Managing motivation and our energy for writing is something almost all writers struggle with at some point in their writing lives.
We intend to write the poem/story/book, but we just can’t get to the page as often as we’d like. And sometimes, when we give in to the lack of motivation we feel, we can go days, weeks or even months without writing.
So how do we manage our motivation for writing?
It’s not just you
This week I spoke to two different writers on this topic. Kay was working with my free guide, The Focused Writer: 5 Easy Steps to Create a Writing Ritual You (and Your Brain) Will Love, and wrote to say that she sometimes struggles with a lack of motivation and brain energy. [Hi Kay! *waves*]
And then I was reaching out to one of my First Book Finish students [Hi Marina! *waves*] who lives in New Zealand. She reminded me of the terrorist attack in New Zealand, which was a crisis on top of the COVID-19 crisis already unfolding — they’ve been in lockdown for almost a month now to deal with the Delta variant, after having been COVID-free for some time.
This article is for Kay and Marina and her whole Kiwi Accountability Pod in First Book Finish, and it’s for you as well if you need it right now.
What’s really going on?
Whenever you find yourself feeling a lack of motivation in your writing life, the first step is to diagnose the situation. Ask yourself: what’s really going on?
Sometimes I’ll hear from writers who feel badly that they aren’t writing right now, and when we talk further, I’ll learn that their mother is dying or they are single parenting and one of their children is sick.
It’s hard to shoulder significant additional care burdens on top of everything else — job, pandemic, hurricanes or wildfires — and still get the writing done.
Sometimes you need to give yourself a Hall Pass and not beat yourself up for not writing through a life crisis.
I’m not saying that you should skip your writing session every time you get a hangnail, but offering yourself some self-compassion is a good strategy for staying with your writing goals over the long-term.
If you are facing some kind of life crisis right now and that’s at the root of your lack of motivation, this is my permission to give yourself a wee break.
On days when I feel less motivated, I also look to my basic self-care. (And #trueconfession, that is something I have struggled with over the years.) Some days, you feel unmotivated when you really need a glass of water or a quick nap.
Are you depressed?
In a recent study at Yale, researchers determined that artists (and yes, writers are artists) are moderately more likely to be anxious AND more likely to measure highly in ways that allow them to cope, such as holding onto character traits “indicating hope, ego resilience, and psychological well-being.”
Isn’t that great news? We may be more likely to experience anxiety BUT we also have the skills to cope with challenges that come our way.
Findings collated in Scientific American also showed that artists can be up to 10 times more likely to suffer from depression….however, those studies have also been criticized for being too small in scope to be definitive.
My own experience with depression, both mild and moderate, is more in line with what Dr. Eric Maisel wrote about in his book Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path Through Depression. I recommend that every artist have a copy of this book on their shelves and consider it essential reading. (Full disclosure: I did advanced training in creativity coaching with Dr. Maisel, but I was already fully biased about this book well before that!)
Here’s Dr. Maisel on the kind of existential depression experienced by many writers:
‘I think 100 per cent of creative people are going to experience existential depression, which is a result of their desire to find meaning in life through their work. The dirty little secret is that if you spend three years writing a novel you may end up with a successful novel and at that split second you may feel like you’ve done something meaningful but for those thousand days virtually 700 or 800 of those days you are just slogging along…’ — Dr. Eric Maisel
(Maisel’s work follows naturally on the line of Dr. Victor Frankl’s work in Man’s Search for Meaning — a book you may be more familiar with.)
It’s possible that your lack of motivation may be clinical depression, and in that case I am not remotely qualified to advise you and you should seek medical attention.
But if you think you may be struggling with something that’s more existential or meaning-related, then it could be possible that you have “the Van Gogh blues” and need to go deeper into your writing life as a result.
Ask yourself: what would be the most fun thing to write right now? Write that.
Or ask: what book do I need to read right now? Write that. (Thank you, Toni Morrison.)
Motivation is a muscle
I’ll add another dirty little secret to the one Dr. Maisel refers to above…
Motivation is a muscle. You feel more like writing when you’ve been writing.
This is why there’s so much advice out there about putting your butt in the chair and just writing, or writing every single day. In my opinion, this gets dangerous when it implies that you have to write every day in order to be a “Real Writer” but the basic premise is that we gain momentum by starting.
If you haven’t been writing for a while, then you will naturally lack the motivation to write.
The trick is to break the seal and get yourself to just start writing, even in small ways.
Schedule some writing time, even just what I call “Short Time” — 15 minutes to start.
Begin by writing something with low stakes: a journal entry, a character sketch, notes towards a poem, playing with a writing prompt. Do that for 15 minutes with a timer set, and then schedule another 15 minutes.
Focus on enjoying yourself, on building up your writing as play, so that your brain relaxes and begins to understand your writing sessions as the place where the dopamine is found.
If you’ve been lacking the motivation to write, writing for Short Time sessions of just 15 minutes at a time, can help you regenerate your enthusiasm.
Why not let it be fun?
Don’t romanticize the writing life
We tend to think that we’re only making real progress in our writing lives if we’re writing every day, or writing for long periods of time, or constantly able to reach that elusive state of creative flow, but that just isn’t true.
Take it from Mr. King:
“Sometimes you have to go on when you don’t feel like it, and sometimes you’re doing good work when it feels like all you’re managing is to shovel shit from a sitting position.” — Stephen King
Don’t expect that writing is going to feel good all the time. That’s just another way you’ll set yourself up for failure, and for avoiding your writing…which is the same thing!
Some days, we’re just typing words and they’re all the wrong words. You have to let that be okay.
Know that a word written down can be revised and even small amounts of progress is still progress.
All books are written one word at a time.
Managing Motivation: A Short Prescription
Here then is my prescription for when you lack motivation in your writing life…
Check if you need a Hall Pass, a nap or a glass of water.
Check if you’re clinically depressed and need medical or therapeutic attention.
Read Van Gogh Blues: A Creative Person’s Path Through Depression, by Eric Maisel.
Schedule in some Short Time sessions of 15 minutes. (This Weekly Writer’s Planner will help!)
Focus on learning to approach your writing as play.
Stop romanticizing writing and let yourself shovel shit from a sitting position.