“Discipline, after all, is motivation when you’re not motivated.” ~ Kenji Crosland
I came across this quote after hitting a milestone in my writing a few weeks ago. Most science fiction novels are between 100-150,000 words. I recently knocked over the 50,000 word mark. Since it’s taken me five years and as many rewrites to get here, I was pretty proud of myself. I’ve been slowly coasting down from that peak ever since, and after mentally rewarding myself for my (not insignificant) achievement, I feel I’ve been a little too lenient in the relaxation portion of my reward. It’s time to get back to work, and I’m finding it as difficult as ever to produce those ever-so-elusive words.
So I’ve been doing a little reading on the side to help me find some motivation to write. Kenji Crosland runs a blog (http://jimijones.com/blogging/finding-motivation-to-write/) and has some pretty good advice for budding writers. My problem, specifically (don’t we all have one?) is that the world in my novel is so complicated that writing about it is often times an absolute chore. I have 51,000 words on my novel, and nearly as many just in notes I’ve taken. Keeping all those notes and ideas and plans organised in my mind is nothing short of a headache, and I find I’m often overwhelmed with the sheer amount of material that I have on hand. Yet there’s always the nagging voice that, even with all my foresight and careful planning, I’m still going to miss something crucial—that I’ll inadvertently create a plot hole, or that I’ll overburden the reader with details—and so I’m continually wading between my notes and my novel, struggling to see any real progress.
I have a lot of faith that, once I finish this novel, the groundwork will be mostly laid for future novels and I can breathe a bit. In a way, it’s the opposite of having writer’s block. There’s simply too much for me to compile and compress and deal with at one time. Which is why I’ve found if I wait, it generally strings itself out in my mind coherently and I’m able to manage sorting it out on the page. But without practise and caution, this can easily result in days, weeks, and sometimes even months away from the computer. But for now, it’s dirty work in the trenches and when I glance at my computer as I’m walking through the room, and see that beckoning keyboard, it’s difficult to suppress a shudder at the thought of the gruelling work ahead.
Don’t get me wrong. Writing this book has a lot of very tangible rewards. I can’t remember the last time I was so proud of myself as when I hit that 50k mark. And ordering the chapters and seeing the page count grow is a real exercise in promoting self worth. It’s just that it’s hard, hard work. I’m sure many of you who are writers can relate. We all have our projects that we nurse along and have such high hopes for. Seeing these projects fall short of our (often times) unrealistic expectations can be seriously demoralising. So far, the only solution to this I’ve come across is this: just keep going.
Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit From the Goon Squad, had some excellent advice I read a while back, and I think of it every single time I sit down to write: “Be willing to write really badly. It won’t hurt you to do that. I think there is this fear of writing badly, something primal about it, like: “This bad stuff is coming out of me…” Forget it! Let it float away and the good stuff follows. For me, the bad beginning is just something to build on. It’s no big deal. You have to give yourself permission to do that because you can’t expect to write regularly and always write well. That’s when people get into the habit of waiting for the good moments, and that is where I think writer’s block comes from. Like: It’s not happening. Well, maybe good writing isn’t happening, but let some bad writing happen…”
And that’s it. After years of digesting Emmerson and Whitman and Twain and Poe and Hemingway and London and Herbert, I’m afraid of writing badly. I’m afraid I won’t live up to my expectations, that I’ll fall short of my heroes. It definitely holds me back, more than anything else I’m finding. But what can you do about it? Well, like Jennifer said: Give yourself permission to write badly. Odds are, it’ll be better than you think it is, especially after you get away from it for a while and check in to see what you’ve written later. Another one of my go-to writing quotes is by Frank Herbert, and he said, “Coming back and reading what I have produced, I am unable to detect the difference between what came easily and when I had to sit down and say, “Well, now it’s writing time and now I’ll write.” There’s no difference on paper between the two.”
I’m not sure I’m thatconfident, but I still think most of it is in my own head. Getting past that is 9/10s of the battle. And God help me, I’m going to win. There are more articles on the subject of writing and motivation on the internet than you could possibly imagine, so I know this isn’t a unique problem. That alone is encouraging. I know I’m a great writer. I can do this. And though it often feels impossibly hard, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.