Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Mo' on Motivation

Our first Writers Block meeting of 2009 was rather anticlimactic (there were, um, only two of us there—hi, Jes!), but it was certainly not disappointing. I couldn’t be disappointed because—despite my flagging willpower, and the pajamas, couch, and book (the book written by someone far more motivated than I) that were calling to me—I actually dragged my tired ass out of the house. I might have only written one sentence last night, but at least I set aside two hours to devote to writing. And I made a commitment to do it again next week. I jump-started the habit.

We’ve talked about motivation before, but it is always worth discussing again. More than subject matter, style, form, anything, motivation is really the number one factor in a writer’s success. If you’re not motivated, you’re not going to write, and if you’re not writing, you’ll have written nothing. Obvious? Yes. Simple? Not so much.

I think there are two kinds of motivation for writers: short-term and long-term. The short-term kind of motivation responds to the questions:
  • Why am I going to sit down to write right now?
  • What will I achieve by the end of this session, and what’s so good about it?
  • Why is writing right now more important than [fill in the blank with anything else you could be doing—going to dinner with friends, watching the Netflix DVD that arrived today, sleeping, working out, vacuuming the cat]?

Short-term motivation is what gets you to sit down right now and work on your writing (or leave the house to attend a Writers Block write-in). This was my short-term motivation last night:

  • Yes, I’m tired, but I’m almost always tired on Tuesdays after work. If I allow myself to make excuses tonight, those excuses will become valid and I’ll be able to use them forever. If I don’t go tonight, when will I ever go?
  • No one else is coming. So what? No one else is writing my book. I’m the one writing my book. If I don’t work on it tonight, no one will. I am my own responsibility.
  • How will I really feel about myself if, instead of writing my book, I lay on the couch and read someone else’s book—someone who is published eight times over, with almost as many movie deals, and is a billionaire (yes *ahem* I am reading Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince)? If I don’t write tonight, how will I finish my book? If I don’t finish my book, how will I get it published? If I don’t get it published, how will I get a movie deal? If I don’t get a movie deal, how will I ever become a billionaire?? (Okay, so those aren’t actually my goals, but you know what I mean).
  • I did my yoga and I ate my whole grains and lean protein for dinner and I feel really good about doing myself good. I will feel even better if I can do myself good in my writing life, too.

Long-term motivation, on the other hand, responds to bigger, longer-term, and more philosophical questions:

  • Why I am going to sit down to write tomorrow? And next week? And in a month, a year? Why is it important to make writing a habit?
  • Do I ever plan to stop writing? What if I am forced to stop writing (because I die, because I have kids and am too busy, because I go lose my hands in a horrible accident and am too depressed to do anything but watch Oprah)? What do I want to achieve before I stop writing?
  • What are the things I want to do before I die? Is writing going to help me achieve any of those goals?
  • If I found out I had six months to live, how would I feel about my achievements as a writer? If the answer is “not that good,” what can I do to the change that?

Long-term motivation is what gets you to sit down to write again and again. It helps you answer the questions of short-term motivation. These are some of my long-term motivations:

  • One of the top three things I want to do before I die is to publish a novel. The other two things on the list top three things to do before I die do not include watch more television, get rock hard abs, have a really super-clean apartment, spend more time at work, or sleep more. On a day-to-day basis, do I choose sleeping over writing? Yes. Do I choose watching movies over writing? Yes. Do I need to stop that? Yes.
  • I might not die when I’m 100. I might die when I’m 56. I might die tomorrow. What then?
  • I would like to finish a book before I have children, because I imagine that kind of life-changing event will really derail my writing. If I can’t write regularly now, how will I do it with small children? Same thing if I decide to go back to school. It’s now or never.
  • I want to make my parents proud. I want to give my mother a manuscript that she’ll enjoy reading more than James effing Patterson. I don’t have forever to do that. (Not to mention that James Patterson has probably put out 37 books since I started my 2008 NaNoWriMo…)
  • I want to make my grandmother proud. I want to finish something and give it to her to read before she’s not with us anymore. I don’t want to regret missing my chance.
  • I want to impress my hard-to-impress boyfriend. There, I said it.
  • I want someday to be today.

So, I’ve posed the question. What motivates you? You answer it.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Quis custodiet...?

In his "Learn Writing with Uncle Jim" posts, James Macdonald urges aspiring writers to type out the first chapter of a favorite novel - the idea being that doing so will give you a ground-level, word-by-word inside look at what makes the prose tick. It's amazing what you can find out when you're forced to engage with a work at that level of detail, when every choice the author made of what to include (or leave out!) is brought into the light. Much like when visual-arts students copy the paintings of the Great Masters, there are secrets of technique and composition that open up for the apprentice who's willing to reproduce a respected work one line at a time.

In a similar vein, my friend Vishal has taken on a project for himself to learn the techniques of comics: he's redrawing Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen a page at a time. He talks about his rationale for choosing this particular work, and his approach to this vast and ambitious undertaking, here. I look forward to seeing what further discoveries he makes in the course of it.

(For those of you with an interest in seeing what makes comics in particular work on their own terms, I recommend Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics as an excellent starting point. Not all of his theory is waterproof, but his insights about the practice of creating workable sequential art are really spot-on, and potentially applicable outside of comics as well.)

ETA: Vishal, from correspondence, says this about the kind of insights this process can provide: "When you actually have to draw it you start to notice all kinds of things you never did before. Pacing is a big revelation. One of our most famous directors from the 40s, Raj Kapoor is known to have said something along the lines of, 'You want to learn Editing? Read a comic book' -- and he was right. That first page, for instance, with the 'slow-zoom' out from the button on the street. Bereft of Rorshach's monologue going through your head, it becomes this almost hypnotic progression. I'm sure that in the movie they'll actually do a slow zoom, but it might actually work better if they pulled back in cuts. Also, somehow you never noticed quite what a lonely, tired old man the Comedian was until you start drawing the interior accoutrements."