Yesterday I had lunch with one of my good friends, Andrea, who’s also a top editor at two national magazines. She’s currently the top editor, in fact, because her boss is on maternity leave and she’s filling in, making all of the major decisions for three months. At the moment, I am eight days away from turning in a non-fiction book manuscript that I’ve been working on for about 18 months.
But we barely talked about any of this major stuff going on in our professional lives. We spent almost all of our 90-minute lunch talking about National Novel Writing Month, or #NaNoWriMo to the blogosphere.
Every November for the past several years, writers across the country have made this idea more and more popular. The idea is that anyone who wants to participate pledges to write 50,000 words towards a novel between Nov. 1 and Nov. 30. You can officially sign up at the website to track your progress and see others’. Or you can just do it on your own. I am such a huge fan of this because it speaks to something many people ask me about, and I have written about a lot lately: how to get over “writer’s block,” or how to finish what you start, or how to start writing to begin with. The answer is, you just do. #NaNoWriMo is one of the few popular approaches to writing that I’ve liked. Many books and seminars are all about getting in touch with your feelings and journaling or whatever, which is fine. But the fact is that at some point you have to put down the books, and even get out of the journal, if you want to be a published writer.
Andrea is doing #NaNoWriMo despite the extra demands of her job right now. She reports that it has led to such strange behaviors as skipping out on drinks with friends to go home and write. She also reports that most of the writing she’s done is pretty crappy, but she’s doing it. (First drafts are always crappy. The crappiness is a good sign; it means you’re doing a lot of writing that you can fix later.) She also reports that seeing her friends’ progress and feeling friendly-competitive with them is incredibly motivating. The discussion over lunch led us to both talk about our novel ideas, which was fun and invigorating. It reminded me of a time when I hadn’t published any books, and neither had my friends, and we just talked about writing because we loved it. We all need this in our creative lives.
This brings me to my other favorite motivator of the day, this blog post I came across about getting in touch with “the tiger.” It’s on a blog about vocal coaching, but it applies to any kind of creative project. The author, voice teacher David McCall, talks about how important motivation is as an ingredient in inspiration—his metaphor is “waking the tiger.” He illuminates the difference in his motivation levels depending on why he’s really doing something:
The statement “help others” is simple and unembellished, but the best motivating desires generally are. You’ll find that what you want isn’t that sophisticated when it’s boiled down. It’s a clean, active verb. It’s a verb I can be engaged in one hundred percent of my work day since my job is to help singers. Bingo! Cue the music–the Tiger is in the building!
I become a grade A procrastinator when I complicate my Tiger’s motivating action. I do it more often than I care to admit. I’m not always conscious of it. Instead of “to help people,” my subconscious mind will add “to help people see me as a great vocal coach ” or “to help people recognize my new haircut .” The Tiger goes beddy-bye. I’ve suddenly shifted my action to be a selfish goal, diffusing my eagerness.
I love this. If you find yourself unable to get yourself to start or finish a writing project, it’s a great idea to ask yourself: Why do I want to do this particular project? It’s okay if your answer is that you need to make money to pay your bills or that you need to finish an assignment for class. If those are your answers, often you’re motivated enough that you never have to ask the question. But if you’re really stuck, maybe you’re not doing it for the right reasons. Maybe it’s actually not worth doing. Start something else instead, and see if your tiger wakes up.