Dear Writing: I May Love You, But I Don't Always Like You
Updated: Mar 10, 2020
How the Professionals Stay Motivated to Write When It's the Last Thing They Feel Like Doing
There's a common misconception among those whose job descriptions don't involve writing that writing isn't work. But ask someone whose profession is rooted in the craft -- a journalist, a novelist, or a screenwriter (most of them, anyway) -- and they'll tell you there are far easier ways to make a buck than sitting in front of a blank screen, sweating blood.
As passionate as we writers are about our careers, sometimes it can be difficult to feel motivated. For whatever reason, there are days when our steadfast desire to knock out a string of articles suddenly takes a hard turn toward thoughts on Netflix. And when hooky's sweet seduction strikes, it strikes hard.
I received an email from a fellow writer the other day. In it she confessed she was in a rut, and couldn't motivate herself to begin a project she'd been meaning to get to for months. I'm no stranger to these feelings, but fortunately, I have an extremely empathic dog who knows to bring me his leash and demand a walk through the woods whenever he sees my wilting arm reach for the Netflix remote.
So that's my little trick, but what about prolific writers? Do the big guns wrestle with similar bouts of inertia? And if so, what sorts of strategies do they use to counter writer's rut? I decided to find out.
The Main Thing is Keeping the Main Thing the Main Thing
Shawn Conner is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist, university instructor, content strategist, and founder of The Snipe, Vancouver's go-to online magazine for news about music, movies, books and comics. His flare for distilling newsy nuggets, along with his wry sense of humour, is what endear him to his readers and his students, alike. It also bears mentioning that his Facebook page is hilarious. It's a picture of Conner holding a book with a ginger cat, a typewriter, and a stack of novels on the cover. The book is called: “I Could Pee On This – And Other Poems by Cats.”
I asked Conner if he would mind sharing some of his greatest tricks for fending off writer's ennui and he agreed, because he's also a very nice guy. Conner tells me that one of the most effective motivational strategies he's ever come across is the threat of starvation. “That, and discipline,” he says. “I sit down at 8:00 a.m. every morning and start working on the thing I'm least interested in [doing] to get it out of the way.”
A walk to the coffee shop when he isn't exactly “feeling it” is another time-worn trick, he says.
After 20 years in the game Conner says that when the thrill of the byline loses its lustre, it's time to find new subjects to write about. “Continue to hone your craft,” he says - advice that might sound deceptively simple. But if you think about it, by changing your context and thinking of your project as a challenge, not a chore, you can tap into that unique, creative spirit of yours, and reignite the passion.
You Can't Wait for Inspiration, You Have to Go After It With a Club
Susan Mihalic, longtime editor, first-time novelist, experienced an epiphany during a personally challenging period of time that kept her work-in-progress from ever really...progressing. “I realized I was never going to finish my manuscript, or write anything else, if I waited for the perfect environment, or the perfect, uninterrupted stretch of time,” she says. “I was going to have to write this book in an imperfect world.”
Mihalic made a promise to herself that she would write every evening after work. No dinners with friends, no happy hour with colleagues. Instead, she buckled down, stuck to her schedule, and by the end of the first week she'd completed an entire chapter. “I'd built momentum,” she says, “and a schedule was born.”
By remaining disciplined Mihalic was able to complete her manuscript, and is now working with her agent to put the finishing touches on her soon-to-be-released debut novel.
After endless rounds of revisions, Mihalic says that, when it comes to overcoming a lack of motivation, she has an arsenal of tricks up her sleeve. “Sometimes I write in bed,” she says, explaining that a change in scenery was instrumental in helping her complete the first draft of her book. She also relies on The Sundance Channel's "The Writers' Room"; documentaries about novelists; and, books like John Dufresne's "The Lie that Tells a Truth" and Stephen King's "On Writing."
The Best Remedy for Writer's Block Is a Deadline
John Blumenthal is a novelist, screenwriter, and a humorist whose articles have appeared in Playboy, Esquire, Oui, the Los Angeles Times, Publishers Weekly, Today's Health, the Christian Science Monitor, Punch, American Woman, Men's Life, TV Guide, Salon.com, and on the Huffington Post blog. He is the co-author of two Hollywood films: Blue Streak and Short Time.
Mr. Blumenthal wrote one of my all-time favourite novels, the award-winning What's Wrong with Dorfman? So who better to turn to for advice on staying motivated?
When I asked Mr. Blumenthal if I could interview him for this article he said, “Sounds great, but there might be a problem: I have never used motivational tricks in my life, and I never get writer's block.”
Blumenthal says he began writing for daily newspapers at the age of 18, and has never struggled to find the story. “I wrote on a tight deadline...no time to freeze up,” he says. “When I wrote for Playboy, the managing editor always had me do the late copy because I could do it in 20 minutes, no rewrites necessary. I don't mean to brag,” he adds in a totally unnecessary excusatory manner, “I guess I'm either unusual, or just lucky.”
Feeling 20 percent less adequate than I did mere moments ago, we switch to novel writing, and not because that's something I know I'll never do. “If I'm writing a novel,” he says, “I get up in the morning, sit down at the computer, and I know exactly where I'm going. When I'm not writing (usually after 2:00pm I get diminishing returns), I map out what I'll be doing the next day.”
For those who, like me, think the phrase “if you love what you do you'll never work a day in your life” was reserved for chocolatiers and brewmasters, John Blumenthal proves there's also room for a writer.
But probably only one.