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[process] On motivation in writing - Lakeshore — LiveJournal
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Jay Lake
Date: 2010-04-19 05:08
Subject: [process] On motivation in writing
Security: Public
Tags:process, writing
I have been asked several times lately in several different ways where I get my motivation. Ultimately that's a question that doesn't have an answer, or if it does, the answer is intensely personal and thus essentially useless to anyone else, but I take the intent.

At one level, I've talked before about psychotic persistence [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ]. That's more an explanation of process than motivation, I suppose, but it certainly is related. As I've also previously commented, this stuff is a habit. A tough habit to maintain. Six weeks on the couch watching tv could break it for life.

I also think that question comes from another place inside the asker. We so often wait for permission to do things in life. "I can't get this job until I have these credentials." "I can't ask this person out unless I'm sure they already like me." If you were raised in any of our cultural groups that embraces shame, guilt and/or self-effacement, this stuff is bred into your bones. "Don't put yourself forward" is such a classic meme.

And it's terribly destructive for writers.

All we do is put ourselves forward. By definition. There is nothing in this world more egotistical than believing that total strangers want to hear what you have to say.

There's a lie I used to tell myself when I was drafting a story or a novel. I knew it was a lie, and I didn't care. Call it a mantra or an affirmation or a visualization if you will. It went sort of like this:
"This story is a work of pure literary genius. This story will win awards. This story will be a critical darling and a fan favorite at the same time. This story will be reprinted a dozen times."

These days, I mostly don't care. I think I've internalized that lie, and sometimes even made it true. Because what happens is that I passionately believe in each story as I write it. I live inside the text, the character, the setting, whether for an hour or two, or for months. Once I'm done with a draft, I may chuck it in the dead file after sober reflection, or I may rewrite and send it out. The story becomes a marketing problem, and I quit believing in my invincible genius, for that story. (If I didn't quit believing in my invincible genius, rejections would be torture. And yes, I still get more rejections than acceptances.)

If you deconstruct that lie, what I'm really doing when I'm writing is taking control of my own permissions. I'm giving myself permission to be a genius. I'm also giving myself permission to fail. Those two things are exactly equivalent.

Remember, the best way to learn is through failure. Success is a much less effective teacher. But if you're going to fail, fail big. Petty failures teach petty lessons. Write the Big Idea stories, the grand, sweeping novels. Open your mouth and shout. Be great. Pretty damned good is the failure condition of greatness.

But it starts with giving yourself permission to do it in the first place.

So where do I get my motivation? By putting myself forward. How do I put myself forward? By being motivated. Hell, yes, it's circular logic. Like a merry-go-round, I can step off any time I want to. I just don't want. Like a merry-go-round, you can step on any time you want to.

No one is ever going to give you permission to write but you. No one is ever going to make you good, or great, but you. And on the marketing side, the editorial ninjas will never come to your house and steal your manuscripts for publication. Give yourself permission to write and send out. The motivation will come.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. From where do you get your motivation?

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User: manmela
Date: 2010-04-19 12:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This is incredibly helpful.

I'm trying to sell an elfpunk short I've written that I think is my best work to date - seriously punching well above my weight, one of those story where the evrsion on the page is better than the evrsion in my head. It's been rejected from a couple of good publications and I know that the editors rejected it for sane and sensible reasons. But still I worry that if I can't sell this, how will I ever sell a novel. I'm having a marketing dilemma.

I don't help myself with what I write. My stories are my own, but at times it does feel like I am moving against market forces. It can feel very lonely and doubt-ridden at times. But you gotta write what you gotta write, right?

There was a guy I once met who was living the dream of making his own superhero franchise called Civilian Justice. All credit to the guy, he got Coolio and Dave Prowse to appear in the low-budget movie he made. But the quality of what he produced (comics, movies, action figures) was very poor and he attracted a lot of scorn and became the butt of a lot of jokes. Maybe because he had aspirations greater than his talent. I never want to be that guy, it's my secret fear.

I also know that I could have a really big ego if I didn't keep it in check. So I'm in this schizophrenic void between bigging myself up to become an ass with an overstated importance of himself, and playing down all my achievements.

