How A Terrible Year Made Me A Better Writer
In hindsight, maybe I’m not the best person to write about staying motivated as a writer.
You see, I pitched this piece to Headland by saying that I would explain how I managed to stay motivated during the Covid-19 lockdown, but the viciously abridged version of that already short story would be that I didn’t. Though I’m sure I’m far from the only person who can say this. The amount of people I talked to at the start of the lockdown who thought it would be great for their productivity would equal the amount of people I talked to at the end of it who said it turned out to be the opposite. So safe to say it has been a rough year for people, writing or otherwise. And while it may not have been the fountain of creativity I was hoping it to be, I did learn some things about who I am and how I work as a writer.
Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, I learned that we need to be kind to ourselves. This applies to everyone reading this. Writers, readers, the editor of this blog, the people reading this because I promoted it on Facebook (sorry we haven’t hung out in ages by the way, I’ve been working through some stuff). This year has been hell on us all, and the fact that you are here at the end of it to read this is a big enough achievement all by itself. Whatever we managed to achieve given the circumstances is a bonus.
That is certainly something I need to tell myself. Often, I have thought of myself as what I like to call a ‘prize-writer’. What I mean by that is I write for a reward, or some external reason outside of just the act of writing. Whether that is a literal prize of money, or simply a good grade on an assignment. And that has led to great difficulty motivating myself to write just because writing is enjoyable. So what I’m saying in this is thanks Headland for getting me going again.
However, that ‘prize-writer’ mentality has led to me putting unhealthy expectations on my work. Many people in artists’ circles talk about a creative block. But I feel like what I experience would be better described as creative paralysis. My high expectations lead to me shutting down completely. Reduced to a barely functioning shell as my mind fills up with pressure about how this blog post has to be the most amazing thing ever or no one will take me seriously as a writer again, for example of course.
Because of this at the start of the year I felt like I was going through the motions as a writer and wondered whether I should give it up. And all of that came to a head during lockdown when I barely wrote at all, and I was miserable for it. So in hindsight it did show me that I still wanted to be a writer, I just needed to find healthier ways of doing it.
The first of those I found to be treating myself and my work with respect and kindness. To accept the age-old adage that it’s okay for the first draft to suck; I know everyone says that but it took years for me to accept it so I will say it again. And that just because you don’t have the whole story planned in your head, that doesn’t mean it’s not worth starting. If anything now not knowing where I’m going with a story excites me more, like I’m digging for treasure. I spent much of my writing time in the second half of this year writing a self-reflective piece about my feelings during lockdown which started as two separate stories, and I still feel like there is more to discover there.
I also learned that I work best when I’m outside of the house, or more specifically, when I’m outside of my room. Like many university students I have spent much of the last two years living inside a small bedroom, only really venturing outside to spend time with my girlfriend, get food, or go to class. And it turns out that having my place of work and my place of rest be the same place does not work for me. Because either I’m trying to relax but can’t because I feel like I should be working, or trying to work but can’t because I want to relax. Turns out I need a bit more separation between work and home than no separation at all.
Almost all writing I have done in this second half of the year I did in the Palmerston North City Library. The giant windows light the building with all the sunshine I could need, something I have been deprived of while living in a glorified broom closet for two years. Being surrounded by others’ creative works helps me with inspiration too. A smaller thing that I have learned this year is that I want to get back into reading for leisure. That went by the wayside sometime in 2019 when I thought that my time would be better spent working on assignments, only to not work on them.
In general the ongoing (at time of writing) pandemic has taught me that our place on earth is fragile, so we should spend it not just wisely, but with pleasure. Obviously there is a time to get to work and get through what you need. But don’t stop yourself from doing things just because they won’t be immediately productive. Read for a while, watch a movie, play games, spend time with your friends or your significant other. Because you deserve to spend whatever time you get to yourself on what makes you happy. And for me that means not writing what doesn’t excite me.
Again that prize-writer mentality often led to me choosing topics not because they interested me, but because they would get me a better grade. But generally that doesn’t work, because if I’m bored writing it, people are going to be bored reading it. So now I choose to write on what piques my interest, and trust in my abilities that it will come out good in the end.
Even my scholarly essays are being written with this philosophy, I force myself to find an interesting angle. An essay on the Americanisation of global film, not interesting. But taking that same angle and examining it through the differences between Godzilla movies? That excites me, and also I get to watch a bunch of monster movies.
Now I feel it necessary to say that I’m sure my observations are not unique to only me. I think many of us have had to consider what we want from our lives this year. But I find it interesting that in a year so unstable I feel surer about what I want to do with my life now than ever before. For the first time in my life I can say that I am someone who wants to be a writer instead of just someone who writes because I’m good at it. So if there is one positive I can take from this otherwise awful year, it’s that.