I was once on a fitness forum in which someone posed the question “How do you get the motivation to run every day?”
I love giving advice, and I like running, so I started typing.
Try as I might, though, I was having a hard time expressing my experience, because it went something like this: I would get a sudden desire to do it, and so I would do it for a while until such a morning came that I really, really didn’t want to go but I forced myself to do it anyway.
The former was motivation, but the latter was something else.
Finally, I wrote something like this:
“You’ve probably been motivated to change a million times, but after a month, a week, a day, it disappears. Dedication is what keeps you going after the motivation disappears. It’s the part that looks at your urge to stay in bed instead of running and says, ‘Staying in bed doesn’t help me reach my goals, so I will get out of bed and run.’”
Writing adds another element: inspiration.
There are plenty of times in my life that I have been inspired to write. Suddenly, the muse is upon me, and I can pump out thousands of words. I once was so inspired that I wrote out more than 6,000 words in one sitting on a story I wasn’t even working.
And, Blessed Saint Francis de Sales, it’s wonderful when that happens. But, the muse is a fickle master, and trying to guide the flow of her inspiration is more likely to dam the river than direct it. Relying on inspiration to make your writing career is like waiting for dinner to fly into your mouth. Or, as Confucius probably never actually said, “He who waits for a roast duck to fly into his mouth will starve.”
Of course, connected and disconnected at the same time, I will get the motivation to write. I will decide that I will hit that 2,000 word count daily or die trying. A few days go by when I am successful, and then, just as suddenly, I’m staring at a blank computer screen and hating every word I have to punch out just to get to my goal. And those words are not good words. Not good words at all.
If you really want to write – or run or learn a new language or climb mountains – what you need to cultivate isn’t inspiration or motivation, although those will be incomparable tools you can use. What you really need, the gas that will power your writing engine, is dedication. It’s the dedication to sit down and write every day.
Dedication is the part of you that says, “I see that I don’t want to write today, but sitting here playing Stardew Valley isn’t going to help me finish my novel.”
Inspiration makes you love writing, motivation makes you want to write, but dedication is what makes you write.
How to cultivate inspiration
I’ve mentioned my Awesome Ideas folder, and frankly, I think it’s an invaluable tool. I love going through stuff I’ve written – maybe some purple prose, maybe a scene that doesn’t belong anywhere – and think “ah, yes, I am a writer.”
I have a tumblr account (yes, I’m on that hellsite) that I use to help accumulate and curate inspiration. Pictures, writing prompts, bits of historical facts. I tag them all so that I can sort back through them later. This account is a sort of digital Awesome Ideas folder.
Tumblr, Instagram, and Twitter can all be great tools where you can accumulate inspiration. Quotes, writing prompts, pictures, just ideas that people share, you can save things that make you feel excited about writing. Use those tools.
If you see a picture in a magazine that gives you an idea, cut it out and put it in an inspiration box. If you see a quote that enthuses you, copy and paste it into a doc. If you read a story that fills you’re shriveled little writer’s heart with joy and light, link that shit and re-read it.
I have digital and physical Awesome Ideas folders, and I happily use them both. You can even create different Awesome Ideas folders for different novels. I once found myself watching Howl’s Moving Castle nearly every day because it inspired me to write a story I was once working on. When it comes to The Blackwells, watching BBC’s Pride and Prejudice miniseries usually does the trick.
And if there’s ever a time when I just can’t bring myself to work on whatever main project I’m writing, I fiddle through my Awesome Ideas folders to find something else that inspires me, just to prime the pump.
Get into the habit of reviewing things that inspire you. The more you do, the more inspired you’ll get by just about anything.
Inspiration is a spark – you need it before you can start the engine of dedication. Learn to turn your shriveled little writer’s heart into a flint.
How to cultivate motivation
Motivation is, I admit, very similar to inspiration. But, I think it goes a bit like this:
When I see art someone has posted somewhere, or I read a good book, or I spot a quote that makes my mind race with ideas, that’s inspiration. When I want to start putting those words down on paper, that’s motivation. Inspiration makes you want to think; motivation makes you want to act.
Motivation is hype. Motivation is seeing people on Twitter gearing up for NaNoWriMo and wanting to be part of it. Motivation is seeing the advice “put aside fifteen minutes a day to write” and you put an alarm in your phone for tomorrow.
Cultivating motivation is a little harder than inspiration, because it can be the flipside of de-motivation.
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard some story or advice that I supposed to me motivating only to feel utterly demotivated.
