Motivation, procrastination, and the only thing we have to fear

Once again I put out a call for blog post suggestions, and Charles A. Tan had a few. (We can always count on Charles.) There were some great ones there, including “motivating yourself to write.” I read through them all. Then I checked my Direct Messages and played with the cat.

Not writing.

This is not writing.

So yeah, I thought about that a little bit. How do I motivate myself to write? What’s the relationship between motivation and procrastination? My fellow Inkpunks are all off living large at Rainforest Writers Retreat and FogCon, doing writerly things like drinking, eating chocolate, hiking, networking–and oh yeah, writing. I should be doing that too–I have two short stories and a novel in progress, all of which need attention. But for me, nothing seems more pressing right now than the state of my Catering Quest in Cafe World.

As I write this, I have two of those manuscripts open in other windows. One is nearly a finished draft and I just started the other. I think about them all the time, when I’m working at my day job, or in the shower, or driving somewhere. I solve problems and I itch to get back to them. Then 5:00 p.m. rolls around, or I arrive back home, and suddenly the best I can do is poke desultorily at the keys and hope for a couple hundred words.

Right. BRB. Checking on my Bacon Cheeseburger status. They spoil if you don’t serve them right away, you know.

I never lack ideas. I never lack the longing for a finished, competently written story. What I lack, frankly, is the confidence that I can produce one. I can take a mean cat picture, and I can click little tiny stoves with the best of them, but when it comes to writing beautiful prose…well, let’s just say I have far more cat pictures than I have stories I’d ever let you see.

I should find another picture to include here. Morgan always makes great use of visual aids. Huh, look at that…I haven’t offloaded pictures from my iPhone in forever. I should do that now. Before I forget.

This is also not writing

Gratuitous cat picture: Also not writing.

For me the part of writing that I really hate is the first draft. Every sentence feels labored, each page makes me despair. I am not a writer who takes joy in the act of writing–maybe you are, and if so then I envy and am in awe of you. But getting to a complete first draft is total pain for me, and I’m never sure that I can do it. I have so many unfinished stories that tell me I can’t. I would rather do almost anything than face that blinking cursor and the white space that follows it, and fear that I’m going to fail, that I can’t find the right words.

I mean, really, that’s what it’s about: Fear. I have the I Can’t Do Its. I’ll make a dozen excuses as to why I can’t– the kids need to be fed, I’m “stuck,” I’m too tired, I had a bad day and need to comfort myself, I had a good day and need to celebrate it, my feet are cold, my boyfriend’s hot, my desk is a mess–

Wow, it really is. No wonder I can’t get anything done. Who could possibly think in this mess? Let me just tidy up and I’ll be right back.

See, now this is a space a person could write great stories in. Just as soon as I’m done with this blog post.

Still not writing

What a tidy desk I'm not writing on!

But then why be a writer, if it’s all agony? It’s not. The fun for me is in the revision, taking something rough and refining it into something worth reading, seeing it start to take shape and turn into the story that was in my head all along. Unfortunately I don’t get that part without the pain of the first draft.

Bribing myself doesn’t work. Saying “if I write 500 words, I get nachos” sounds great in theory, but in practice, if I want the nachos I’m going to go get the nachos regardless of how many words I write. The inverse doesn’t work, either–denying myself something because I didn’t make my word count is folly, because frankly I’m not going to really do it. I’m going to get frustrated and watch that episode of Hell’s Kitchen anyway, because darn it, I deserve it for the angst of facing the draft.

The only carrot–and the only stick–there is for me is the story itself.

I’ve been observing, analyzing, and documenting my own writing behavior for years now, trying to figure out what “works” and what doesn’t. I procrastinate on the parts that I don’t like, and let’s face it, sometimes that’s every part (because this writing gig is hard.) Underlying that avoidance is always the thought: I can’t do it.

But I can. I’ve done it. So have you. There’s a point in every story when it comes together on the page, and that feeling is better than nachos*, and it’s worth all of the crap it takes to get there. But it’s like anything else worthwhile in life–it’s not free. I haven’t found a way to trick myself into being motivated–everything I’ve tried has really just been procrastination in disguise. A new organizational system, a new system of rewards, a new environment, a new tool.

The best carrot in the world, for me, is a finished story that I made up and executed. There’s a story in my head that wants out, and I’m the only one who can write it, because it’s my story. Turning that terrifying white space into words is easier than I think it is. If it’s bad, I’ll fix it later. All of the defeatist self-talk I do, all of the avoidance and procrastination, needs to just be identified for what it is–fear–and dismissed. I can do it, and so can you. And I will do it.

Right after I check my Twitter feed.

*Not many things are.






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  1. Wendy Wagner, Inkpunk
    12/03/2011 at 9:31 pm Permalink

    This post explains so much about why writers don’t write: writers block, procrastination, addiction issues … all of it comes from fear. Fear that we will fail the potential we see inside our stories.

    Sometimes I have to remember that no matter how bad my stories turn out, making a bad story is still better for the world than almost anything else I’d be doing.

    On that note, I’m getting back to my characters, patiently waiting for their chance at life on the page.

  2. Erika Holt
    13/03/2011 at 1:09 am Permalink

    That cat picture is adorable!!!

    In terms of motivating myself to write, I find: 1) I’m more productive/efficient when I’m busy and facing deadlines; and 2) the old cliche of “butt in chair” (internet OFF), really works. Also, the more I do it the easier it gets. Every time I take a significant break I lose steam. If I keep going, it doesn’t seem as hard.

    I totally agree that the only reward that matters is finishing the story.

  3. Matthew Sanborn Smith
    13/03/2011 at 11:40 am Permalink

    Those tiny, big-headed people aren’t going to serve themselves!

    I’m right there with you on this, Christie. When I’m at work, I want to write, write, write! Then I get home and screw around.

    The time I’m most excited about writing is in the last couple of drafts, when I know I’m about to polish the thing off. I can work happily for hours then and time flies. It’s a long slog getting to those final drafts, though.

  4. Sandra Wickham
    16/03/2011 at 4:18 pm Permalink

    I am a carrot-on-the-stick person and manage to manipulate myself that way (perhaps that says something about my lack of intelligence..but..moving on..) but I experience the same things and LOVE your last paragraph. I may have to print that out and put it somewhere near my messy (very messy, not going to clean it because I’m lazy) desk.