500 Days of Summer (2009), Dir. Mark Webb, starring Joseph Gordan-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel
In life, we have expectations every day. For optimists, they’re positive: they expect a productive day at work, compassion from their significant others, and that their favorite elliptical machine at the gym will be free. For pessimists, the expectations are negative: the train will be crowded, the workday will crawl by, and the significant other will be angry about the inevitable pile of dishes in the sink.
Writing works the same way. We can look at writing a rough draft, for example, positively and negatively, too. We can go in with the expectation that it will be horrible, and this could be something that actually motivates us, getting us in the chair and writing in the first place, as there is no high expectation for perfection. This is a concept introduced by Anne Lamott in the excerpt “Shitty First Drafts” from her book on writing, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1995).
On the other hand, the expectation that a rough draft will be awful can be a self-fulfilling prophecy; because you believe it will be bad, it will be. That can be the opposite of motivating.
Then, there’s how you feel after writing something. Over-confidence can lead a writer to turn in or send out for potential publication a piece that’s just not ready. Under-confidence can have the opposite effect, freezing the writer into a state of not sharing the work, even after multiple drafts and a long period of time, or never showing it at all. Sometimes, honestly, a story will never reach that “right” point, but it will have been a good exercise, if you keep that positive point of viewThere’s a fine line between being over-confident and not confident enough when it comes to gauging whether or not a piece of writing is “finished.”
For me, the best motivator for finishing a project is a deadline, especially one that’s been set by someone other than me. For that reason, project due dates at school have worked well. I tend to enter contests and calls for submissions that have deadlines. The same goes for being invited to do public readings.
I’ve often heard that writers should set their own deadlines. I like the concept, but in practice, this hasn’t quite worked for me, unfortunately. However, it might work for you.
My advice? Pick apart, identify, and understand your rough-writing and revision styles, and then work with them. Join a writing group with some writers whose feedback you respect. You can even join in a partnership with just one other writer, motivating each other not only with encouraging words but with all-important deadlines. Just like in school, something will be due to that writer with the expectation that it will be read. Then, there is pressure that the benchmark must not only be completed by the deadline but that it also must be quality material.
Dividing the process into benchmarks, or goals, can be a lifesaver. For each writing session, I identify a goal: write 1,000 words; give the main character at least one clear goal; revise for the length of time of one CD or the time it takes me to drink one cup of tea.
For those longer-term, show-the-story-to-a-friend goals, think more broadly: “I want to have a new chapter of my novel to Susan by Friday at noon.” “I want to have a thirty-page manuscript ready for a meeting with an agent for the conference in four months.”
Last, there are the how-we-work expectations. Am I going to procrastinate because that’s what I always do? Just because that’s what I’ve done in the past and it’s what I expect of myself, do I have to do it? What will it take for me to change that behavior and write at least four days a week for forty-five minutes per session?
Do you notice how specific I am with each question and goal? That’s because we want to set very specific, measurable goals. Write your goals down, and share them with others. Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks are great places to share these. Writing goals down and sharing them will make you more likely to accomplish them because you’ll feel more accountability.
A measurable is one for which you can see actual results. It should be something reasonably accomplishable, though. This is another expectations-vs.-reality issue. How easy or difficult should the goal be to accomplish? You’ll want to challenge yourself without making a goal so difficult that you’ll feel defeated before you even start.
Take losing weight as an example. One might not necessarily expect to lose five pounds in a week, but the motivation of a personal trainer might help one visualize this as a more clear and possible reality. The measurable part of the goal occurs when one compares the weight and body measurements from the beginning of the week to those at the end of the week. Was the goal of losing five pounds met? Was it a reasonable? How might the goal and behaviors be adjusted for relative success the following week?
We’ve got to be honest with ourselves while being positive at the same time. We have to believe in ourselves, as cheesy as that may sound. And at the bottom of it all, we have to write. We won’t accomplish anything, expected, real, or somewhere in between, without writing to begin with.
*Check out Anne Lamott’s great essay on writing first drafts, “Shitty First Drafts” from her ground-breaking book on writing, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1995). It can be found here: http://wrd.as.uky.edu/sites/default/files/1-Shitty%20First%20Drafts.pdf