Motivation!Aug 15, 2021
From the Desk of Emylia Hall.
The writer Thomas Mann said, ‘A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.’
I love the recognition of process and perfectionism in Mann’s words – not the crippling kind of perfectionism, mind, but the sort that makes us strive to be better. He’s unapologetically playing to the insider – in the style of Louis Armstrong’s line ‘If you have to ask what jazz is, you’ll never know’. Each and every writer at work knows how increasingly difficult it seems to get.
So, what do we do then, when we hit the hard bits? Well, understanding that it’s tough for everyone – whether you’re writing for the first time, or you’re a seasoned novelist – certainly helps. And, so too, does giving thought to the psychology behind some of our personal approaches to the process; while we might not be able to control the publishing destiny of our work, we can be in command of our own mindset as we go about it. We can give ourselves the best chance of writing the best book. A few weeks ago Polly Ho-Yen wrote brilliantly on the topic of Imposter Syndrome, and how important it is to be kind to one’s self through the process. Here I’m looking at self-motivation, and how honesty and self-knowledge can help you bring your A-game to the page.
To write a novel, to see it all the way through, is to inhabit multiple selves – and to be true to each one. We are at once the wild and free author of the first draft, permitting ourselves to dream, to make a righteous mess and enjoy the process of creation. We’re the ‘blue-collar worker’ getting the job done, ‘laying pipe,’ as Stephen King put it. We’re the desk jockey, planning our time and executing our plans with strategic control. We’re zealous enough to believe in our own fabrications, but we’re humble enough to see where we might be getting it wrong. We know that writing is an act of faith – we’ve got to believe, to dream – but we also know that if we have publishing ambitions for our work, there are aspects of reality that bear consideration.
Writing, like most halfway interesting things, is full of contradiction. Our individuality is our superpower – our ‘voice’ reflects our sensibility and our unique experience – but one of the most valuable skills we can learn as writers is the ability to appraise our work with cool detachment: to forget that we wrote it. And while objectivity is a virtue in editing, it is subjectivity that will keep us sufficiently in love with an idea that we’ll pursue it through thick and thin. So how do we make ourselves flexible yet robust? Sensitive but steely? Subjective but objective? Humble but bold? Precise yet wild?
I think we realise, from the off, that our approach to writing is, perhaps, as important as the writing itself. I’ve mentioned Zadie Smith’s brilliant essay Literature’s Legacy of Honourable Failure here before, and specifically the lines:
‘Writers know that between the platonic ideal of the novel and the actual novel there is always the pesky self - vain, deluded, myopic, cowardly, compromised. That's why writing is the craft that defies craftsmanship: craftsmanship alone will not make a novel great.’
It is the ‘pesky self’ that can get in the way of us writing even a rotten first draft – let alone a ‘great novel.’ So, it’s self-awareness that is key: being honest with our own pesky selves. Here, it’s important that we don’t write ourselves off before we get started: we all know the power that that self-sabotaging inner voice can wield; how it can assume a persuasive, convincing tone and, as Elizabeth Gilbert puts it in Big Magic, ‘induce complete panic whenever I’m about to do anything interesting.’
For instance, if you think you’ve had trouble finding motivation for writing in the past, ask yourself what that belief is based on – and consider the factors. Know that none of us is defined by the commitment we’ve brought to projects previously. For just as all stories are fundamentally about change, so too are our writing journeys.
In psychologist Tasha Eurich’s TED talk on self-awareness she tells us that introspection can be productive, but only if we go about it in the right way. In Eurich’s study, composed of thousands of qualitative and quantitative interviews, she asserts that 95% of people claim to be self-aware – but that only 10-15% actually are. In her words, ‘on a good day, 80% of people are lying to themselves about lying to themselves.’ Her study discovered only a small quantity of truly self-aware people (fifty self-aware ‘unicorns’). From looking at the behaviour of these ‘unicorns’ Eurich concludes that the key to healthy and happiness-inducing introspection is not to ask ‘why’ but to ask ‘what.’ ‘Why’ is retrospective and can lead to false narratives, whereas ‘what’ is forward-looking, and it’s proactive.
