Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Carrot Or The Stick?

When I was a girl, I wrote two things: fantasy stories and ghost stories.  I wanted to write about mermaids, quests, a circus--I had a binder for all my many story ideas.  Then, at some point, probably after too many hours of Honors English class, I decided that I had to write Meaningful Literary Fiction.  At no point did I ever think I would give up my writing dream, but in my early twenties, I came to the conclusion that I hadn't experienced enough to have anything to say, and my creative writing went on a long hiatus.

In the meantime, I was still writing.  I wrote essays, I worked as a stringer for a newspaper in Istanbul, and I got a Masters degree in journalism.  Bless all you good journalists out there, but once I got my degree, I realized that I could never, ever, ever be a journalist.  I didn't have the necessary passion for it, and I even hated it a little bit (okay, a lot).  Wish I would have realized that earlier!

After grad school, I resumed my creative writing, but still I felt like I had nothing meaningful to say.  After struggling with this for a while, one day I realized that if I was going to write anything at all, it had to be fun, or I'd never finish it.  I thought of those stories I'd enjoyed writing so much when I was younger, and I turned my efforts back to children's fiction.  For years I worked on this in fits and starts.

It always seemed to me that the many successful writers got their starts in desperate situations--an unhappy childhood, meandering young adulthood, stark poverty.  Think pre-coke addiction Stephen King balancing his typewriter on his knees in the laundry room at midnight, J.K. Rowling as a depressed single mother who'd recently escaped an abusive relationship, or look at Charles Dickens's miserable childhood, Ernest Hemingway's experiences with suicide and war.

I had none of that.  My childhood was happy, and I've pretty much always had my act together.  I've got a great career and I live comfortably.  Sometimes I would wonder, was I doomed to failure as a writer because I hadn't experienced enough turmoil in my personal life?

That thought is silly, but it took my a while to learn this.  I write because I love it, not because I need to expel my inner demons or believe that getting published is going to save me financially.  I write for those moments when you capture the exact sentiment in exactly the way you want, for those unexpected plot turns that seem to jump right out of your fingertips on their own.  I do it for my favorite part, the high you get when you figure out the perfect puzzle piece of your plot.

The writing doesn't always flow, and I still depend on external motivation to get me through the rough patches. While I can't claim abject poverty, I can manufacture my own small pushes, like the copy of Across The Universe on my Kindle that I'm dying to read, but won't let myself open until I finish revising this dreadful chapter.  Like the goal to finish all my revisions before I leave on vacation in two weeks, so that I can get some distance from my MS while I'm away.  Little dangling carrots to keep me moving, rather than the threat of a beatdown from my immediate circumstances.

What motivates you to keep writing?  Carrots or sticks?


  1. Great post! I think the carrots motivate me. I think of things like "If I get this chapter written, then I can read this book" or "If I get this flash fiction piece written, then I can work on my novel chapter." Yeah, sometimes writing inspires me to do more writing.

    I think you have the best reason to write. You love it. :)

    And, I'm still waiting for my copy of ACROSS THE UNIVERSE to come in. Last I checked, it was hung up in North Carolina. *sigh*

  2. Deadlines are what keep me writing. Even if I have to manufacture them myself!!

  3. Cherie - That's why I'm slowly converting to e-books only...instant gratification. Or not so instant, if I don't finish this chapter!

    Logan - Deadlines are good, I use them a lot too. When those get tough to meet, the reward system works well for me :)

  4. I think the best thing a person can do is experience life. I haven't had a hugely traumatic event in my life yet but I have had similar emotions that my characters have. For me, the challenge is getting my emotions into a character's situation.

  5. Great post. I think both motivate me. On a whole, an illness motivated me to write that book I've always been wanting to write. But now it's more than that. I have little "carrot" moments where I really want to read (I'm with you--dying to read Across the Universe) but I need to work first.

  6. I keep writing because I love sharing the stories with the kids I tutor. They like books that are scary (7th graders LOVE scary) or funny. I try to do both for them at least every 3 months.

  7. I have difficulties falling asleep at night so I often let myself wander into the world that I write about and let myself look at the characters and come up with ideas. That way I counter a writers block before it comes up :-)

  8. Hey Rachel! I am passing the Stylish Blogger Award to you! Go check out my blog for the info!

  9. I think as an unpublished writer, it's hard to be motivated by carrots--because there's a great chance that carrots may never come! It's all about sticks for me.

  10. Thanks everyone for your comments! I find it so interesting to hear about other writers' habits--it's all about what works best for you.

    Jessica, thank you for the award! I am working on the post already :)

  11. Dang! Jessica got you too! Okay, well my post is already up and you are awesome so I'm not changing it. :P

    I gave you the Stylish Blogger Award too.