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.
It’s 10:17 p.m., and I just returned from a walk, where I tried to ignore several meetings in the morning and the conundrum of finding a way to be present in those meetings while balancing projects that need significant brain power to complete. Work takes up a significant amount of space in my mind, and I am grateful that I can use my craft to help in my profession. I tell stories at work, and I have incredibly clear outcomes: Grow our business, please our clients, and pay my bills. There is a sense of satisfaction in that clarity.
On the other hand, my creative work doesn’t have as clear outcomes. I don’t have deadlines; I don’t get paid (at least very much); and I don’t have any true metrics to evaluate performance outside of the arbitrary ones I set for myself. After I returned from the walk, where I wondered how many days after Christmas it would take some of the neighbors to remove their holiday lights, I saw my desk calling to me: Hey, Joe. You can get a couple hours of writing in before bed. You don’t need those 30 extra minutes of sleep. At this time of night, I find myself negotiating with the desk: But I can get the work done in the morning. How about this: 10 minutes on the story and 20 minutes continuing to build the framework for the novel after I make coffee? That should satisfy you, right? The desk is cold: Shut your mouth when you’re talking to me and sit your ass down.
The desk always wins, however. It looks at me with those black eyes and coffee-stained freckles that look like constellations, a road map to the creative journey I build in my mind, and it guilts me into submission. Whether I engage or I don’t, the desk is on my mind, taking me out of whatever moment I’m trying to exist within…And I catch myself wondering: Why the hell am I doing this? Why am I negotiating with a desk?
Many years ago, I would have been able to tell you clearly why I write creatively. I would have said: When I was in college, I read George Orwell’s Why I Write, and I felt a duty to speak truth, to say something meaningful, to throw a cog in the endless machine of soothsayers and reality-shapers. In high school, I would have said I write because I read Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five during a summer vacation in Myrtle Beach, and when I finished, I couldn’t imagine that life would ever be the same. I would have said that I write because I feel that the only way my life has meaning is if I’m remembered after I’m dead, and leaving a legacy of writing can help. I would have said because nobody thinks a kid from Clinton, Mass, can grow up and write novels. I would have said anything that I thought I needed to hear me say.
But why do I do it now? Why Do I spend the time after a hard day’s work to write stories and novels that I’m not sure anyone will ever read? Why do I take hours out of my day to think about sentences, paragraphs, characters, verisimilitude, the authenticity of act two?
I don’t get paid for this work. I don’t get recognized every day when I come home. I don’t have a boss that can provide a performance evaluation and tell me that I’m doing a great job…here is a raise. I don’t have clients to please.
It’s 10:31 now, and my wife wants to go to bed. I have a copy of Arthur C. Clark’s 2001: Space Odyssey on my nightstand that I can’t wait to read. I hear the sink in the bathroom turning on. I hear the traffic on the highway several streets over. But still, why do I do this? Why do I spend the time to brave rejections and acceptances, to fail and succeed (mostly fail), to wait for other people’s evaluations of my work, to publish blogs that I’m never positive people will read or ignore?
These questions have been running through my head over the last month, and I realized that I was struggling to answer them. That was until it hit me: I write because I want to connect with people. I want to build a conversation. I want to hear people tell me about their stories that, perhaps, my story inspired. I want to speak to the people who don’t feel like anyone is willing to talk. I want to write stories that force people to think twice about how they perceive mental illness. I want to write stories that illuminate the power of the imagination and how sometimes our realities are not as objective as we believe.
I want to communicate. It’s as simple as that. That’s such a basic want, and somewhere along the line, I forgot the power of that, and I began to force my work to fit expectations, marketplaces, genres that might not have been me. But I have to learn in 2018 to accept that I do not have control over creative work. I can’t bend it into the shape I want. I can’t force the genre of my work to reflect the perception I want others to have of me.
I write now because I want to connect with people, and the only way I believe I can connect with them is to find a way to bleed on these pages, to use them as a mirror to the self, to share something authentic and true. That is my goal. That is why I write. To share and know the authentic self.
At a certain point, I feel that a writer has to make a decision on how they view life: Do they see the journey as a lonely one where they have to forgo family and friends to find their voice? Or do they need to be surrounded by family, friends, and strange characters to fill those pages with? I’ve made my choice, and it’s certainly the right one for me. But I have a feeling this is something most writers struggle with during their creative journey. You ever struggle with this question?
I’m turning 30-years old on Saturday, August 15th. That means I have been alive for 10,950 days and 262,800 hours. Now this nice round number approaches, and I’m being asked by friends how it feels to be old (some in jest; some young people in fear that they will one day feel old, too). So, of course, it causes me to think about my life, my career, my direction. Anybody who tells you that when they turn 30-years old that they don’t consider what their life means is probably lying or just not very great at telling time. So I started to think about the best way to turn thirty years old.