So, let’s not ask ‘why am I not a better writer?’ or ‘why am I struggling to find time to work on my book?’ or ‘why has my manuscript been rejected?’
Instead, ask ‘what can I do to become a better writer?’ ‘What can I do to make sure I get some words down on paper every day?’ ‘What’s the story I really really want to tell?’
It’s about taking responsibility for every part of the process of creation. My writing diary is invaluable to me here. I turn to it whenever I feel the need, and as a result, the entries aren’t all that regular; sometimes I’ll go months without noting anything in it, followed by a fast and soul-searching flurry; I only ever write about my writing in it (though occasionally, if life events affect the writing space, then I explore them too). It’s a space for reflection and processing and stating intent. I keep a writing diary in order to hold myself to account – and, sometimes, just as a place to feel held. I wouldn’t be without it.
A consistent theme in my writing diary is the value of momentum. At The Novelry, our novel course is based around the idea of writing for one hour a day during the first draft stage – no more, no less. Setting the limit of that one little hour – that infinite hour, where you can travel continents and hurtle through time – sure concentrates the mind.
But what if it doesn’t? What if you use our tools and you still can’t settle into your writing for that hour?
Well, first look at when you’re writing. Are you giving yourself the best chance to focus? If it works for you, we advocate setting your alarm and getting up with the larks – even if, ordinarily, you’re no kind of an early bird. The joy of this is that first thing in the morning can be, for many of us, a quiet, private space. The phone isn’t pinging. The day, with whatever it decides to bring, has yet to get its clutches into us. I’ve never consistently written in the early mornings before, but I did this last winter. At 6.10 am I’d creep downstairs (the slightest creak of a board will wake my seven-year-old) and make coffee and get myself two chocolate biscuits. I’d pull up a webcam of a beach in Cornwall (the setting for my new book) and allow myself a look at the still-dark water – then I’d write my way towards sunrise. I’d allow myself the occasional glance at the webcam, watching the dawn ebb in, and I’d have some non-invasive but atmospheric music playing on my headphones, Alt-J or Portishead – but these weren’t distractions, they helped set the mood. And honestly? It was the smoothest first draft process I’ve ever had. A big part of this was that I always knew, more or less, what I was going to work on in these morning sessions. I made sure I had it figured, or loosely figured at least before I went to sleep the night before. On the few occasions that I hadn’t worked it out, I’d sit staring at my laptop, joylessly crunching biscuits and feeling the already-fragile energy drain out of me – and that wasn’t a feeling I cared to make a habit of; what a waste it was, to show up in body but not in mind. And don’t get me wrong, I didn’t bounce out of bed on any of these mornings, but I did come to be obedient to the routine that I’d made for myself. Muscle memory did its thing. Because of my young son, and the ‘alternate ‘lie-ins’ deal I have with my husband, I only got to write in the early mornings every other day. So, on the intervening days, I wrote at 9 pm instead. But I could never quite replicate the purity of the dawn call feeling; I was too tired by that point, and I wanted to be curled up in bed reading someone else’s book, not trying to write my own. Maybe you’re reading this thinking, ‘well, I’m a night owl.’ Or perhaps your home/work set-up doesn’t permit early starts with any kind of regularity. It’s about finding the time of day that works for you. The most important thing is that you’re able to shake off distractions and gift yourself that golden hour. Finding a cocoon-like space that feels private and quiet and uninterruptable gives most of us the best chance to focus.