Sometimes, seeing that someone you knew growing up has published a book, you can feel pretty deflated. Sometimes, seeing that Michael Crichton writes 10,000 words a day makes you want to throw your laptop out the window. Sometimes, seeing some true book that you know is nowhere as good as your writing (I won’t name names) is getting published just makes you feel like none of this is worth it anymore.
Things that should be motivating can become de-motivating pretty quickly if you’re in the wrong state of mind for it. So, what do you do?
Time for some brain-training.
The first you think need to do is be aware. Be aware of what you’re thinking and what you’re feeling. When you notice that hearing “500 words a day is a reasonable goal” but all you can think is “I can’t even get 500 words a day out, I’ll never be a writer,” you need to stop. Call it out. Say to yourself “I notice that I am having the thought that I will never be a writer.” Name your thoughts and feelings.
You need to be aware what you’re thinking and feeling, and you need to spell those thoughts and feelings out to yourself.
Once you’ve done that, you can then remind yourself that it’s just a thought, not reality. You didn’t get psychic all of a sudden. Let yourself feel that feeling, recognize it is just a feeling, and then let it pass.
Now, spite can be a decent motivator, but it isn’t the only one, and probably not the healthiest. Lots of things should motivate you. Inspiration can motivate you! But, frankly, the idea of writing should motivate you.
My best advice: when you see something about writing, remind yourself “I want to write.” Just say it to yourself. Out loud. “I want to write.” Keep your brain thinking that.
Idiot from high school is published? “I want to write.”
Inspiration strikes? “I want to write.”
Read an article about writing? “I want to write.”
How to cultivate dedication
You can have inspiration without motivation – that’s daydreaming. You can have motivation without inspiration – that’s writer’s block. Writing, though, writing takes dedication.
Dedication is looking at the endless void of a white page and punching something out anyway.
I can’t give you much in the way of pretty quotes for this section, but I can give you some tips to help you out. Because, really, this is the brass tacks of it. This is where we want to be.
1. Create a writing environment.
I don’t mean a room filled with your inspiration. I mean, create a separate space and time that is your “writing space and time.” Don’t just sit in front of your tv or at your kitchen table. There needs to be something in the environment that tells your mind “now is writing.”
Changing into specific “exercise clothes” can help remind your brain that “now is exercising.” Sitting at a dinner table creates a different feeling in you than plopping in front of the tv with a hot pocket. You need an environment that helps flip that switch, too. It can still be on the sofa or at the kitchen table. But something needs to be a cue that says “this is different, this is writing.”
It could be a set of clothes, a piece of music you play, or just a chair you don’t normally sit in. It just has to be different.
2. Get rid of distractions
Don’t watch TV, don’t have Youtube playing in the background, don’t keep social media open in a different tab. You need to focus.
When you are struggling, you’re brain is going to try to find something else to do. It’s not interested in what you’re writing, so it wants to pay attention to something else.
Don’t let it.
Take a deep breath, take a drink of water (or tea or coffee, or something stiffer; as the saying goes, write drunk, edit sober), and then say to yourself, “This is writing time, and I want to write.”
George R.R. Martin writes in a DOS word program to write. And hell if that isn’t a distraction-less way of writing.
3. Try different tricks
I had read somewhere that white was too intimidating of a color, and that you should try turning the page green instead. And I did. And I do.
Someone else pointed out that using Comic Sans as a font makes it less intimidating. And if that works for you, great.
There’s that one program that will delete everything you write if you don’t keep typing, and if that starts your engine, go for it.
Experiment. Play around. See what works for you, and once you find it, abuse it maliciously.
4. Aim for time first, than word count
Back to running, there are multiple “Couch to 5k” programs out there to help you get up and running that 3.1 miles. Funny thing is, you don’t start with distance. You measure and extend the time you spend running. Once you can run for half an hour, then you start working on distance.
NaNoWriMo makes you think word count is all that matters, but I gotta say, focusing on time first is a better way to start. Set aside 15 minutes or half an hour a day. That is the time where you will sit in your writing environment without distraction using whatever tricks you like until that time is up. Even if all you’re doing is staring at a blank screen for the whole time.
Word count is great if you can get a reliable word count out, but sometimes you just can’t get it out. Aiming for a goal you can never hit is just training yourself to fail. But, all of us can set a time limit and wait for an alarm, so start there. Once you see that you can reliably punch out 500 words in that time, only then can you aim for a word count.
So, there you have it: inspiration, motivation, dedication. You need all three, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea to cultivate all three. Whatever you do, though, just keep writing.
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