I’d caught Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2009 TED talk on writing and motivation (the video is 20 minutes, and this link also has a transcript), so when I saw an Amazon article ad for her “10 Tips for Writers,” (as compiled by Cynthia Shannon), I figured it was worth checking out.
You may correctly conclude I found it useful, what with me linking to it here. And, as with many bits of writing, the value isn’t so much that I’d never, ever heard of the tip before, but that that the tips are presented in a nice, distilled manner for easy digestion and contemplation.
Full disclosure: I’ve recently released a whole host of my writing out into the world (in audio form) — and I find it’s always easier to contemplate motivation when you’ve actually finished writing.
At the same time, I find myself reading through these tips and thinking of how I did and didn’t use them in writing Rogue Tyger. So if you just want the tips, go ahead and go to that link. If you want my subjective reflections on them, read on.
Tip #1: Start Writing.
Boy howdy do I agree with this one. I’ve linked to Cory Doctorow’s “Writing in the Age of Distraction” about 147 times on this blog, but time again I come back to it and the central idea that writers write… and one ought to write daily.
Tip #2: Be Creative Every Day
Writing Rogue Tyger was my antidote to one of the worst day jobs I can recall. I happily poured hopes and fears and frustrations born of day-to-day ridiculousness into the characters and the plot. But even if I’m doing writing or, let’s be honest, I fall off the writing-every-day wagon for a couple days, still doing stuff that is creative is critical to being a happy camper. It can be as simple as doodling, noodling on the piano (when I’m near a piano), or helping one of my kids construct a paper airplane.
The point is that, not only do I benefit from doing something creative every day, I can distinctly tell when I haven’t for too many days: by then, I’m a less-than-happy camper.
Tip #3: Go Looking for Inspiration
One theater director I had revealed he investigated the museums of any city he visited. Another theater professor I had urged us to visit galleries and see how paintings staged scenes down through the ages. I’ve talked with other writers who simply make sure to go on a hike and take cues from nature. Others take classes in drawing and acting and all sorts of things they’ve wanted to learn. There’s plenty of inspiration to be found — and just like Tip #2, I’ve found a little work on this front can dislodge any notions of writer’s block.
Tip #4: Surround Yourself with Optimists
By ‘optimists,’ I very much think of people who see possibilities. Possibilities in themselves, you, and your work. People who may be very smart, quite experienced, and still look over this list and –even if every tip is familiar– use it to spark memories and remind themselves of some tactic to double-down on. In other words, I put into the ‘optimist’ camp those people who put asking questions and curiosity over and above being clever and knowing “all the answers.”
I really ought to do a poll amongst my fellow filmmakers and writers, but invariably, I find that those people who are obsessed about ideas being “entirely original” and find every creative work in creation “not being without problems” are not people to be around.
Yes, creative types need to maintain the cognitive dissonance that their current work is utter crap and amazing as they continue working, but the point is to risk, fail, and risk again. I want to be around people who can enjoy jokes about Sisyphus, but still get their shoulder against the boulder when the time comes.
I have been aided by many smart and optimistic people in bringing Rogue Tyger to life. The boulder moved.
Tip #5: Dare Yourself to Keep Working
Bribery, incentives, whatever it is, do what works to keep on writing.
My biggest motivation in this corner has been seeing friends and colleagues complete things. I should note that I find a lot of their work phenomenal, but even where it’s not the greatest thing since sliced bread or Betty White, an imperfect completed work is loads better than a “perfect” incomplete work-in-progress.
To reference Chariots of Fire, I’ve found it’s better to stop worrying about whether you’ll win when you run. Simply put: you can’t win if you don’t run. So get to running.
Tip #6: Trust Your Curiosity
Great things come from research and one that comes to me again and again is excitement. My recent work on a modern adaptation of War of the Worlds reminded me of how much I enjoy using bits of knowledge to build a story. The same thing happened with Rogue Tyger, which remains very much a space opera, but has some hard science elements amid the blasters and jump drives.
I’ve had friends and colleagues find curiosity and subsequent inspiration through pursuing interests in epidemiology, the armed forces, first contact protocols, recovery programs, and all sorts of oddities. Going down the rabbit hole of minutiae, so long as one eventually comes up to write, seems to be a blessing.
Tip #7: Create a Ritual
I recall Stephen King cautioning against being too precious with one’s writing space or required rituals, so this seems much more in line with tips 3 and 6: what warms you up and gets you ready to write?
Tip #8: Don’t Believe in Writer’s Block
I still remember an interview with Ray Bradbury from the 80s where he mentioned he simply didn’t accept writer’s block from himself. This didn’t mean he wouldn’t get stumped by a particular story. Instead, when that did happen, he would take a break, trust curiosity and follow inspiration into another piece of writing. The novel is at a standstill? Write a poem. Write that short story that’s been in his head for months. Then come back and the novel is moving forward again.
The key here seems to be completing things and using momentum to go back into the work that stalled. That’s easier said than done (or written). It was (and is) a valuable insight none-the-less.
Tip #9: Write for Yourself
For me, this is part and parcel with both curiosity and inspiration. What writing inspired you and why? And what if we went down such and such a path?
For Rogue Tyger, I looked a lot at the science fiction I liked, and a (perhaps disturbingly) large amount of it involved small groups of people on ships going off on adventures. Trying to tackle that myself was (and is) mighty fulfilling.
Tip #10: Imagine Your Reader
The key corollary to the previous point: what is your reader expecting and how can you pay off their expectations in a satisfying mixture of expected and unexpected ways? I obsess about payoff, but I guess we’ll see what happens.
So there it is. Now, I’m off to work on a bit more writing because, well, I’m rather motivated at the moment.