Ah, focus. I went to TED again, this time to a neuroscientist called Mark Tigchekaar, talking on the subject. Tigchekaar reckons that when we're speaking, reading or writing, we're typically only using one-fifth of our brain capacity. As human beings, we crave interruption – and that craving disrupts our attention, and stops us from really diving deep. Every minor interruption – be it the ping of an email or the quick check of a website – sucks energy from our brain and diminishes the attention that we have for the task at hand. The average person loses, apparently, two hours every day in this way. Two hours! But... what if we know this already? And what if we still allow ourselves to get distracted? Well, writing is hard and can feel static, and we're pulling words from nothing, and amidst all that nothing there are a lot of somethings looking to trip us up, or snare us, or lead us down another path altogether ...
Maybe it's a case of taming our wandering minds – and turning them into wondering minds instead. Getting in the right headspace for writing is one of the most beneficial things we can do, to sit down at the page feeling calm, confident, and focused. Neuroscientist Amishi Jha reckons 50% of our waking thoughts are wandering. Which, again, takes from our attention big time. And while some of these thoughts might be a pleasant kind of daydreaming – a useful, productive, enriching type of pondering – a quantity of these will almost certainly be stressing, catastrophizing, regretting (you know, all the good stuff …). Jha is a mindfulness practitioner, who believes that we’re all capable of improving our attention and curtailing these wandering thoughts. Some of you may already have your daily practices, but perhaps you haven’t yet connected them to your writing process. Jha advocates a daily work-out, where we simply pay attention to the bodily sensation of breathing. Sit with eyes lowered or closed. Breathe in, breathe out. When a thought comes to mind, note the occurrence of it, then redirect attention back to breathing. Do it for five mins, 10, 15 - whatever we can manage. But do it regularly.
In a similar vein, there’s a wonderful lesson in the novel course at The Novelry called Moods, where founder Louise Dean offers advice on bringing compassion to the page: not just for the characters in our novels, but for ourselves too. From the lesson:
‘Ronnie Laing, the great psychotherapist, took an unusual approach to people with mental health problems in the late 1960s. He simply sat down with them. If they were sitting on a floor of a clinic with their head in their hands, he sat next to them. He believed fellowship did a power of good.’ Louise goes on to say, ‘You’re not writing any old book, you’re writing your book so you need all of you. The original true you. So just abide with yourself kindly, as Ronnie Laing would want you to.’
For me, any questions of self-motivation, application, and accountability, all come back to what we're writing - and why we're writing it; how deeply invested we are in our story, and how much we care about our characters. A strong connection to a writing project is, I think, what best focuses the wandering mind. And, really, there’s no excuse for a weak link when it comes to this connection because what we write is an active choice. No one’s making us do this, are they? Of the hundreds or thousands of story avenues out there, we’ve each chosen to head down a specific one. Why? Has a particular set of life experiences led us to this point? Or did the idea just come, and there’s something about it that won’t let us go? Does the market seem especially buoyant for a certain sort of genre and we want to take our best shot at commerciality? If you believe in your reasons, then whatever they are, they’re valid. But pausing, taking stock, and interrogating your choices – with as much honesty as possible – will help with your motivation and commitment along the way.
Okay, so ... you're loving your idea, you're focused, you're self-aware ... but sometimes it's still hard going? Well, welcome to writing! Shout out to Thomas Mann. Seeing the novel-writing process as an opportunity to get to know yourself better is, I think, key to embracing its challenges. Keep up the dialogue with yourself as you write. Surround yourself with people who are supportive of your endeavours (The Novelry community ahoy!) – but make yourself your own best cheerleader. And rest assured that, as writers, we’re all in it together.
A few tips, from one work-in-progress self-motivator to another:
- Be honest with yourself and your motivations for writing – and manage yourself accordingly.
- Write what you want. Write what you find rewarding. Emotional authenticity is everything.
- The right idea will drive you. You will feel its energy and momentum.
- Care about your work and have confidence and conviction.
- Don't let self-doubt screw with you. Hear it, know it for what it is, and carry on regardless. But be self-aware enough to know the difference between self-sabotage and genuine instinct.
- Know that writing is a lifelong apprenticeship. The hard yards are rarely easy.
- Be humble. Know that sometimes you have to get it wrong to get it right.