Yesterday I led a writing workshop at a writers conference, and today was contacted by a participant with questions that still burned: How do we keep going? How do we make ourselves keep writing, without any real deadline or urgency? How on earth do we stick to it?
Here, in part, was my answer to this serious, thoughtful, curious writer:
"I do understand entirely how it is easier to work when you have deadlines imposed from outside you. But in general, you see, the world doesn't demand that we write a novel, so we have to find ways to trick the mind. Yet no trick in the world will work unless you have a story you really want to tell. If we just have a vague ambition to write a novel, we may never get it done. That is looking at the thing, the product, the artifact, rather than at what it's designed to wrap and contain: the hunger to tell a story that won't leave you alone, won't leave your mind, won't leave your digestive track in peace.
"So the first thing you have to figure out is if there is a story of some kind (or a character or characters in search of a story) that keeps bugging, haunting, prodding or tickling you. This doesn't have to be a heavy-duty haunting; it might be just a yen. But locate it. Because this is a source of motivation that will hold up longer than a vague idea that you would like to write a book or that it would be nice to be an author and make some money writing books. (I will say that there are some people who can stay motivated just by keeping such ideas in mind, but I am not one of them, and don't know how to give you advice in that direction.)
"When I know there is some story or character that will not leave me, and that I know, moreover (as I said at lunch), is ticklish enough to keep me jumpy for years (if need be), I'll then use any number of strategies to stay motivated:
a. I set deadlines. I will have so many words written by the end of the week. I will have this much written by the end of the month. I will finish a draft by such and such date. I write these dates on a calendar as formally as I would any wedding day or appointment with the IRS. I trick myself into believing these are firm.
b. I consult my own sense of mortality. This sounds morbid, but it works. I am only going to be on the planet for so long. There is only time to write so many books. Will I die happy if I have not gotten this particular story out of my gut? Probably not. I use this pitchfork to the abdomen to help me stick to a) above.
c. As I'm working on a story, I allow myself little pleasures. I take it a step at a time (while trying to stick to the deadline). You have to enjoy the work moment-by-moment, in spite of the overarching, long-term, time-sucking goal. You have to let yourself have fun with sentences. Enjoy the turn of a phrase even if most of the rest of the paragraph or chapter is daunting and needs work. Celebrate the little glories and things you get right along the way. The little (or big) discoveries about a character. That scene or bit of dialogue you get right the first time, or suddenly find the fix to. This will keep you at, and eventually get you addicted to, the process. You have to let yourself be fascinated by the strangeness of the enterprise, its serendipities and slogs and fragile bravery. Often, if we let ourselves think too much about the whole of a work, we grow disheartened, it seems impossible, we give up. Sometimes I try to think like a surgeon. I know I am responsible for the life of something complex and whole, and that there is machinery whirring all around me and a cast of serious beings involved and a certain amount of pressure, but all I really need to worry about right at this minute is getting this one suture tight. Wipe brow. Move on.
d. When a draft is finished and it becomes time for revision, I celebrate. I celebrate every milestone before I hop onto the next one. I have been known to print shitty first drafts up, turn loud music on, and wave the pages in the air while dancing around the house. I know, when I do this, that I am not done. But I am constantly celebrating temporary moments of rest and accomplishment. I have finished a chapter. I have finished a draft. Today I wrote a sentence. Whoop!
"These strategies have worked for me for about fifteen years and four books--but I tell you what, if they stop working, but I still have a story or stories to tell, I will invent new ones. This was very much what our workshop was about yesterday. We must take responsibility for using our imaginations not just to write our stories and poems and plays, but also to invent the narratives that will sustain the narrative of writing itself. This is a highly personal endeavor, and all we can do is share models and approaches with each other, swap what is going on with us. But ultimately we have to take charge of crafting the framework that will help us write. We must do this work. This, in my opinion, requires as much dedication, and willingness, as the story itself. We can't just throw our hands up in the air and say, 'I don't know how to stay motivated.' We must plot motivation as cannily as we would any other mystery.
"I hope this helps you."
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