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Motivation: Make Writing Dessert Again

Flickr Creative Commons: Ruth Hartnup

I admit it. For years I hesitated to invite anyone into my home, cringing even when my parents crossed the threshold. If there is a way to keep a house clean while sharing it with a husband, two children, three dogs and a Maine Coon cat, I haven’t found it. Dust happens. Fur happens. Clutter happens.

My kitchen was the stuff of nightmares. The forty-year-old popcorn ceiling literally came apart at the seams, raining bits of plaster on me while I attempted to cook. My husband unsuccessfully tried to pry up the once-white kitchen sink years ago, leaving behind a buckled and rusty patch on the lip. The counters didn’t quite match the back-splash, which no longer matched the cabinets because the chipping paint had become dingy. “This summer,” I told my husband, “we will tame this eyesore.”

In our family, there is not actually a ‘we’ in household projects involving cosmetic improvement. If you want to build the largest computer network in the world, my husband is your guy. He can scatter neutrons and is a whiz at calculus. Coordinating colors, though? Evenly painting a cabinet door? Um…not so much.

Determined not to lose all writing momentum during the remodel, I promised myself I’d do that first each day. Write a scene in my manuscript and then I could scrape the ceiling! Finish the chapter and then I could paint the inside of the pantry! What did I do on day one? Facebook. What did I do on day two? Errands. Word count: 0. Work done on kitchen: 0.

It took me weeks of floundering to realize the flaw in my plan. You see, I didn’t really want to scrape that ceiling. In fact, cleaning a public restroom with a toothbrush sounded more appealing than standing high on a ladder under a deluge of falling plaster bits. No writing = no dust in my hair.

Nearly every writing advice book or column I’ve read emphasizes putting the writing first, but it turns out that this strategy doesn’t work for me and, in fact, may have been working against me for years.The next morning I forbid myself from opening my manuscript until the ceiling was down and the mess cleaned up. Work done on kitchen: Goal met within two hours. Word count: 1200. The next day I painted the ceiling and still wrote 700 words.

Psychologically this makes sense if you look at the situation as a five-year-old might. Pretend your writing is an ice cream sundae and a dreaded chore is a heaping bowl of lima beans.

Why is it so hard to remember that writing is the good stuff?

When I started imagining writing as a dessert to look forward to after a few bites of yuck, I became obsessed with my story again. I wrote and re-wrote whole chapters in my head while I labored in the kitchen, pounding them out from memory the moment my fingers hit the keyboard. Even now, I’m writing this essay in record time because I must finish it before I get to write the scene percolating in my mind.

Sanding and painting 33 cabinet doors, 10 drawers, and more shelves than any one family should possess was no small feat. It also led me to the conclusion that remodeling a kitchen isn’t all that different from composing a novel. It’s messy, it’s a long slog, at some point you’ll end up in tears or inebriated, and it is totally worth it in the end.

My kitchen is now nearly done. Cabinets are painted. Counters, sink and cook stove installed – thank you, Lowe’s Home Improvement. The new back splash will soon be up – thank you, Dad.

My manuscript is nearly done, too. Thank you, kitchen.

What about you? Have you found that working on something completely unrelated to writing brings you closer to your work? If you struggle with motivation, have you attempted using your writing as a reward instead of an obligation?

About Kim Bullock [1]

Kim (she/her) has an M.A. in English from Iowa State University. She writes mainly historical fiction, though has also contributed non-fiction articles to historical and Arts and Crafts publications in both the United States and Canada. She has just finished The Unfinished Work of M.A. [2], a novel based on the rather colorful life of her great-grandfather, landscape painter Carl Ahrens.