I've had some good success this past year. My first short story gets published in December, beta readers are generally loving the novel yet I dare not believe in it, lest I become egotistical or lose my ability to look at things critically.

I do believe (secretly) I could be good at this, maybe even really good and I work very hard, pushing myself, daring myself to fail. But I lack patience and get very frustrated, unable to see the progress I've made and only seeing how far I have to go. Maybe that keeps me hungry but it also makes me a bit depressed at times. What I need, is to find a little balance.
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User: martyn44
Date: 2010-04-19 13:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
When it comes to writing, I find myself in agreement with John Lee Hooker. Let that boy boogie woogie, its in him and its gotta come out. Just substitute 'write that story' for 'boogie woogie'. I enjoy writing more than (almost) anything - rewriting is a different matter altogether. I may be a North of England Puritan but I don't see why I should deny myself the pleasure of writing, even if it inevitably takes me into the dark country of rewriting and then the limbo of submission. Of course, by then I'm writing something else!
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User: a_r_williams
Date: 2010-04-19 14:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Great post!

Especially liked:

"Remember, the best way to learn is through failure. Success is a much less effective teacher. But if you're going to fail, fail big. Petty failures teach petty lessons. Write the Big Idea stories, the grand, sweeping novels. Open your mouth and shout. Be great. Pretty damned good is the failure condition of greatness."
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Kari Sperring: Marquise
User: la_marquise_de_
Date: 2010-04-19 16:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I suspect I'm driven by a mix of crazy and fear. I write because I have always written and (sometimes) I enjoy it. It used to be in order to find out if I could finish something of length X or Y.
But I am very easily knocked off from this. My writing demons crowd in and bite and I write to silence them. Except sometimes it goes the other way and they silence me. Who I am is very bound up with the writing thing, but people don't necessarily like that, so I let them tell me to stop, and then I get resentful and itchy and scribbly and round we go again. I do not have an organised inner life.
I admire your positivity, but could not, I think, do so myself. Too scary, and too likely to get me slapped down good and hard.
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User: klwilliams
Date: 2010-04-19 16:53 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You've hit it exactly.
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They Didn't Ask Me: writing-winslet-1
User: dr_phil_physics
Date: 2010-04-19 17:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Once I convinced myself to actually send something out to someone, which involved letting someone else read what I'd written, which happened at age 44(!), it has increasingly been easier to send my stuff out so that editors can see the wonders of my writing.

That and if you throw enough stories at a wall, one of them's bound to stick. (grin)

Dr. Phil
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User: irismoonlight
Date: 2010-04-19 19:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Ah, that fine line between narcissism and self-nihilism...
*daydreams of best-seller glory and movie contracts*
*daymares of dying having published nothing*

Equal wastes of time. Both keep me from actually typing on a keyboard and *creating* something others might actually want to read. Fie, ambition and despair, to the dungheap with thee!

In answer to your motivation question, I have none. Fought lack of motivation all my life. All I can bring to the table is willingness. (You might call it self-permission.) If I'm having trouble working on something I can ask myself, "Look, are you WILLING to do this?"

And if the answer is no, I might as well go shovel manure, because I'm not getting a damn thing written in that state. But if the answer is yes, an itty porthole opens in my resistance and I climb through it and start writing.

Yes, I'm weird. Making peace with that also helped. *wry smile*
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Rob Heinsoo
User: robheinsoo
Date: 2010-04-20 01:33 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you, great advice and notes on motivation and daring. Added it to my On Writing file.
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Danny Adams
User: madwriter
Date: 2010-04-20 02:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Part of what got me started writing regularly again a few years ago was a vision (I don't mean that mystically, but just a personal nightmare) of waking up one day at age 80 and realizing that I'd never done anything I wanted to do with my life--writing certain books being at the top of the heap. That image has stuck with me hard enough to keep driving me.

When my uncle died a little over a year ago, I felt an overwhelming gratitude that I'd been able to write a book with him, and a horror at how I might have felt if I'd heard he'd died without ever fulfilling that most-of-a-lifelong goal. I had that very much in mind when I started slacking off on my next series of Dream Books, the ones I just finished a few weeks ago.

Otherwise...prosaic as it may sound, when I go for just a short while without writing I fall into a deep, black depression. Writing is easier. :)
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