Friday, April 13, 2012

On Finding Motivation and Inspiration to Write

A while back, I had another writer friend tell me I should post something sometime about motivation. You know... tips on how to stay inspired, how to motivate yourself to work on your personal writing, how to stay encouraged, and so forth. She wanted to know what my "secrets to success" are in that regard and requested something she could bookmark and come back to when she's having trouble getting inspired.

I promptly laughed my fool head off, because to me that's a lot like asking the wart-covered, back-hair having, cheese-scented old lady across the street for her carefully guarded beauty secrets. I don't actually think I do a very good job staying motivated, to be honest and I certainly do not consider myself successful. I'm not a smiley, bright-eyed, enthusiastic young thing who always has a smile on her face either, believe me. I'm an aging, negative, sour cynic who -- more often than not -- has the same troubles every other writer has and I told my friend all this.

Then she said that that's exactly why she thinks such tips would be good coming from me -- because I appear to be a "real person". I actually admit to the fact that I often give a number of fucks that is equal to or less than zero when it comes to being productive. I also have always been open about how frustrating being a writer can actually be. I don't glamorize it or give people the impression that being a creative person is the equivalent of winning the life lottery. She wanted to know how people like me get and stay motivated, not the grinning douchebags with their insipid, buck-you-up mottos and their fake smiles. So... I decided to give this a whirl. Maybe it will actually help someone feel less alone, if nothing else.

Read a lot... and read the type of material you want to be writing.

One of the best pieces of advice I can possibly give any writer is to also be an avid reader. Seriously, reading cures a magnitude of ills when it comes to a lack of inspiration or creativity. It keeps your mind and imagination in good shape the way time spent on a treadmill keeps your muscles in good shape. It gets your own creative juices flowing and helps you to generate your own ideas for pieces to write. It's also a great stress reliever, as it allows you to forget that your actual crappy life even exists for a couple of hours.

Best of all, reading actually makes you a better writer. Your vocabulary increases, as does your instinctive understanding of how to string words together so that they sound right and achieve the effects you're after. You learn about plot structure, character development, and scene-setting as well. Everything I know about writing, I learned from reading voraciously ever since childhood, not school.

You also want to make sure you're reading the type of material you want to write. If you want to be a poet, read a crap ton of poetry. A novelist? Stay on top of that New York Times bestseller list. Interested in being a food writer or a restaurant critic? Chew through food magazines, culinary columns, and existing restaurant reviews like they're going out of style. In my opinion, that is really the easiest and most effective way to get really good at producing whatever material you're most interested in.

Don't work too much, especially if you write for a living.

Other people's mileage may vary, but if there's one thing that can suck my will to create right out of me Dracula-style, it's work. I'm definitely not one of those people who adores working for its own sake or anything. I'm certainly no workaholic. Any time in my life I haven't actually needed a job, I've been all too happy not to have one. When I do need a job, I'm pretty much only interested in doing what's required of me, collecting my paycheck, and then skipping off to enjoy my real life until it's time to hook myself up to the old plow again.

Putting in long hours, constantly having to reschedule things I actually want to do to make room for more work, and consistently doing "extra" because that's what my clients want makes me grossly unhappy. When I'm unhappy, I don't feel creative and I definitely don't feel motivated to work on personal creative projects. Of course, this is only compounded by the fact that I make a huge chunk of my living writing very boring, very dry sales copy and articles for other people's websites, so if I'm logging too many hours at work, that's "writing energy" that can't be poured into a novel, a screenplay, or even a blog entry instead. It's important to avoid that "tapped out" feeling any way you can.

I personally have never known a creative sort who actually thrived creatively while also struggling to maintain a workaholic lifestyle. The only exceptions would obviously be people who are lucky enough to be making a living expressing themselves and doing exactly the sort of writing they actually enjoy, but I doubt that applies to anyone reading this. No, don't quit your job and yes, go get your work done... but don't take extra shifts unless you need the money. Clock out when you're supposed to. Take your days off and take your vacations. I would seriously even take the occasional personal day off during the week if you need it. You'll be a lot less stressed and a lot more likely to feel creative more of the time.

Don't hang too much on your work. Just... produce it.

Despite not being a workaholic, I do consider myself to be accomplishment-oriented. When I put a painting or a piece of writing out there, I like there to be a point and -- in many cases -- I would like there to be at least some kind of return on my time investment in the piece. That might be a publishing credit, or an art sale, or a new opportunity that comes along because of it somehow. Naturally, that's not something you can rely on when you're a creative person. Sometimes you get the return you're looking for, but most of the time you don't, so I find that it helps to consciously try to stop yourself from expecting anything.

It's hard sometimes, I know! If you're creative and serious enough about what you do to even be reading a post like this in the first place, then you probably feel very much the same way I do. You want to "get somewhere" with your stuff so that you can say that's "what you do" instead of the job you have right now. However, putting pressure and expectations on your art like that is exactly the way to make sure you never actually churn out the Great American Novel you dream of writing someday.

Creative work produced under pressure is typically not very good work. Trust me, I know. It's hard to stop life, expectations, and such from getting in the way, but I think that's something every creative struggles with. And if you're the sort who is helped by being reminded you're not alone, take a look at a lot of the greats. People like Oscar Wilde, Van Gogh, or Virginia Woolf. A lot of people before you struggled with inner bitterness, frustration, mental illness, being misunderstood, and being poor. Many weren't even successful during their lifetime. Some were very prolific and productive, but not all. Sound kind of like you? It sure as hell describes me to a tee.

I do my best work when I'm just doing it for the same reasons I used to do it when I was a kid -- because I had a neat idea and felt like writing a story would be a great way to spend my afternoon. Chances are this is also the case for you. Don't pressure yourself too hard to write though. If you're just procrastinating, then it's OK to crack a whip over your own head once in a while. However, if you really don't feel like it one day, give yourself permission not to do it. The last thing you want is for your writing to begin to feel like a chore, because that's the beginning of burnout, a much smellier demon indeed.

Accept your limitations and work around them. 

I think one of the things I hate the most about most "how to find motivation to write" articles is the syrupy sweet, synthetic cheerfulness that permeates almost all of them. I especially hate the ones that say "you should just choose to be motivated". Well, if it were that easy, wouldn't we all just do that? In my experience, it's actually not possible to choose your attitude. If you're cynical, you're cynical. You can pretend to be one of those happy, shit-eating assholes I can't stand, but that won't make you one. Instead, you'll just be a cynic that also feels completely stifled. Instead, get to know your limitations and personality flaws. Then accept them as part of you. It's only at that point that you can learn to work with them... or at least around them.

Also, here is some food for thought. Did it ever occur to you that you might have been made the way you are for a reason? How many writers do we know who wouldn't have been the writers they were if they were slap-happy douchebags made of cupcake frosting instead? Can you imagine Oscar Wilde's work without the social cynicism? I sure can't. What would Ernest Hemingway's stuff be without the soul-munching anger he struggled so hard with? My guess is it would be pretty boring. And would we even have a Mrs. Dalloway if Virginia Woolf wasn't the melancholy, pensive person that she was? You know that we wouldn't.

So get in touch with the writer you were meant to be and let him or her out to breathe once in a while... even if other people assure you he's an asshole. Then tell anyone who tries to make you do otherwise to sit the hell down and shut up. They don't know you. You know you and that's final.