habit of de-motivating yourself. Can you live with the outcome of these choices?
However, if you develop the habits of production, editing, and prioritizing – you have chosen to motivate yourself. On a day to day basis, you will have your hands dirty with the work of writing. You may feel temporary disappointments and setbacks, but overall you will remain motivated to continue.
Liz Reilly is a tutor and adjunct at Passaic County Community College. She has over 5 years’ experience in blogging, writing, teaching, and tutoring a wide variety of people.