I read a quote today from Norman Mailer: “Being a real writer means being able to do the work on a bad day.” It resonated with me for two reasons. One, I’m a smidge insecure about my status as a Real Writer, and two, I’ve had a lot of bad days recently. I haven’t been writing much, and, as you may have noticed, I haven’t been updating Ye Olde Blogge often, either. Mostly, I’ve been watching reruns of Futurama and waiting for grad school acceptance letters (or, as is statistically more likely, rejections) to arrive. It’s really, really hard to motivate myself to work when I just don’t feel like doing it. I’m too tired, or I have a headache, or that bird outside is really loud, or I need my special pen (even though I rarely write long-hand). The amount of creativity and effort that goes into making excuses or distracting myself from work could fuel a solid afternoon of writing.
It’s kind of like going to the gym: you know you should do it, and you know that you’ll feel better afterward, yet you never seem to put on your action pants and head out the door. I haven’t put on my writer pants in ages, aside from knocking out a dirty short story last week, and I fear that pretty soon the zombiefied corpse of Norman Mailer will shamble up to my door, demanding my Real Writer Card back.
In the Inc. Magazine article “7 Qualities of Uber-Productive People,” Jeff Haden lists the characteristics that separate the successful entrepreneur from the crash-and-burn failure. Conquering fear, soldiering on in the face of ridicule, and asking for help are all qualities that are helpful–perhaps essential–to writers, but one of his points struck me as particularly relevant:
They see creativity as the result of effort, not inspiration.
Most people wait for an idea. Most people think creativity happens. They expect a divine muse will someday show them a new way, a new approach, a new concept.
And they wait and wait and wait.
Occasionally, great ideas do just come to people. Mostly, though, creativity is the result of effort: toiling, striving, refining, testing, experimenting… The work itself results in inspiration.
Remarkably productive people don’t wait for ideas. They don’t wait for inspiration. They know that big ideas most often come from people who do, not people who dream.
I wrote before in my post The Museless Blues about how difficult it is to work creatively when you feel like shit and your life is headed downwards in a handbasket. I have, no joke, about thirty projects waiting to be written. I keep having great–or at least workable, ideas for plots and characters, but I do nothing with them beyond scribbling a few notes in a composition notebook…and then losing the notebook. My failure to turn those ideas into actual pages of fiction is bound up with fear of failure, doubts about my ability to write, and just plain ol’ American laziness, but I usually blame it on a lack of inspiration.
Last October, I decided to learn how to play the guitar. I practice five days a week, anywhere from half an hour to two hours. While I won’t be joining a band anytime soon, I can play about a dozen songs and sing along. What I’ve noticed is that at the beginning of my practice sessions, my fingers are usually a little stiff and my voice kind of weak. Once I warm up, I’m able to play more fluidly and sing more powerfully. At a certain point, my fingers start to hurt too much to keep playing, but for a while I feel like a goddamn rockstar.
Now, a clever person would realize that the same process–warm-up, work, don’t stop until your fingers hurt–would describe an ideal day of writing. I want to get up in the morning, have a cup of tea, and knock out a thousand words before lunch. I certainly have the time, and I have no lack of ideas to draw on. Instead, I fall back into the same old patterns. I check my email, read webcomics, watch TV on Netflix, and maybe do some chores if I’m really serious about avoiding work. That’s right–I’ve gotten to the point where I’ll do laundry or wash dishes to avoid having to write. Even though that’s kind of the cornerstone of what a writer does for a living.
Here are some things I’m going try in order to be more productive:
- Stop reading blogs about productivity, organization, or creativity in lieu of actually doing work
- Set regular ”office hours” and stick to them
- Do all my writerly work on my laptop, do my goofing around on my desktop (Damn you, Buzzfeed, and your compulsively readable lists!)
- If necessary, take laptop to library or coffee shop and turn off wifi connection
- Set and track daily and weekly productivity goals–1 blog post, three comments, 5000 words, etc.
I’ll let you know how it goes, but in the meantime, how do you stay focused and motivated?