The key to starting a writing project is not motivation. It’s not inspiration or even getting in “the right mood”. The key is actually sitting down and putting words on paper (or in a Word doc).
For a long time, I wanted to write fiction but I never did. I was busy, tired, scatterbrained, and generally unmotivated. The problem was I didn’t feel like sitting down and typing words, especially after a long day of studying or working. But the even bigger problem was that I believed, subconsciously, that I needed to be in the right state of mind before I started writing.
Then I realized something: if you wait to feel motivated, inspired, and well-rested, you’ll never actually start writing.
I learned this lesson while reading a very insightful book, “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking”, by Oliver Berkeman.
Burkeman’s central thesis is that the message from mainstream positive thinking culture, that all we need to achieve success is to imagine it and eliminate “impossible” from our vocabulary, is horribly flawed. In contrasting this viewpoint with Buddhism, Burkeman argues that mainstream motivational advice overemphasizes attachment to a certain emotional state before one can take action. This actually makes it harder to take action. If you’re trying to write a book, and believe you need to feel really fired up in order to begin, then you’re just creating extra hurdles for yourself.
Burkeman points out that “the daily rituals and working routines of prolific authors and artists – people who really do get a lot done – very rarely include techniques for ‘getting motivated’ or ‘feeling inspired.’” I love this quote. This is something to hang up on your wall every time you feel like your mood just isn’t right for writing tonight.
Then Burkeman explains what successful writers, like Anthony Trollope, Charles Darwin, and John Grisham, actually do to finish their novels. They set routines for themselves and they keep them. For example: Write for 1, 2, or 3 hours a day, every day, without exceptions. Even if they’re not “feeling it”, they still do it.
This also reminds me of the old adage that a flame that burns brighter burns out quicker. A sudden burst of inspiration may motivate you to write on a given day, but it won’t necessarily carry you through to the conclusion of the novel. Writing takes patience, stamina, and determination- like a flame on a burner set to the lowest setting.
So, after I read Burkeman’s book, I sat down one night and started writing. I didn’t know what I was going to write about, but I had a general idea for a story in my head. It was painful at first, but I wrote a few paragraphs. The next day, I read it again, scrapped it all, and started over. But that first exercise was not a waste. It had gotten the gears turning in my head and suddenly my mind was overflowing with ideas about the story.
Since then, I’ve been writing almost every day for an hour a day. Sometimes less, sometimes more. Most of the time, I’m exhausted and not very motivated, but once I started writing, I really enjoy it and often keep going longer than intended.
So here’s my advice to those of you who may be struggling to start your own novels: Don’t worry about motivation. Just block out some time, sit down, and start writing. You’ll be surprised what comes out.
Here is the copyright information for Mr. Burkeman’s book, which you should all buy: “The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking”, by Oliver Berkman. Copyright 2012 by Faber and Faber, Inc. Pages referenced: 66-69.