“Being a writer is a very peculiar sort of a job: it’s always you versus a blank sheet of paper (or a blank screen) and quite often the blank piece of paper wins.” Neil Gaiman
I was scrolling through my Twitter feed the other day when I stumbled upon this piece of advice:
The most valuable thing I’ve learned as a writer: working your ass off actually pays off. Overnight success is rare. 20-year success? Real.
There’s such mythology around the idea that This Book Is The One That Makes You. Untrue. Every day at your desk is the one that makes you.
Both these tweets come from a writer named Maria Dahvana Headley. I eventually found my way to a Storify collection of her tweets on this subject, and I highly recommend that you check them out (link here).
I know that hard work and persistence and essential to achieving success in many areas of life, and writing is no exception. The thing is, I have a hard time putting the time into my writing that I need to if I want to accomplish anything. I have ideas, but I don’t have the patience to see them through, or the faith that they will amount to anything even if I do.
I guess I’m going through a bit of a dry spell when it comes to my writing, if I’m being honest. Part of me wants to feel guilty about this, and part of me wants to take more of a big-picture view of things.
That part of me says that life is long, that I’m still young, and that I have time to figure things out. After all, many writers and authors came to their success later in life, the voice inside me says.
But (as Maria Dahvana Headley has reminded me) I don’t know how long those writers were working and writing before they achieved their success. It’s true that some people do change careers later in life and go on to be very successful authors, but how much writing were they doing on their own, quietly, before they took that jump?
I can’t expect to coast though my life and then magically find success the moment I decide to get serious about writing. However, feeling guilty about all this doesn’t seem to be a terribly helpful strategy either.
Maybe someday I will figure out how to manage my creative energy and find a balance between all the various methods of creative expression I want to engage in. After all, life is long, and success (in any area) doesn’t happen overnight.
“It’s always, to me, very hard. And the only thing that sustains me is the fact that I did it before, and there must be some way I can do it this time.” Tom Wolfe
Sometimes motivation is just really hard to find (as evidenced by the fact that I’ve had the beginnings of this post floating around since October). Life happens, you’re tired, you don’t feel inspired, and you think to yourself “I’ll write more some other day.”
And then that other day just doesn’t come, and it’s been weeks since you’ve written anything… (sigh)
I recently encountered an article on Grammarly that isn’t really about motivation per se, but I think it can help provide some motivation when your writing life so grievously lacks it. It’s called “6 Signs You’re a Good Writer (You Just Don’t Know It Yet)” and you should definitely check it out (link here).
The basic idea from the Grammarly article is that you’re probably already doing things that lead to good writing without even realizing it. Things about yourself that you just take for granted (such as a love for reading and for words, or a penchant for vivid daydreams) may actually be contributing to your writing life.
This may not be super earthshaking, but it made me think about the fact that I get stressed out about my writing at times because I think I’m not doing the “right” kind of writing or I’m not taking it “seriously” enough. Whatever that’s supposed to mean.
I think sometimes the reason I have trouble finding motivation is that I think that everything has to be formed perfectly in my head before I start writing, or that something great has to come into being every time I put my pen to the page. And let’s face it, that is never going to happen. It can be tough to feel motivated to do something when I’ve already set the bar impossibly high for myself.
I’ve started to think about trying to incorporate more freewriting into my day, and not feel that everything I write has to have a purpose or mean something. If I just want to make a list of words that sound good together, I can. I may use it some other time and I may not. That’s okay.
I like to talk about how things seem to take shape in my head as I write, how things seem clearer to me at the end than at the beginning of a writing session. And a lot of the time, that is true. But if I start writing with the expectation that these things will happen, it’s a lot harder to get motivated, because I’m tired (or uninspired, or whatever it happens to be that day) and it’s hard for me to believe that anything good could come out of a mind that feels like a solid lump.
I’m going to try to remember that the little things are worth motivating myself for, too.
I grapple with this thing that I have wrought;
Why is there such a gap
Between my words and thought?
I look at the page, full of wordy rabble—
Rouge syllables that fight me at each line.
Sense has done quite poorly in the struggle;
Sound has pinned it down upon the gravel.
I picture a stern judge, at a final test,
Banging down his gavel,
Declaring my work a mess.
No respite from unruly thoughts—
My mind is turning to a pulp
From wrestling with my inner ogre,
Whose small mind worries at each word,
Never satisfied. Why can’t I
Trap my meaning? I confess
I’m troubled by this failure on my part.
Still, sometimes there’s no shame in losing
As Jacob found, grappling with a stranger.
Just when his hip snapped out of joint,
He had a moment of jagged clarity,
Finally saw what he was wrestling,
Learned why it was worth the struggle.
“As a writer, I know that nothing really happens until I write. Now I may write for hours or days before what I write turns into anything meaningful. But I have to write for all those hours in order to arrive at the hour in which the ‘inspired’ writing happens.” Vinita Hampton Wright
These are some great writing prompts! Also, number two is from Anne Lamott. Win!
Mired in bloggers’ block? Pshaw — we’ll give you a push! Here are five posts you can publish right now, no matter what topics you usually blog about.
1. The last thing that made you mad.
There are two great things about addressing issues that make you angry: first, the posts tend to be fun to write (not to mention cathartic). Second, the internet loves a good rant.
Think about the last thing that really made your blood boil, and take it from there. You can write about why it was so upsetting, explain how you found a solution, propose changes to keep it from happening again, or freeze-frame your emotions in verse.
(If you’re worried about letting it all hang out, check out our tips for writing rants without sounding like a big jerk.)
2. Your typical childhood lunch.
No really; stay with me.