5. Freak Out: When I married my wife, I wrote in my vows that I will never let her feel old. Women deal with age in different ways than men. There is just so much more pressure on women to look young, to have “flawless” skin, to never wear mom jeans. While that’s unfair in many ways, it also hits men. I promised myself for years that I would never allow age to worry me, but sure enough, as that birthday approached, I felt something start to rise in the back of my mind, and it was the sense that I was getting old. It was the feeling that I perhaps haven’t done enough with my life. It was the thought that I have failed because I don’t have a novel out yet. I looked in the mirror, and I thought: Perhaps my hair is receding. I brought my wife into the bathroom, and I said, hey, look at my hair. Has it always been like this? She looked at me confused, and she examined my hair in a very serious way. She seemed to be measuring it with her eyes. She touched my scalp and felt my hair and said: “I don’t think so.” Well, that sent me over the edge. Her doubt scared the shit out of me. Could I actually be losing my hair? Isn’t this what made me who I am? Oh my god, I thought, I’m getting old. I started to look at other guys’ hairline and see if it was just perhaps the way my hairline was shaped, and I spun into a dangerous cycle of doubt and insecurity. Yeah, I know it’s lame. 30-years old is not old. I have so much life ahead of me, and I eventually came to that conclusion, but I realized that it was okay to freak out about your birthday. It’s just normal. Just don’t let it consume you. (I also realized how much of prima donna I am about my hair. Shit, that was embarrassing.)
4. Stay in Shape: I remember when I was 24-years old, living in Miami, Florida, and I thought I was hot shit: A young kid in graduate school on his way to a career as a “famous” author (which is still the plan), teaching classes at Florida International University and playing basketball within view of the beach after class. I used to play basketball with my massively tall friend, who was a bit older than me, and he sometimes would complain about his knee. He would have to sit out a game or two, and he sometimes wouldn’t come play ball, citing knee problems. I used to give him a bunch of shit. He was 30-years old at the time, and he used to say: “You just wait until you’re my age; you’re going to be hurting just the same.” I never believed him. I told him I would never let that happen to me. Well, sure enough, I started playing basketball again several weeks ago, and after the first game, my knee hurt so bad that I could hardly jump nor hit my deceptively sweet jump shot. I wasn’t feeling myself, and my wife told me I had to wear a brace. I officially felt like the old man at the Y. But I didn’t stop playing. I just realized I had let myself get out of shape, and if there is one thing I learned about turning 30, it’s that you have to work harder to feel young. You can’t allow age to set into your bones. You have to try — even though it’s impossible — to out work time.
3. Take a Day Off from Work and Drive: I’m planning on taking Monday off from work, and I’m just going to drive into the desert. That might sound like a metaphor, but I mean that literally. In my twenties, I prided myself on my adventurous spirit. My goal is to write novels, and I knew the only way that I could ever have anything to write about would mean that I would have to travel. So I went to school in Florida; I traveled in Europe; I moved to Detroit at the beginning of the Great Recession; I went West with my wife; and I fell in love with a tremendous woman and promised her my life. I’ve taken a lot of adventures, and they were all accompanied by some sort of actual voyage. I have to remind myself of that the spirit for adventure, for the open road, for just driving, and I have to maintain the desire to get lost. Whenever I move to a new city, I always tell my wife when we’re driving home and don’t know where we’re going: It’s important to get lost to learn your way. So I’m just going to drive on Monday, take photos of whatever I see, and enjoy the search.
2. Recommit to a Goal: I have a great wife; I have a tremendous dog; I have a lovely apartment; I have a fulfilling job. I want a home, children, and some material objects. Honestly, I’m pretty ambitious. But I don’t know how I could ever wake up in the morning and feel alive if I didn’t have a goal that I was striving toward. I am writing a new novel that I hope to publish. I’ve written 45,000 words, and I actually feel good about it. (I know all first drafts are shit though.) Every day I have to write at least 500 words or I am miserable. I mean I felt like I just wasted my day and I should probably beat myself with a belt. (Hyperbole, of course.) But I am more committed than ever to write a great story, and I want to spend the rest of my nights and the rest of my birthdays writing other great stories. I think the only way to turn 30, 40, 50, and on and on is to find a way to breathe life again into the promises we made when we’re younger, because growing older is a conversation with our younger selves: Is this where I wanted to be by now? Is this who I wanted to be? Do I like myself and the person I have become? These questions are essential for turning 30-years old, and the way that one can answer yes is by staying true to the promises. One shouldn’t let the things we say when we’re younger just be empty promises.
