I graduated from my Master of Fine Arts program from Florida International University at 25-years old, which seemed like an impressive feat at the time. When I finished my MFA, I moved from Miami to Los Angeles, and I thought I was a pretty hot-shit writer about to head to one of the most creative cities in the world. In fact, I thought I was moments away from turning my thesis into a best-selling book, and I wasn’t worried about finding writing motivation to finish countless drafts while working long days at many different jobs. Honestly, it felt like I had already arrived.
In fact, I look back on that version of myself, a totally delusional version of myself, and realize that it’s kind of embarrassing. I remember asking one of my professors how long it took her to publish her first book after graduation, and she said, four years. At the time, four years after graduate school felt like such a long time to publish a book.
Now, I just turned 35-years old, and it’s 10 years since I graduated from my MFA program, and I don’t have a book. I have published a decent amount of non fiction and some fiction, and I have a great career where I practice my craft every day, but I know I still have a long way to go to accomplish my life goal: Filling an entire shelf with books I have written, and those books have to be worth the trees that were sacrificed. I want people to actually read the books, not just let them sit there and collect dust.
And even though so much time has passed since I graduated, I know I need to dig deep to still make my dreams come true. It’s hard to stay motivated though, especially with all that is happening in the world.
That’s why I put together a list of ways to find writing motivation. When I was researching for this blog, I read a lot of the other posts about finding writing motivation, and I realized the advice was terrible. They give trite advice like “set deadlines” and “commit to writing.” It’s time to actually hear some real advice. Let me keep it real with you.
1. Listen to Jerry Seinfeld’s Advice on Writing Motivation
When it comes to writing, especially fiction, my biggest challenge is actually just sitting down and finishing the stories without issuing an open invitation for negativity and self hatred to bubble to the surface of my consciousness.
What the inner voice says:
You should be ashamed of yourself, Joe. Didn’t you say that this was something you cared about? That you vowed as a life-long goal? So why has it been so long since the last time you wrote? How come your writing is so terrible?
It turns out that Jerry Seinfeld actually provided some of the best advice I’ve ever heard to solve the problem of self hatred while writing.
A young comic was performing in a club and met Jerry Seinfeld. He asked Seinfeld for a tip for a young writer. Basically, Seinfeld said something very clear: Write every day. If you want to be better at writing jokes, write jokes. The advice is simple and a good reminder that you can be a writer through practice, and it’s not anything new, but what I like the most about this advice is what comes next. Here is where Seinfeld goes beyond the obvious:
Seinfeld gives a way to stay motivated, and he advises the young comic to start tracking his writing on a calendar. Every day he writes a joke, Seinfeld told him to mark an X on that day. Then he says, allegedly, is that your only job as a comic writer is to connect all the Xs. Write every day. Put an X. Don’t break the chain.
This idea has actually helped me a lot, because not only does it remind me that just sitting at the desk and writing, even for 10 minutes, is progress, but it also helps me look back on a month and actually answer the question: “Did I actually write this month?” When the negativity sets in about whether or not I actually made progress, I can now look back with data (yes, simple data) and objectively understand my progress.
Since March, I know that I have written 38% of the days. That’s not 100%, but I now know where I need to improve. With a career, a 11-month old child, a dog, and a guitar, I’ll take 38% and hope to get closer to 60% for the rest of the year.
2. Writing Motivation Quotes and Books Recommendations
When it comes to being a writer, you have to be delusional to not realize that it also means becoming a great reader. With that said, I don’t just mean reading books in the genre you’re writing in, painstakingly analyzing the structure of the plot or arc of the characters. (Of course, this is important.)
But there are also essential craft books that will help you inspire your motivation as a writer. Here is a list of the essential books or audio books I recommend and some of my favorite quotes for writing motivation:
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
- Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques by The Great Courses
- Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. (Not a writing book, but it will help you get rid of distractions like Facebook.)
- Creative Quest by Questlove. (Yes, music is the medium, but what’s really the difference from one medium to the other?)
- Becoming a Great Essayist by Jennifer Cognard-Black and The Great Courses
- The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
- The Lie that Tells a Truth by John Dufresne
- On Writing by Stephen King
- The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
- The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:
“Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life, and it is the main obstacle between you and a shitty first draft.”Anne Lamott from Bird By Bird
“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere.”Anne Lamott from Bird By Bird
“You can, you should, and if you’re brave enough to start, you will.”Stephen King from On Writing
“Writing is not life, but I think that sometimes it can be a way back to life.”Stephen King from On Writing
“When the distraction shifts into boredom, that’s the seed of something creative.”Questlove from Creative Quest
“The purpose of the first draft is not to get it right, but to get it written.”The Legendary John Dufresne from The Lie that Tells a Truth
3. Writing Motivation for Your Mind: Advance Your Brainstorming Techniques
Whenever I sat down to write in the beginning of my professional career, I realized something very challenging: The blank page sucked, and it was at times hopeless to find ideas or ways to turn that blankness into something, anything, that resembled writing.
Not until recently did I realize that I didn’t have to just sit there and wait until that blank page blossomed into something in my mind like one of my professors told me once. He said he stared at the computer for almost five hours until he could write one sentence.
