Reader question: on motivation, writing and everything else


I recently received an email from a guy named David who was looking for some writing advice. He enjoys writing (and judging by the email, the dude has some serious talent) but he has been feeling a little stuck.

It's funny to me that I giving writing advice, and teach writing classes, mostly because I've never taken a writing class. I didn't take writing classes in high school (which I rarely attended since I spent most of my adolescence working on movies) and not later in life when I finally got around to going to college in my late 20s. I've never studied writing, other than reading a ridiculous amount of books. I just write from my heart. I never remember if I want a colon or a semi-colon.  I use the word "fuck" when it seems advantageous.

But I love talking about writing so I was thrilled to get David's question, which was basically - Writing is hard. How do you do it?

Writing IS hard. Because you are generally pouring your soul onto the page and then asking any literate person who walks by - Hey...would you be interested in judging the contents of my essential being?

It feels like peeling off your eyelids.

But for whatever reason, I have to do it. Have to. If I don't write for a few days I get twitchy and weird. So, I write.

For me, the essentials of writing come down to the following three things. But these things are not writer specific, I realized. I'll use the word writing here, but just replace it with whatever you are interested in pursuing, and I think it'll still be fairly valid.

Good fences make good writing

For me, being creative is all about setting boundaries. I need time. If I'm sitting down for 15 minutes once a month and expecting to write like Jonathan Franzen, I'm in trouble. I write every weekday from 8 AM - noon. I don't answer the phone (sorry, Mom) and I put off everything else until the afternoon. Unloading the dishwasher or taking the car for an oil change happens later. It's not always perfect - sometimes the dentist can only see me at 10 AM and I have to rearrange things. But 95% of the time, between the hours of 8-12, I'm writing. I thrive on a schedule and a routine.

That being said, I'm extraordinarily blessed to have the time I have. I am married to someone who is incredibly supportive and understanding of my chosen profession and we don't have kids. I understand that not everyone can carve out 4 hours a day, so, look at what works for you. Maybe it's 2 hours every Sunday night after everyone has gone to sleep. Maybe it's every day for 10 minutes while you wait for carpool. Whatever works for you, build a big fence around that time and fight like hell to defend it.

The Shitty First Draft

The Post-it note on my computer reads - Write Anyway. It compels me to write when I am not inspired, when it is raining, when House Hunters International is on, and when every word reads like complete and utter garbage. That Post-it note will not accept any of my excuses. The Shitty First Draft is essential, it just needs to be put on paper. Because within all that crap, there will be the tiniest nugget of something that is workable. The rewriting is where the art is. That's where you'll uncover the truth and beauty.

There's a lot of talk about writer's block. I believe that only happens if you give in and stop writing. I've never had writer's block because I refuse to stop writing. I've written some truly horrible stuff, including pages about how miserable my life is because I don't know what to write about. But I NEVER stop writing. Writing is a muscle that can atrophy very quickly if it's not used. So, forget the idea of having to be inspired to create. Just sit down and write words. You'll get tired of your own complaining and you'll write something else, and that might just be inspired.

Find some tough love (but not in that order)

It is so beneficial to have someone who is both your cheerleader and fresh pair of eyes. My husband has been my first reader for years now. Honestly, this dynamic started out a little rocky. He would read something, say really nice things and try to help. In response,  I would be so sensitive that I would ignore the complements, feel offended by his help, cry and throw pens. It took us a while to get this part of the relationship down, but we're a good team now. He's great at giving me feedback that is both kind and honest. He's become an expert in the support/critique combo.

"I love you/this sentence isn't funny."

"You're a great writer/this paragraph doesn't make any sense."

Support/critique needs to come in equal doses, and it's super helpful if the support part comes first. And I've gotten better at hearing both the adoration and suggestions, even though I retain the right to ignore the latter. Because while most of the time, Jeremy has a good point, sometimes he is wrong. And it's my work, so I make the call.

Your first reader can be a friend, teacher, mentor, writing group, someone who can both hold your hand and slap some sense into you. If you go the route I did, be warned that it adds an extra layer of challenge if your first reader is also someone who you are sleeping with - but it's certainly possible. Make sure you choose your reader wisely because showing your work while it is still in progress is really scary and vulnerable. Choose someone who understands the gravity of that responsibility and if they don't totally get it - explain it to them.

Yes, dear David, you are right. Writing is hard. But let's face it: it's not coal mining or working a tobacco field. It's creating a world on paper. It's connecting with others through making emotion tangible. It's freaking MAGIC.

So just write anyway.

And thanks for asking.


P.S. You wondered if I required any Liquid Inspiration to write - and the answer is yes. I simply cannot write without my extra-large mug of decaf tea.

*since I wrote this post, I started teaching online writing classes through Writing Pad. So if you liked this advice, come take a class with me and get a whole bunch more!

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