Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Motivation to Write

A few weeks ago, I asked my followers on Twitter and Facebook to send me their questions about writing. One of these questions inspired last week's exploration of revision. This week, I wanted to address another question that I received:
Anytime I run a workshop or give a seminar or participate in a guest lecture, I know that fielding a variation of this question is inevitable. I secretly wish that it won't happen, but it always does. And when a timid freshman in Composition 101 raises her hand and asks what motivates me to write or what inspires me to write, I have to admit:

I don't get inspired to write, and I am rarely motivated to write.

I am not naturally talented at anything. I wasn't born with a knack for writing. What ability I have is a product of a great deal of practice and research. Words never just come to me. I don't have a muse. I never feel moved to write. To me, writing is a technical process like carpentry (to steal an analogy from Alan Natali). There is definitely an art to it, but it's functional art.

So when I start a piece of writing, I first work to understand my goal, what my writing should accomplish when I've finished. Then I decide what techniques will let me best accomplish that goal and begin to assemble my pieces. If I encounter a problem that I am not sure how to solve, I look to other writers to see how they conquered the same challenge. I reverse-engineer their technique and apply it to my writing.

How do they pace their paragraphs? When do they use dialog? How do they vary the structure of their sentences? How do they distribute their metaphors?

It's not very romantic, but it's what works for me. A small part of me is envious of people that are "inspired" to write, but I very much enjoy my process. It feels a lot like playing with LEGOs. Moving bricks around, building and rebuilding and experimenting and finding creative solutions to unusual problems.

Because writing is technical for me, I can write no matter what, even if I don't want to. I never have to worry about writer's block. I can always sit down and work on an assignment. I get out my tools and start shaping the wood into whatever piece of furniture my client has requested, adding the appropriate frills and design elements as I go.

On an emotional level, why I write is simple: It's how I take care of the people I care about. If I don't write, the bills go unpaid. In this way, writing is not that much different than other jobs I've had: I've done construction. I've made ice cream cones. I've sold stereo equipment. I've washed dishes. I've made sandwiches. I've bounced at a night club. I've lifeguarded. I never wanted to do any of these things. But it's what I had to do, so I went to work, punched in, and did my job to the best of my ability.

Sometimes the other work I have done is fun, and sometimes writing is fun. The work, the writing, is what matters though. And I have to do it even when I don't want to. A roofer can't decide to just not show up for work for a week because he isn't motivated to roof. He puts on his boots, gets his coffee, checks his tools, and gets to work.

So when writers ask me about how to get motivated, I always want to say, "It doesn't matter. Just get to work."

So here it is: It doesn't matter. Just get to work.

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