That obviously worked for him, but that would never work for me, as I don’t have the patience for that type of stare down. As my role in a digital marketing company, I have begun reading a lot about different brainstorming techniques, because our team has to come up with a ton of different ideas for many different clients, and we don’t have the time to stare at a blank page until inspiration strikes. We need to incubate inspiration.
That’s when I started to learn about a ton of brainstorming techniques and encountered many books that explained the science behind creativity, which is not some magic that one person possesses innately. In fact, creativity can be seen almost as exclusively as a person’s ability to effectively use their unconscious processing to make connections between new neural circuitry in their mind.
Basically, creativity is connecting the dots, but if you understand the mind a bit more, then you can begin to use advanced brainstorming techniques to increase your writing motivation. Here are a couple that I love:
Use Lucid Chart
Lucid chart is a visualization and brainstorming tool that allows individuals to map out complex problems. They have a ton of templates to inspire new ways of being creative, but if I’m stuck on something for writing, I use them to help brainstorm. In fact, I used them to write this blog. Take a look at the brainstorming board I did where I just iterated ideas off of my main topic: Inspiration for writing.
Here are a couple templates that I think could give you an idea of how to use brainstorming and Lucid Chart.
Leverage Divergent and Convergent Thinking
In the example above of the brainstorm Lucid Chart I did for this blog, I threw out a ton of ideas, some of them awful, some of them good, some of them okay. This was very intentional. When I first start generating ideas for a project, it’s important for me to just let everything rip. I want all the ideas out on the table, because during the brainstorming exercise, my job is just to generate as many ideas as possible. I don’t care if they’re good, bad, or ugly. I just want ideas.
From there, I give myself some space, and I switch into another mode, where I simply destroy and cut all the bad ideas from the good ones and see if I can see clusters or patterns within those new ideas. This is a very important process that separates divergent and convergent thinking.
The Biggest Flaw in Creative Thinking
“One of the biggest flaws in creative thinking and, especially, brainstorming, is that people often make is to mix divergent and convergent thinking. They might generate an idea and then immediately critique and evaluate it. In some cases, the idea is dismissed,” according to Professor Gerard Puccio Buffalo State—The State University of New York
Not only does it just make you feel better by reserving judgement to the end, it’s actually what neuroscience tells us is the optimal way to be creative: Divergent thinking allows us to make new connections in our mind, and convergent thinking allows us to choose the best connections. Without this process and space, generating new ideas is painful.
Visually Identifying Relationships (VIR)
There are countless brainstorming techniques out there, some of them bad, some of them good, but one of my favorites is bringing in outside visuals. As a writer, I think visually, and I want my readers to have a cinematic or lyrical experience when they read my creative writing. That’s why I love bringing in Visually Identifying Relationships (VIR).
Visually Identifying Relationships (VIR) is a tactic that has a fancy name, but it’s simple and a great way to break yourself out of being stuck. Basically, if you’re writing a project and need new ideas or solutions, step away from the project entirely. Go on a walk. Then come back and generate four random images around a keyword or use a random image generator you find on the internet. Here is an example: Random Image Generator.
Spend three minutes writing on each one of your images. Just freewrite. Don’t make the exercise transactional. Sojourn through your mind. The goal is to allow your mind to wander and think through these visual definitions. It’s to free you up from directly attacking your problem and allowing your unconscious to try and discover new connections and pathways. It’s an amazing technique when you suddenly find the new idea just by finding an indirect way to look for it.
4. Give Up on Deadlines and Stop Giving a Fuck
Whenever I read articles on writing motivation — or just creative inspiration in general — every single article says: “Well, young whippersnapper, you need to to set a deadline. Show up every day. Stick to it. And don’t you dare miss your deadline.” I’m sure you can hear that wag-of-the-finger, I’m-wiser-than-you tone that most of these blogs take, but honestly, this is stupid, stupid advice.
Now, I’m not saying if you have a deadline for a professional project you should miss that. Clearly not. If that was the case, I could see my colleagues who may or may not read this post, slacking me and saying: “So, you don’t think we should have deadlines anymore? Our clients will love that. 🙄.”
But when it comes to your creative writing, to your passion project, putting a deadline on your project is a stupid idea. Maybe it will help you get to your desk and put in the work, but that deadline could actually do you more harm than you realize.
I can’t remember what book I was listening to, but it might have been Writing Great Fiction: Storytelling Tips and Techniques by The Great Courses, but there was a profound realization. Basically, the author said so many writers try to be efficient. They want to finish their novel or project in the easiest path possible. They update their techniques to finish their projects in the easiest way possible. Basically, what this person said was:
If you want to be efficient with your time, you should never write fiction.
When it comes to being creative and letting your projects become what they were meant to be, forget the deadlines.
The only deadline you have is when you’re actually dead. Find a way to finish your stories when they are actually done. Not before.
5. Break your delete key on your keyboard and finish your stories
In my opinion, the most important writing motivation is: finish your stories. And honestly, the only thing that keeps me from finishing my stories is that I think the work I do is bad. It’s not worth finishing. I should revise that last sentence and not go on to the next one until it’s perfect. Then I just never finish because nothing is perfect and everything can be terrible. And when I’m divergently thinking or just trying to write a draft, there is no thing worse than a delete key. Just take it off your computer and finish those stories no matter how shitty those drafts are. Delete the delete key!
Thanks for reading. Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments below. Happy to answer!