1. Make a Legacy: I don’t have children yet, but I think the essential part about turning thirty is finding a way to leave a legacy, to leave something behind, so your image or your memory keeps on ticking long after your own heart stops. This is why I write, and this is the same reason that I’m going to have children…soon. Maybe a person’s legacy doesn’t have to be children, but it has to be something that burns, something that is full of life, even if it’s not alive. I think that’s the real important part of growing older: Finding a way to make something that is bigger than yourself.
Since about 2010, I’ve been working on writing a version of a story that shows what it’s like to grow up with a family member who has a mental illness. I’ve written it as a novel in stories; I’ve written it as a memoir; I’ve written it as a straight up novel. Honestly, on the whole, I have failed to turn a story I believe in into something that is publishable and a piece of art. I have had pieces of those projects published, but I have not achieved the larger goal of turning them into a book.
I’ve spent a significant amount of time on this project, and perhaps it’s just too close. Perhaps I need to move away from this narrative and start one of my new projects. This school of thought clearly makes sense: perhaps you have to kill your darlings for good to create what you need.
But what I have found is that the most powerful stories are the hardest to write. Stephen King talks about discovering stories like uncovering fossils. You start digging underneath the surface, and suddenly, you start to unearth a massive creature that is larger than you could have ever imagined. Writing this type of story is like following a dream. You allow the story to come to you instead of forcing it. I probably have been forcing my story in the past, but I can’t help it: I’m right back to trying to tell this story again. This time, however, I’ve decided that it isn’t my story I was trying to tell; it is the story of the family member who has the mental illness.
Since I’ve made this discovery, I’ve been writing up a storm. It just seems to be flowing out of me, but this week, I started to hear those old voices start to creep in: It’s not that good; you’re wasting your time; you can’t write this story because it’s too close. Honestly, some of these things I’m hearing might be true. I could get to the end of this WIP and realize I have jack shit. So I was in a funk. I didn’t want to write. I hated what I was writing. And I was thinking about moving on to another project.
Then something changed. What I’ve realized about novels and memoirs over the years is that, well, they’re freaking hard work that lack inherent short-term goals. Unlike journalism, which sometimes has quick results and you can see your work published within a week of writing a piece, novels and stories and poems have a much longer shelf life, and the fruits of the work might take years to generate — if at all. So that’s why you have to find a way to make your creative projects work beyond the page. Here’s what I mean:
The other week I saw the movie Wild with Reese Witherspoon. Honestly, it’s a phenomenal movie with a Jack Kerouac type as a main character who has an incredibly rich back story filled with emotional trauma. She’s shooting drugs and becoming reckless with her body. Her marriage ends, and she decides to hike up the Pacific Coast to find a balance or a wholeness in her life. What drives her is a comment from her mother: “You can put yourself in the way of beauty.”
That line, “You can put yourself in the way of beauty,” had a major impact on me in the theater. It’s something I should do everyday. As a young kid, I made a promise that there wouldn’t be a single day that went by that I wasn’t putting myself in front of something beautiful — that I wasn’t struck by something awesome — that I didn’t feel alive and a part of the world. Well, I definitely have those days when I don’t find beauty. I don’t seek it. I don’t put myself in the way of it. This isn’t a new idea either. It’s something that I remember discovering when reading Wordsworth and studying romanticism. It was about taking in something in nature, something like a dancing daffodil, and recalling that image in a moment of tranquility later. For a while, that’s how I thought about poetry and great writing. Now I also see it as essential to the creative process.
In order to get out of my funk with my story, I realized I just had to accomplish that goal: find the beauty. So I went out and started taking some photographs. I went down to Ocean Beach and took these from near the pier.
Credit Joseph Lapin
Credit Joseph Lapin
Credit Joseph Lapin
Credit Joseph Lapin
Credit Joseph Lapin
Credit Joseph Lapin
What I really enjoyed about this photo shoot was that I just put myself in the way of something beautiful and during editing I started to interpret that scene in different ways using various effects I’ve been learning with Photoshop. It freed my mind a bit. It allowed me to be creative without carrying about publications or an audience; it also allowed me to attain an immediate goal compared to writing a novel that takes (what feels like) a lifetime.
Then I went to Downtown San Diego. I wanted to find “beauty” there too. There is an airport parking garage I always see on my way to work, and I’ve been meaning to stop there and take photos of the city and the airplanes landing on the runway. So I set up my tripod and waited. Here is what I found:
Credit Joseph A Lapin
Credit Joseph A Lapin: Long Exposure of a plan landing
Credit Joseph A Lapin
These photos ended up being the same process. I took an angle and worked it in different ways. This was tremendously inspiring for me. It freed my mind. What I’m finding with photography is that it allows me to step out of the writing space and use the same wheels that I build stories and poems and kind of give them a new work out. It’s helping remind me that art comes in many forms; it’s helping to give me balance to sit at the desk after a long day of work. It’s helping me write. It’s helping me keep going. It’s helping me find the beauty in front of me.