Writers Talk About Writing
How to Bolster Your Long-term Motivation for Writing
Imagine that you're a farmer. First, you need to select your crops. Then you must prepare your land. Then, sow your seeds and irrigate them and wait for them to grow. Eventually you'll need to weed and fertilize the plants. Finally, you'll be able to harvest.
The entire process takes four seasons, or a full year to complete. And, of course, it's filled with worry. Will the seeds grow? Will the weather cooperate? Will pests decimate the crop? Will your complicated and expensive machinery survive the busy harvest season? But all these smaller and more specific worries are dwarfed by the big, important one: Will you be able to grow enough food to sell and feed your family?
Replace the word "food" with "words," and doesn't being a farmer sound like being a writer?
Both farmers and writers must be able to delay the satisfaction of an immediate goal — having a good day — with the longer-term reward — having a successful crop or a lengthy report or book. Doesn't that sound difficult? Worse, that process requires not just hard work but also the tincture of time.
It makes me think of the famous marshmallow test of the 1960s. Then, Stanford researcher Walter Mischel and his graduate students gave children the choice between a marshmallow they could eat immediately or two marshmallows they had to wait for. When Mischel and his team followed up with the kids many years later they found that those who had been able to wait for the second marshmallow generally fared better in life, as measured by SAT scores or body mass index. The whole marshmallow test has become very famous and Mischel has recently written a book on it called The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control. You can read an interview with him, here.
I think we all know that delaying gratification is an important skill but, damn, it's hard. We may as well all be six-year-olds faced with fistfuls of marshmallows. This is because waiting is stressful and increases our anxiety. There's no guarantee our crop/writing project will actually turn out. What if we've invested all that time and we produce a dud? How can we continue to work without any assurances?
So, here are two big solutions to the long-term motivation problem: (1) measuring, and (2) getting feedback.
Measuring reveals something that would otherwise be unknown. It also provides you with motivation and encouragement. Here's how I do it: Five days each week I write a minimum of 500 words per day for my next book, resulting in at least 2,500 words per week. This means, even allowing for holidays, I will be finished (with a crappy first draft) in 30 weeks.
Every day that I complete my 500-word goal I have a little fillip of happiness and accomplishment. I refuse to consider whether those words are any good. That absolutely doesn't matter at this point. I'm merely planting seeds! (Weeding will come later.) I track my accomplishment in a Word chart I've developed, showing me my cumulative total and — more importantly — the cumulative number of words remaining. I know this will sound like hocus pocus but, as soon as I pass the halfway point with each long-form project I complete, the words seem to accumulate faster, just as a snowball grows larger and appears to pick up speed when rolling downhill. Regardless, I always know exactly where I stand with my goal and I find this enormously calming.
Feedback from others — even before your work is finished — will help let you know how you're doing. In an ideal world, this feedback would be professional, but if you have knowledgeable friends or colleagues, they can fill this role for you. I have a group of beta readers for my book and I value their feedback, which I will address even before I turn the manuscript over to my copy editor.
The trick to finishing a long-term project depends not on skill or talent. It depends on persistence and stick-to-itiveness. It requires putting your doubts aside and harnessing your energy to do a little corner of the work every week for many weeks, until the job is done.
Stop thinking about the long-term problem and instead focus on the little challenge facing you every day.