“But how do you find the motivation to just… write?”
This seems to be a golden ticket question on every writing forum, at every book signing, in every writing workshop. Motivation.
I never really got that question. How do I find the motivation to write? How do I find the motivation to breathe? Things may stand between me and my writing goals, but motivation never seemed to be the issue.
Lately, I’ve run into various speedbumps and found myself questioning my motivation. I felt motivated to write. Yet writing time didn’t seem to happen, pushed off until I was right up against deadlines I’d set for myself, other things taking its place. I wouldn’t say much in the way of breaks or procrastination was happening, either—it was events and appointments, health issues, more urgent deadlines, and generally putting out fires. In fact, I felt agitated by my lack of writing time. It seemed like every time I sat down to write, something else occupied my time or my mind.
For a minute there, I thought the issue—despite constantly running up against my own deadlines—was that I was actually not being ambitious enough. I knew I could afford to push writing off, so I did. I was aiming for ten thousand words in a month then, which for me seemed low. Yet I was constantly running up against my deadline. Not because I’d been working hard at writing all month and was still failing to meet my goal, but because I was running around doing other things, then sitting down to whip out the words in the last day or two or three of the month. And I could. If I just need to get words down, a fifteen thousand word day isn’t out of the question. Given that I was only counting words I was posting to the Internet—words that needed to be typed, edited, formatted, posted, promoted—a five thousand word day was about my max. Three days right at the end of the month seemed an almost generous timeline.
So I upped my goal to fifteen thousand. No dice. In a relatively rare instance, I didn’t hit my word count goal—or even my previously lower word count goal—at all. I only posted five thousand words.
So what gives? I thought. The motivation was there—and I tried framing that issue a thousand ways. Was it my energy? My focus? My creative spirit? But nurturing all of those things failed to address the issue.
Eventually, I realized that if I really wanted time to write—and to really enjoy it, not crank out words as the clock ticked down—I had to make time. I wasn’t really carving out time, just setting a word count goal—a goal I knew I could ignore for twenty-eight days or so at a time to prioritize other things. So I changed tactics. I decided that for at least fifteen minutes a day, I would write. I was also very familiar with the kind of results that can produce. If we’re just talking getting words down, over a thousand words was common for me in a focused fifteen minute period. If anything, I expected actual output to go up even though this goal, too, seemed small. But there were many pros to it. I got to do it every day—and I really did view it as a get to. On the flip side, like my other daily tasks, it was automatically excused for certain reasons—like travel, which had eaten into my time to see to monthly goals the month prior, without forgiveness.
My productivity—writing wise—exploded with this method. Truthfully, once I’d been in the flow for fifteen minutes, I didn’t want to stop, and somehow, extra time seemed to appear. Even if I stopped putting words on paper, my mind kept going. By visiting with my writing projects every day, and therefore having them constantly in my head, I was having ideas faster than I could write them down. Productive ideas, not just my characters begging for scraps of my attention by spinning up interesting, but implausible, storylines. Besides just words getting posted, I was doing other important work I now realize had been neglected.
If not my motivation, and if the time kept appearing, what really changed here?
I wasn’t just being dramatic or arrogant with my opening questions. How do I find the motivation to write? How do I find the motivation to breathe? Of course, you don’t need motivation to breathe. But how often do you just sit and breathe? Many people find this seemingly simple task very difficult. And why? It’s certainly not about their motivation to breathe. It’s about their motivation to just breathe. In reality, it’s about their motivation to not do anything else.
My issue wasn’t my motivation to write. That felt luxurious, the way that just breathing can once you train yourself for it. My issue was my motivation to put down everything else and just write. It can feel kind of self centered to just breathe when everything wants your attention, and that was what just writing felt like for me.
In a way, I’m always writing, like I’m always breathing. In a way, writing is a lot more than putting words on paper, a fact I reconnected with when I realized I was having ideas chapters ahead of time when I wrote every day, instead of forcing uninspired words once a month. If you’ve ever written so much as a list (shopping or packing or to dos), you probably understand this. While doing something else, things pop into your head. Buy milk. Pack an umbrella. Call doctor. Ideas get explored, and daydreams played out. By the time the paper comes out, it’s just transferring what was already written in your head onto the page in a coherent order. Sitting and just writing for me can also look a lot like staring at the wall while all the good work happens in my head, though I concerned myself only with the final part of that. The rest seemed to sort itself out.
I realized that in a way, I did have a motivation issue on my hands. It wasn’t that I wasn’t motivated to write, it was that I was too motivated to do everything else, or not motivated enough to not do anything else.
I had more than twenty-four hours’ worth of things to do in any given day, and something had to give. I had many balls in the air. I had stopped juggling any ball that I didn’t truly need or want, and each one had tighter boundaries, better optimization, fewer sub goals/projects and tasks/events, and lower minimums than ever, and were beneficial for people beyond just me, but it just wasn’t enough.
Yet, I felt trapped. What was I supposed to do, then?
While I was wrestling with that question, something sure did give out: my mental health. I don’t exactly recommend it as a clarity seeking technique, but literally mid (arguable) self harm relapse, dissociatedly fantasizing about what would come of it, it hit me.
A while back, my wife correctly pointed out that when I am unhappy in a situation, rather than making external changes, I first tend to self destruct. Primarily, I think this is out of self blame—if I could just handle it, any situation would be fine. (I do, to an extent, believe in changing myself before the situation, which I’ve written on before. It very much aligns with my stoicism oriented beliefs, but there’s a point after which this is more like giving up—like when the situation can be bent further and I cannot, and I just sit there and literally destroy myself instead of changing anything.) But, my self destruction also functions as a cry for help—a way to make the pain I feel on the inside be a problem on the outside, and make someone come save me, force the situation with powers I just don’t have. Or… do I?
In my fantasizing about what would come of this self harm relapse, I saw decisions being made for me about having to rest and what to not do. And I realized that, while difficult, while they might disappoint some people (though really, people have been more understanding than I gave them credit for) and involve really enforcing some boundaries and prioritizing for myself, that they were all decisions I could just, at the end of the day, when push came to shove… make. No one was actually coming to save me—these were my things to make decisions about—and it was that or self destruction.
If I wanted to do literally anything, I needed the motivation to not do everything.
The realization is in place, and with it, the details have started to sort themselves out, impossible decisions now seeming trivial in the big picture view.
Change is coming. I know what I truly need and want to do.
And I am motivated to not do anything else.