It was balmy March afternoon in 2008 that I sat down to chat with my good friend and writing support group of one, Dan Swensen. At the time, my main energies were directed towards posting on message boards about writing. I had set aside my habit of daily journaling. It had been years since I had written a poem, and more than 18 months since I’d even sniffed at a short story. With a tinge of sadness, and a feeling of defeat, I remember typing, “I’m not a writer. I haven’t been for a while now.”
Those words crushed me, as I had stumbled across a fundamentally true thing. A writer writes. They don’t just read books about writing, they don’t just chat about writing, they don’t just make plans about writing. A writer writes something. I wasn’t writing anything.
This epiphany ate at me. I’d like to say that I went on a writing tear, that my entire attitude toward writing transformed. No. It took a few months. And when I started, I started small. A few poems while I was doing live-in work in Idyllwild. Then, a few articles for a creative magazine. A few more poems. Another pause. A few more years.
It wasn’t until this January that a question reared its head and demanded my full attention. “Why the hell am I not writing?” The fuller implications of this question were, “why are you letting bad workshop experiences limit your creative output? Why are you letting your old work languish? Why are you not actively shaping your creative life?”
This second epiphany lightened the heaviness of being a failed writer that I had been carrying with me. To be a writer, all you have to do is transform motivation into writing through the alchemy of keyboard, pen, paper.
The key that I had been missing was motivation. The reason I’d been lacking it was because I had a dearth of honesty. I had not answered the very simple question that big mucky-muck writers and writers down in the trenches get asked but few answer in a comprehensive way: “why do you write?”
Why do you write?
This seemingly simple question actually has three components to it (hence the likelihood of getting an abbreviated answer when you ask your other writer friends): “what are your general goals for your writing and/or what do you hope to get from your writing,” “how did you get started writing / why do you continue to write,” and “why do you write a particular project.”
So. Why do you write?
It is vitally important to be honest here.
If your answer is full of fakery and pretensions towards art, fame or money that you don’t actually want–or are able to achieve–there will be a nagging gap between the work you are doing (or procrastinating) and your ultimate goals. The greater share of writers that I have known have been filled with anxiety over their ability to achieve either artfulness in their writing, or the ability to feed themselves with their work. Then I left workshop, and met writers unconcerned with either goal; these writers worked (one, two, three) other jobs, and tried for skillful writing, but didn’t erect A LIVEABLE WAGE or the PROGRESS OF ART as their goalposts. And they were all the more successful (according to their goals) for it.
You are courting disaster if your goals even include a seemingly more modest goal of WRITING A POPULAR NOVEL. Basing your goals on the tastes of audiences is like drying your laundry in an oncoming storm. Some novels are popular; most are not; and even if you write something popular, chances are slim that you could ever name-drop your novel at a party or a twitter feed and get hushed and reverent responses. It is a far easier goal to “write a novel that has wide appeal/large possible audience,” since that goal makes no presumption of popularity–only of its potential to be popular.
Setting goals that you can live with, and that reflect your desires is the key here. Sometimes finding a goal you can get your mind around is as simple as figuring out the proper way to get at your goal.
I write because I want to wrangle the chaotic thoughts in my head and make something meaningful to others from that. I write poetry because, frankly, I have issues with brevity. I like cultivating this habit in myself.
So. Why did you start writing?
It’s a common experience for writers to get started early in life, but there are hundreds of path into the craft. Perhaps you started writing because you always wanted to live the glamorous Hollywood life of an out-of-work screenwriter. You needed to find a sense of closure from traumatic events. You were dying to rail against the exponential witlessness of pop-culture commentary. A person’s history layers new motivations onto the original writing impulse, making each person’s reason for writing a story itself (and is possibly the reason why so many first novels out of workshops have protagonists figuring out how/why they want to write as a part of the main plot).
I was good at writing when I was a kid, and it snowballed from there. When I discovered that I lacked the attention span to make novels, I settled on poems–then grew to love their gem-like qualities. My attitude toward writing changed dramatically during college; some of this story can be found in past articles on writing workshops at the university level, some of it opens this article.
I keep a running tab of places where I’ve talked about my writing history, because the story changes each time. Details are dropped or remembered. Different writing influences are foregrounded. Mentors’ advice seems more or less meaningful based on current experience. How you tell this story to yourself affects how you think of yourself as a writer. If you think your story is, “I’m a failed writer who couldn’t make it in workshop,” that is the kind of writer you will be. If you change that story to, “I am a writer who was failed by workshops, and now I need to remedy that,” suddenly the possibilities open. It may seem pedantic to you to talk about writing this way–but I guarantee that if you are not aware of the stories that zip through your mind at laser speed, you will be unaware of how pervasively they affect your entire enterprise of creating.
I cannot overstate how important it is to know thyself, writer.
Sit down with a journal / word processor / blog and make a narrative about your journey with writing, and don’t pull any damn punches. I dedicate a couple page in the back of my journal to evaluating my progress each year, usually after a major turning point in my writing. Major turning points are when I decide to start a new project, finish an old one, shelve a project indefinitely, start a new blog, explore a new genre, find a new writing group.
Keeping abreast of all of your writing activities helps with your honesty. If, like me, you bemoan the lack of writing in your life, then discover that you spend all of your time blogging, commenting, Twittering, guest posting, updating LiveJournal… clearly you are writing. Your issue may simply be a matter of the type of writing that you are doing.
So. Why do you write the particular project that you are currently working on?
If there is one take-away from this post, it should be that specificity and honesty are your most important tools. While it is important to understand your impulse toward writing, it is equally important to understand why you are embarking on your specific project.
