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Why Do You Write? And Why Aren’t You Writing?

Why do you write?
Photo by Jacob Vanderheyden.

Alone is a reality TV show where ten competitors get dropped off on various parts of Vancouver Island, and are forced to figure out how to survive by themselves.  The last one standing won half a million dollars.

My son is charmed by tales like My Side of the Mountain and Hatchet, and my husband is a fair outdoorsman.  As for me, I’d be the idiot who dies in the first hour because I tripped on a limpet shell and managed to strangle myself with my own rucksack. (I am what you’d call “indoorsy”.)  Nonetheless, I was still hooked.

Who takes on this kind of lunacy?

It was fascinating seeing these people, all ostensibly trained in wilderness living and survival, break down into two separate groups.  The first were what I’ll call the “tough” camp:  ones that were viewing the outdoors and the challenge itself as an antagonist to defeat.  The second group were the “spiritualist” camp: being one with all things, seeking to coexist within their environment, respecting its power and adapting to its pressures.

As the competition wore on, members from both camps – “tough” and “spiritual” – started dropping out in roughly equal numbers.  It was intriguing to watch them get worn down, not just by the sheer work of eking out an existence facing inclement temperatures, predators, and little sustenance, but the true damning element:  doing all of it alone.  The mental stamina required to keep going, keep working the day-to-day tasks that keep you alive, is made infinitely harder when you don’t have anyone else to talk to, whether to celebrate or commiserate.  Seeing grown men cry from loneliness was a sobering thing.

So what was effective?

I won’t spoil the show for those who want to watch it, but when it came down to the final three, all shared one trait.

They all wanted the prize.

Not “proving themselves physically.” Not “living with nature.”  They wanted the $500k.

More than that: the money they craved wasn’t for themselves.  They wanted the money to improve the living condition of someone they loved.

When the stakes kept raising in the form of increased obstacles (weather turning colder, food sources dwindling, monotony and solitude building) those with the strongest motivation pursued the prize the fiercest, and lasted the longest.

What does that have to do with writing?

Success came through a clear goal (“win the prize”) with very strong, emotion-hooked motivation (“to improve the life of my loved one”.) This is what propelled them forward through escalating conflict (starvation, the elements, and emotional instability.)

Goal. Motivation. Conflict.  The holy hat-trick of novel writing.  This show definitely illustrates the principle.

Even more relevant to writers: it showed how to keep going with a hard, boring, and often unpleasant task.

Finishing your novel: the tough slog.

I know very few writers who move forward, head down, straight through from conception to completion.  Most of us (and yes, I count myself in this) tend to thrash around, either getting distracted by shiny new ideas or wallowing in irrelevant side-tasks. Personally, I find myself unaccountably seduced by organizing and cleaning when writing looms.

Those authors I do know that do move forward like clockwork have, strangely, the same clear goal.

They are doing it to get paid.

They have loved ones who depend on them, or just basics such as food, shelter, and the like – survival issues.  As a result, they have a very clear time frame for when work needs to be completed, and a tangible result if they do not accomplish their goal, even when life intervenes.

Does that mean you should only write to get paid?

No. Absolutely, utterly not. NO!

Going back to the show analogy:  those that left earlier had their own reasons, and few if any of them felt like failures.  They accomplished the goals that they set for themselves.  Ultimately, they only had to prove things to themselves.

(Except for that one guy, who was just scared of being eaten by bears, and left immediately. Again, I respect that. I, too, would rather not be bear chow.  See: “indoorsy.”)

It means that the stronger and clearer the motivation, the more likely you are to get it done.  And the only people I know who work like machines are the ones who depend on it.  If you don’t depend on it, don’t beat yourself up for not getting things done.

Instead, look at your motivation, and figure out how to amplify it.

Some suggestions to boost your motivation

  1. Journal a dialogue with your subconscious.  This is weird, but it works. Pretend you’re interviewing your motivation.  Ask why it’s so important that you complete the book.  Ask what’s standing in your way.  Then ask what you could do to make things easier to get it done.
  2. Make it a game. If you’re competitive, enter things like Nano or boot camps, use applications like Write or Die, or get into a public accountability group.  Use word count meters to show your progress.  (Especially good for “tough” writers!)
  3. Get a support group. Again, the truly difficult part of the TV show’s challenge was the solitude.  If you get trapped in your own head, it makes everything harder.  Writer Unboxed’s Facebook group is a great place to check in and find people who are going through the same hardships.  They can offer great brainstorming and advice, as well as fresh perspective.  You will often find yourself energized by the companionship.
  4. Get help. Find a course, a group, or a coach that can guide you through the process. Ideally, someone who can help you clarify why you’re doing it and help you past the obstacles in your way.

Final note:  balance is key.

While I encourage everyone to finish their novels and keep on writing, do look at the fact that this isn’t life or death.  We might say “I have to write or I’d die”, but too much pressure might strangle the very creative soul where our writing originates.  It’s a balancing act.  Care about it enough to keep yourself going – and not so much that it drives you crazy.

And when the going gets tough, you can always use my mantra:

Hey, at least I’m not being eaten by bears.”


So, what drives your writing?  How has that motivation translated into completed projects?  What are your obstacles?  And do you feel you have balance?


About Cathy Yardley [1]

Cathy Yardley is the author of eighteen novels, published with houses such as St. Martin's and Avon, as well as her self-published Rock Your Writing series. She's also a developmental editor and writing coach, helping authors complete, revise, and get their stories published. Sign up here [2] for her newsletter to receive the free course Jumpstart Your Writing Career. [2]