A few months ago, my good friend Jan asked me how I found the motivation to write, which got me thinking: how do I motivate myself as an author? Writing for me is largely an unconscious process – I write and the words flow. I rarely think about why I wrote. Yet, when the creativity silts up and the writing falters, loss of motivation quickly becomes a problem. During such periods, I found myself losing interest and drifting away from writing. Without motivation, I ceased to write. I ceased to be a writer.
The question is: how do we find motivation?
Or is it?
Sometimes, the question itself forces us to look at the situation the wrong way around. The common response is to try and “motivate” ourselves, which is seldom effective. We put in the extra effort and get so far, before the forced motivation runs out. The result feels like hard work and often proves demotivating in the long run. Therefore, rather than trying harder, it’s more effective to ask why writing has suddenly become difficult.
Motivation is not some mythical force we must discover then tap into, it is the reason we are doing whatever we are doing. When we are doing that well and the writing is flowing, motivation comes naturally. If it’s not coming naturally, then something’s not right. In my experience, a lack of motivation usually indicates one of two things: there’s either something wrong with the writing or the writer. Let’s look at the writing first.
Something’s wrong with the writing
There’s nothing more frustrating than writer’s block (unless perhaps you’re Graham Chapman’s Hampstead playwright with his debilitating writer’s cramp): you want to write but try as you might it just ain’t happening. The good news is this is the easier problem to solve.
The chances are there’s a problem with the writing. Maybe it doesn’t inspire you. Maybe some aspect of it isn’t working. Sometimes we pick a topic we think we ought to write about, rather than finding something that excites us. Sometimes we try to write something structurally too complex or about something we know little about. If it’s the former, try to find some aspect you can write about that does excite you; if it’s the latter, try to simplify the structure or rearrange the sequence of events into a logical order. If you lack some knowledge, work out what research you need and do it – or maybe drop that element. It may turn out you don’t need it.
It may even make sense not to do this straight away. As every writer knows, leaving the writing for a bit and coming back to it later is one of the most effective strategies around. Working on a difficult piece of writing can lead to tunnel vision and it’s easy to get a nagging feeling that something’s not quite there, without in any way being able to tell what it is. It’s best to leave it be. Trying to write your way through a barrier will only leads to staleness.
Taking a break, by contrast, allows the brain to relax. Use that time well. Look back on writing you like and writing you’re not so keen on, then try to identify what’s in the former that’s missing in the latter. It’s also nice to be pleasantly surprised by old writing you like. When you feel you’re done, have a look at the writing that was proving problematic. Giving the brain time to back out of that tunnel allows it to see all the other options and the answer will often go “ping!” and make itself apparent without requiring any effort.
A writing group can also be a great help – not so much because being in a group will force you to write, but because it’s helpful to be immersed in a writing atmosphere. Writing is a solitary pursuit and it’s easy to get stuck in a rut, going over the same themes and telling the same stories. Hearing other people’s writing and hearing the feedback on that writing can open up new approaches. Reading, writing and attending writing groups means absorbing ideas and gaining inspiration, even without realising it.
Whatever the problem is, look into the problem more closely: a bit of troubleshooting can usually pinpoint what the blockage is. It’s best to get to the heart of what’s not right, amend it and let it flow, rather than to “motivate” oneself to plough on regardless. That will only make the problem worse.
Still lacking motivation? The problem might not lie with the writing….
Something’s wrong with the writer
Sometimes the problem doesn’t lie in the writing, but in the writer themselves. The writing might be clear and the writer might even know what needs to be done, but they can’t do it. If this is the case, then there really is a problem. The good news is that it is totally solvable.
A loss of form will strike every writer at some point, so it’s important to understand what is happening. The reasons will be many and will vary with each writer, so the solution will be particular to every writer. The key is to understand one’s own personal circumstances. If you can home in on what is happening, you can usually discover the blockage. The solution might not immediately be at hand, but you will at least gain control of the situation, which is always a good thing. A personal example might illustrate.
I was really struggling with my novel and for a long time thought I had a motivation problem: I wasn’t forcing myself to sit down and write enough, I wasn’t being disciplined or structured enough. As if from nowhere, one day, the writing flowed. This was the moment I realised how easily motivation came when on a roll. I realised I had written an overly complex novel and was trying literary devices that didn't work. Great! Then, I hit a more serious roadblock.
For reasons I still don't understand, I found I couldn't write at all. It was like I had lost the ability to write. It’s difficult to convey how alarming this was. Imagine being a professional footballer and then waking up one morning unable to kick a ball straight. No matter how hard I tried, nothing would flow - I didn't manage so much as a paragraph of readable prose. I felt like one of those pens that look full of ink but scrape the page, tearing them to shreds.
More troublingly, the problem wouldn’t go. One day. Two days. A week. Two weeks. A month. Two months. I couldn’t write. Bizarrely, I knew what I needed to do, so I knew there wasn’t a problem with the writing. The problem had to lie with me, but what the hell was it?
I can remember now. Not only was I unable to write, I was unable to read. Normally a voracious reader, my mind would drift off before I had read even a single page. Where I would pop into the bookshop every day during my lunchbreak without fail, I realised I hadn’t set foot in a bookshop for four months. What had happened to me? It was as though I had been knocked sideways by an invisible force.
Eventually, the crisis passed. Whatever the invisible force was, it went away. Patience was essential. I sat down and tried to write: if I found I couldn’t, I went away and did something else – usually something I could use in my writing later, so I didn’t feel I was wasting my time – and, when I found I could, I realised the problem had passed. I remember sitting in a café in Australia, realising the problem was over – a very sweet moment! The key was not trying to force the writing.
Motivation is essential to writing successfully. When it is there, it is easy to take for granted, but when it is gone, it can leave a feeling of panic and even a loss of self-confidence. However, there is always hope. Don’t try to force anything or plough on regardless; try to identify why the motivation has gone. The chances are there is a problem either with the writing or with the writer. The good news is that, once you know the problem, you’re halfway to finding the solution. Even if you can’t solve that problem right away, stay patient, keep trying and the solution will appear. Stay positive and eventually the motivation will return!
Steve Shahbazian is an author based in London who writes literary fiction, science fiction and political dystopian fiction. His debut novel Green and Pleasant Land is available on Amazon.