In my estimation, the reasons for working on a project boil down to four big categories: “because I can,” “because I want to,” “because I need to,” and “because I have to”.
Because I can. This category roughly covers the reasons that roughly begin with a, “why not?” or “why not me?” XX wrote the great teenage vampire-werewolf romance novel and made cash hand-over-fist, why can’t I do the same? I have a bunch of XX lying around, why don’t I collate it into a publishable book? I wrote an excellent post on XX the other day that got a lot of response from my readers, why don’t I write a book/blog/series of vignettes on that?
The “because I can” category is the weakest of all categories for sustaining a project, because the motivation dries up once the novelty wears off. Once you decide to write that novel in Reno just to watch it die, it’s important to keep the drive alive by making provisions for it in one of the other categories. That is to say, once you’ve decided on a a project (a novel, a collection, a screed) just because it’s something you can do–you need to own the project. You need to become invested in it by igniting a genuine desire to see the project through. This can often be achieved during the falling-in-love brainstorming stage, where adding more detail or researching new facets of the project bring you new sense of pleasure at your choice of project.
If the project fails to captivate you on a basic level, you should move on. A project that fails to interest you at its outset, and continues to fail to interest you as you get deeper into planning it, won’t bring you closer to any of your writing goals (unless being bored with your art/craft is one of your goals!). Readers can sniff out a writer doing it without passion (although faked passion will do in a pinch, if you have a knack for that). For writers who have gone through higher education, writing without passion is one of those habits that we have picked up, like tics in an open grassy field, and you seriously need to divest yourself of notion that a project will magically become interesting to you on page 200 if it isn’t already interesting to you by page 20.
If you insist on pursuing a project where the motivation never materializes, you need to impose deadlines on yourself as though the project were any other must-do task. I suggest treating the project like one of a client-designer relationship: set hard dates for various parts of the project, try various permutations of your subject/theme/project out until you settle on something you can live with, and make sure there is a critical eye on the other end that can evaluate your total work.
Because I want to. This category is probably the most familiar to us as writers. I write because, hell, I like the feeling of sitting down to a blank page and defacing it with words. I actively pursue that feeling by creating projects that will allow me to write, scribble, doodle to my heart’s content.
But “because I want to” is much broader category than simply wanting to write. It also includes wanting to say something, do something, or demonstrate something. And it is the category that writers, flush with the giddiness of having put something on the page, often have no clue about. Especially because, much of the time, a writer has no clue what she/he has written until someone gives feedback on the project.
Two examples will illustrate my abstract ramblings. Swensen and I have both suffered from this set-back. A couple of years ago, I was editing a fantasy piece for Dan that was eventually going to become a large world-building novel about a group of soldiers who were deep in a guerrilla war with another race. When I asked him why he had stalled, he mumbled something about having an issue with what his story was trying to say. He wanted to work on a project that expressed something beyond, “this was a cool story about soldiers. Badass.”
I was stumped by Dan’s trouble. It was pretty clear to me that he was writing a fantasy novel that was borrowing literary tropes from war novels to make a more realistic, less high-fantasy-feeling setting that ultimately decried the war and violence that other fantasy novels glamorize (or at least make highly desirable). When I told him this–he was equally stumped. He didn’t think he was writing that at all. These newly uncovered themes rose up dauntingly on the page. Did he want to write a novel with such weighty concerns, especially since the indelicate handling of topics about soldiering and warfare could bring criticism from a pool of readers he never even considered (the war novel aficionados)? Could he possibly do justice to these tropes, which were admittedly far outside of his areas of interest?
While I felt Dan’s anxieties were unfounded, they arose because he genuinely did not know what he wanted out of his writing. The project was eventually sideburnered in favor of his current project, now in its second draft. Dan figured out what he wanted to do/say with this new project, and felt the scope of the project was manageable to him. Ultimately this novel succeeded where a more ambitious (and less desired) project did not.
My problem was a bit different from Dan’s. I didn’t have the motivation to even attempt a book, even though I was sitting on a cache of poems that were begging to be edited. I had been discouraged by writing workshops, where I had been repeatedly shown the door and told to try a different genre. My writing didn’t fit anywhere. I became convinced it, therefore, fit nowhere. I stopped pursuing poetry because I convinced myself to stop wanting that.
In the end, the anger of deferring to authority sat up and demanded to know why I convinced myself not to want this. I wanted to be a published poet. I could taste the desire (it was a bit tangy). Once ignited, that want-to impulse sustained me through a self-imposed deadline of three months from inception to completion; writing, editing, and manuscript design on the back of grad school, teaching, and deteriorating health. The want-to was born from the desire to show the amalgamation of every polite workshop rebuff that I wasn’t the nothing voice. The work amounted to about 2 hours of writing, editing, and design on the project per day. The magic simply was that I would sit down at my keyboard and get something done even on days where I was tired to the bone.
I know that many writers have buttons that activate see-this-through-anything mode. If you are honest about who you are and what you want (and take the time to reflect on these questions to find these things out), it is possible to find the fire/drive to see projects through. The tricky part comes when you need to yoke that fire to a project that might otherwise seem marginal to you.
While Dan has said that being alone while you write is one of the most fundamental truths of writing; to me, the most fundamental truth is that you must learn the alchemical transformation to generate motivation even when you are staring down into the source-water of your anxieties, goals, and desires.
That does it for part one. In part two, I’ll tackle the remaining “Because you need to” and “Because you have to” reasons, and tie everything up with some peppy words about motivation and deadlines.