In her excellent book on writing, Bird by Bird
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Sometimes I imagine myself staring down a small, ugly cube. A small, ugly cube that sits on my computer keyboard and prevents me from typing (although strangely enough, it does not interfere with my attempts to get on YouTube, Facebook, or Netflix). You may have guessed it already: this cube is my own personal Writer’s Block.
And sometimes, I admit, I like it. I let it stay there. I don’t really want to write the thing that I know I ought to write, so I let myself stare at the screen for five or ten minutes or so before I allow myself to “take a break.” Because I have “writer’s block.”
(This video is the partial inspiration for this post. Check it out!)
It’s like that Calvin and Hobbes cartoon where Calvin comes in toting a huge piece of wood. “What’s that?” Hobbes asks. “Oh,” Calvin replies, “It’s a writer’s block. You put it on your desk and then you can’t write anymore.”
Sometimes I want to blame my inability to write on something outside of myself, something that I have no control over. That’s when my Writer’s Block comes helpfully to my side and rests itself squarely on my notes. Of course I can’t write. Look at that Writer’s Block!
I want it to be something external, but it’s not. It’s in me. Or rather, it is me. The voices that tell me I’d better get it together, the voices that tell me I have nothing left, the voices that tell me I have plenty of time–they’re all me, and I need to learn to counteract them.
I was speaking to a freelance writer last week, and she told me that she doesn’t have a problem with writer’s block. She said she writes so many different things in so many different voices that if she’s stuck on one or tired of writing it, she switches to another.
I’m going to try to do this in my own writing as well. Even though many of my papers are similar styles of writing, this blog gives me an opportunity to try out different styles and subjects. I’m also going to try to work more on my personal creative writing as well. We’ll see how this goes, I guess. Maybe I’ll be able to knock that Writer’s Block to the other side of the room.
Art should imitate life (or so we’re told). Often, we attempt to make our writing a realistic reflection of the world and human behavior. There’s nothing wrong with attempting to recreate the world as we experience it, but sometimes this doesn’t seem to work. Our descriptions may seem trite or colorless, or the experiences of the characters don’t ring true.
In these circumstances, how can we inject new life in our writing? How can we encourage the creative parts of our brain to do their work? Think about ways to tell convincing lies: stories that are not necessarily realistic to your personal experience, but a story that you can feel conviction about, that you can get behind.
In a dialogue titled “The Decay of Lying” Oscar Wilde (king of the tongue-in-cheek aphorism) has one of his characters remark, “The imagination is essentially creative, and always seeks for a new form.” This is good for you: you already have the raw materials needed to craft something new. Let your imagination take your writing in the direction that it wants to go. Let your ideas speak through the process of placing words on the page.
If you feel unhappy in your writing, perhaps it’s because you are trying to tell a story that’s already been told. Although as Anne Lamott notes, there are no really original plots under the sun, you also have a unique perspective from which to tell your story. Play around with the possibilities. Be willing to deal with the absurd and the unlikely.
Wilde’s character says:
Literature always anticipates life. It does not copy it, but molds it to its purpose.
This idea that life is the author’s to shape and mold can be very freeing. Instead of being slaves to realistic representation, we can strike out new paths and create as we see fit. If you write a fiction that rings true, a lie with body behind it, you may find that it shapes your way of perceiving the world and changes the way you relate to reality. Once you have the vocabulary to describe something, you will start to see it in the world around you.
In this sense, the idea that life could imitate Art may not be that strange after all.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you do anything at all in this life, you are eventually going to experience failure. It is impossible to be successful 100% of the time. In fact, it probably wouldn’t be good for us to be successful all the time, because failure can be an important learning experience.
If this is true, then why are we so afraid of failing? To be more specific, why am I so afraid of failing? There are times when I let my fear of failing prevent me from even starting. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to find a job out of college, so I’m afraid to even apply for one. I’m afraid I won’t be able to write the story that I envision in my head, so I never start it. This list could go on and on.I realize that my failure to try is in itself a kind of failure, and it’s the wrong kind.
Here’s another example of the wrong way to fail:
When Irish author Flann O’Brien submitted the manuscript for his second book, The Third Policeman, to a London publisher in 1940 it was rejected.
But rather than admit this lack of success to his friends, he pretended the manuscript had accidentally blown out of the boot of his car on a trip to Donegal and had been lost forever.
“This was a ruinous thing to say because he couldn’t then turn around and say, ‘Oh I’ve found it again,’ so the manuscript sat very openly on his sideboard until his death,” says Booker Prize-winning author Anne Enright. She has selected O’Brien’s story to appear in an exhibition entitled Fail Better at the Science Gallery at Trinity College, Dublin.
“The year after [O’Brien’s] death, his wife got it published to a keen reception.”
If O’Brien had been more open about his failure to get the book printed, he might have seen his work published within his lifetime
This story appears in a BBC news article about failure. As someone who fears having my writing rejected, this story really struck home for me. What opportunities am I missing because I allow my fear of looking like a failure turn me into someone who only tries once, or who never tries at all? If you respond to failure correctly, you become a more resilient person, but if you don’t, it’s like you’ve failed twice: once in the actual failure and again in not learning from it.
Thinking more about failure doesn’t make it any less frightening for me, but I am trying to change my attitude towards it. First of all, I don’t want to let my fear of potential failure to cause me to actually fail by never trying. Second, if I don’t succeed, I want this failure to spur me on, not stop me in my tracks. I want to start looking at my mistakes as learning experiences rather than as crippling, permanent errors that will be branded on my forehead forever.
I want to be a successful failure.