Dear Writers And Creative-Types: You Don’t Need Motivation

Write-fail-writeagain

We all have days where we sit in front of the keyboard and we’re just not… feeling it. It’s like trying to dry-hump a cardboard box. It doesn’t feel magical. It doesn’t even feel productive. It feels empty, crass, devoid of any value — mechanical and sad. You can barely even get yourself to make the words happen. Your fingers hover above the keys, or you have the pen poised in your grip and you’re just like:

“Nnnnghyeah, you know what, fuck it. Fuck it all right into outer space.”

You think, I need motivation.

And so you — like I have done and still do today — go in search of that motivation.

You try little tips and tricks. You eat chocolate to reward yourself. You read good books and you read bad books in an effort to urge your own prose forward. You set up your time so that you take 45 minutes to write, and 15 minutes for a social media break. You drink coffee. You read writing advice. You pin up motivational sayings around your office — HANG IN THERE, the kitten commands as it dangles from the branch. Another poster shows a winking beagle puppy telling you how awesome you are. On your left shoulder is a homunculus of me made from beard trimmings and whiskey-soaked book pages and he constantly screams in your ear, ART HARDER, ART HARDER, ART HARDER like some maniac zombie parrot.

Nothing at all wrong with trying to find a way to squeeze a little extra juice out of your writing day. We all get there however we get there and if that means chocolate / coffee / whiskey / motivational posters / screaming wendigs / prostate stimulation then hey, you do you.

But asking about motivation is one of the most common questions I get.

It is, in fact, one of the things you hear about from “aspiring writers” (defined here as writers who do not actually write anything but who sure talk about it a lot). I had a neighbor that explained she too would be a writer someday, and she liked to pull over the car and write whenever she was inspired or motivated and one day she’d find the time to write…

Not the first time I’ve heard something like that.

Won’t be the last time, either.

When I’m inspired.

When I’m motivated.

When I find the time.

These, you’ll note, are external things. They exist outside you. Inspiration, spoken of as if it’s launched square into your face via t-shirt cannon. Motivation, delivered as if it’s a random box from the UPS guy. Time, found laying around like spare change in the couch cushions. (Note that if I found extra time just hanging around, I’d probably do the same thing with it as I would with a twenty I found in my pocket: I’d waste the hell out of it.)

You, just waiting to have these things brought to you.

You, passively beseeching the heavens to deliver you unto the prose.

I gave a talk about this a few days ago, and I prefaced the talk by asking the question:

Which would you prefer:

A present you don’t expect, or a present you do? Meaning, a present given to you as a surprise, or a present delivered by the expected schedule (birthday, Christmas, what-have-you)?

Then, a follow-up question.

Which would you prefer:

A present you don’t expect, or no present when you expect one?

Waiting for motivation or inspiration or time — it’s like expecting a present and receiving none. It’s like waking up on your birthday that nobody remembers, and you stumble around all day hoping that someone will spring out of an alleyway and besiege you with delicious cake or slap a gift into your hands except that doesn’t happen.

Nothing comes and you go to bed, unfulfilled and uncelebrated.

Conjuring little tips and tricks — they work. I know they work. I use them. You use them. But you can also rely on them too much. You can use them to the point that they cease to be tricks and they become cheats — it becomes an act where you are constantly trying to fool yourself into writing. You’re looking for fuel, but can I tell you a secret?

You don’t need fuel.

You generate your own energy.

You generate your own momentum.

You’re equal parts solar panel array and the cuckoo brightness that powers it.

The practical way to demonstrate this is to do what you wanted to do in the first place:

You need to write.

Now, this doesn’t automatically mean to write every day — I personally espouse that as a habit because I come out of a freelance writing background, and I have deadlines to hit and bills to pay and so for the career-driven writer, developing the “write every day” habit has value. But everybody’s process is different, and even some career writers write a few days a week and hit the word count hard when they do. The greatest thing you can do for yourself as a writer is to discover, adapt, and forever hone your process.

No matter how often you choose to write, though, being a writer means —

Well, duh, it means writing.

It’s obvious and reductive and yet bears repeating: writers write. But the value of that is not always so obvious. We assume that writers writing means writers are producing content and that’s the end-all be-all of that reward — you make stuff, and making stuff is cool, so yay to that. That, however, is not where the value ends. Writing builds intellectual muscle. It practices the thing you want to do. It helps you improve. It helps you cultivate instinct. It helps you fail faster, and fail smarter, and failing is a critical component to a creative career — in fact, the majority of the bulk fibrous material that comprises a creative career is pure, unmitigated failure.

To crib the warboy chant from FURY ROAD —

I write!

I fail!

I write again!

Word-Boy! Drive your Word-Rig through the fire tornado of your own doubt! Spray-paint your mouth with black printer ink and leap onto the empty page! Witness! Witness! (If I may quote @lorekeating: “OH WHAT A LOVELY PAGE!”)

But the whole writers write thing earns you another benefit:

Writing motivates you to write more.

That sounds strange, and here you are thinking that you need motivation just to start writing in the first place. But let me tell you — you don’t. Sit down. Put your hands around the throat of the story and just start squeezing. Write anyway. Fuck how weird it feels. Forget failure. You think you suck? Yeah, hey, man, we all suck some days. You start to write, though, it lubricates the gears. It’s like feeling too hungry to eat, but then you take just a bit and the nausea goes away. Writing begets writing. Forcing the motivation forges real motivation. Fake it until you make it.

At the end of the day, it feels somewhat demotivational to suggest that all the little tricks and cheats may fail you in the end — but I’d also hope you’ll take heart that, at the end of the day, EVERYTHING YOU WERE LOOKING FOR WAS WITH YOU ALL ALONG. (hashtag wizard of oz.) You have the power. You have the voodoo. You’ve got the ability to motivate yourself. You needn’t look for external things. You want time? Grab it. You need inspiration? Drill it up out of your own heart. You want motivation? Write. Write your way to it, then write your way through it. You are not beholden to anything outside yourself.

You are beholden only to yourself.

* * *

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68 comments

  • Like the fuel analogy. I’d probably say though that motivation is the wrong kind of fuel. Nothing wrong to rely on fuel as long as it’s something that you can come by in an affordable and reliable way. However, in terms of fuel, motivation is like sunshine. And asking for more motivation is like sitting in a solar-powered car, asking the sun to shine more.

  • Chuck- you are to me like Master Oogway was to Po from Kung Fu Panda.

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and whenever I see your name on a book I READ IT.

    Thank you, just thank you.

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