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For writers: Motivation

I know a lot of people have found it hard to get motivated in the last couple of years, with the pandemic and other issues weighing them down. 

I was watching this little video by an Aussie guy whose advice I really like, and it made me recall a story told to me by a US author friend some years ago. She and another friend in her writing group, both multi-published with major publishers, had lost their writing mojo and hadn’t written anything for over a year.

Month after month, they’d turn up to their writers’ group meeting and watch everyone else produce some writing to be read and discussed, and each month as they muttered “pass” their shame would increase. And they’d go home determined that next month they’d have some writing to share.

But still, they couldn’t write.

Eventually they decided to make a writing pact. It wasn’t the first time they’d tried this, but they’d failed so often it had to be something they couldn’t possibly fail at.  So they came up with this: Write one sentence of their story a day.

Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? One sentence. But after so long failing at writing—and these were published authors, remember, beating themselves up again and again—any success, no matter how small and apparently insignificant, was important.

Of course they didn’t tell anyone else they were doing this. They knew people would laugh at such a small daily goal, not understanding or empathizing with the shame and agony of being unable to write.

So they began their pact, and every day they wrote one sentence. And after they’d written that one sentence, they were free for the rest of the day.

Free from what? you wonder. The thing is, the longer you put something off, the more you fail to do something you know you need to do, the heavier it weighs on you. For writers, this can mean a whole day worrying and fretting and being ashamed and not-writing. Yes, that’s a verb — not-writing.

But one sentence a day set them free. 

Some days they wrote more than one sentence —  at first a couple of sentences, then a paragraph, and even occasionally a page or more. But for more than a year they kept to their pact — a new sentence every day. And of course, soon they were back, writing, bringing pieces to their writing group, and finishing books and being published again.

The video I referred to above has several nuggets of gold advice in it. You need to listen to the whole 10 minutes—it’s all good — but in particular the bit about lowering the barrier to entry, as well as his observations about motivation are gold. If you can’t see the video below, click here.

A Good News Story

We in Melbourne have been in strict lockdown for weeks now  — the latest one for 2 months and we’re not finished yet. BUT though we’re stuck indoors, we’re also watching the hatching of some peregrine falcon chicks in a nest on a tall building in the very centre of the city — 367 Collins St. There’s a live camera on it all the time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Un8f85yADAU

I only discovered how many other people have also been checking on the mother falcon and eggs when people started talking about it on social media, for instance how, when the earth tremor hit us, the mother peregrine jumped off the nest and peered cautiously around. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QnVER4sofo0

And now all kinds of people are excited about the chicks hatching, which happened a few days ago.

So lovely to have a good news story. 

Here’s another little video of them feeding the chicks.

Good At Writing?

Today I’m answering a question that came up in another context: How did you decide or know you were good at writing? 

At school I knew I was pretty good at writing essays, and once, in American history I wrote a “creative response” to an essay topic that my teacher really liked. But generally, creative writing was not something my very academic school encouraged, and when it did, it took the form of “exercises”. Never stories. 

I think the particular teachers I had for English were generally not very imaginative, and didn’t encourage that kind of thing in their students. I remember one exercise where we were asked to write about a rainy night, using as many colors as we could. I did it of course, but struggled — it contained traffic lights, as generally colors don’t show up much at night and in the rain.  I passed, but it was made very clear to me that I wasn’t very good at “creative writing.”

I also remember being shown some examples of “excellent” final year exam pieces (in the state-wide exams) from the previous year.  They were lively and sometimes funny, and entertaining, and I recall thinking, “Wow, are you allowed to write like that in an exam?” Because we were strongly encouraged to be serious and earnest in all things. And when I queried my teacher about it, she said, “No no no!  You should NOT try anything like that.” So I didn’t.

I travelled a lot during university holidays, and wrote lots of letters to friends and family, and when I got home people said how much they enjoyed them, and that I’d made them laugh, etc. But I never thought, “Hey, I could be a writer.” 

Then I started full time work and was so busy I never thought about writing for myself — only work related. But then I was asked to write some non-fiction pieces for an educational magazine. The editor not only liked them she said something like, “These are great. You really can write.”  

My response was, “Can’t everybody write?” — it was an educational publication after all. And she said, “No, you’d be surprised how many people can’t write to be clear, interesting and educational.” That was an eye-opener.

Some years later I took a year off work and went backpacking. I went solo — the friend I’d planned to go with had pulled out. So there I was, in countries where I didn’t speak the language, with nobody to talk to, so of course I wrote lots of letters. But also, stories started to spin in my mind. I bought an exercise book and started to write them down, and by the time I got home at the end of that year, I’d filled several exercise books and had a firm resolve to try for publication. (That photo above is of Quebec, where I bought my first exercise book (cahier) and started writing.)

I’ll talk about that in a future post.

One reason I’ve been thinking about this, apart from the question I started with, is because on the weekend I listened to a TED talk on schools and creativity by the late Sir Ken Robinson. Wonderful talk — funny and entertaining as well as educational and really, really important. If the video doesn’t show up below, you can watch it here.  https://www.ted.com/talks/sir_ken_robinson_do_schools_kill_creativity/