“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”
~ Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath (2000)
Whether you are a graduate student who is writing a dissertation, or a novelist working on your big breakthrough, it’s likely that you sometimes find yourself seeking inspiration and motivation for the next writing session.
I certainly do.
Perhaps, this resonates with some of you—
I have come to perceive the search as an integral part of the writing process. I have also learnt over the years that getting and staying motivated takes on different forms for me. Taking a walk, a hike into the woods, and playing with my goofy cats are sufficient at times, and at others, reading about writing with a cup of coffee is all I need to sit down at my desk and write away.
I have launched RUOT‘s new series on How to Become a Better Writer with writers and readers like me in mind– in an effort to contribute to the ongoing conversation about the writing process and all that it entails.
In my introduction to the series, which you can find here, I discuss how writing is an arduous process. You could be writing a 500-page book, an essay for ENG 100, or a brief reflection and still be experiencing similar challenges like lack of motivation, self-doubt, and feeling under pressure. As one of my students told me last week, “I just can’t find anything else to say. I don’t know why it is so hard.” Puzzled, he was trying to comprehend why he struggled with writing a 200-word reflection. Writing is rewarding and fun, yes, but it can also be emotionally and mentally consuming to give birth to your ideas no matter what you’re creating. Once you do, it is often awfully satisfying, but still you may think you could’ve done a better job.
The first post of the series explores this notion of “doing a better job as a writer”–of writing better and suggests that shifting your perspective on writing can be the first step you take in becoming a better writer. Understanding–doing the inner work to really understand– why writing matters to you and why you’ve found yourself writing whatever you are working on can be paradigm-shifting in your writing practice.
Let’s dive right in!
Shift your perspective
What do I mean by “shifting your perspective”?
In this context, shifting your perspective means changing your relationship to writing by;
- focusing on writing as a process and as a way of not only professional but also mental and emotional growth
- emphasizing your purpose–surface level and deeper–in writing whatever you are working on rather than attaching to deadlines and due dates
- thinking about why you are here right now– at your desk, at a coffee shop, on your computer, etc.–writing or trying to write.
Requirements, due dates, self-doubt, and the fear of being judged ( “Do I sound smart enough?” “Is this plot creative enough?” “Will this idea make sense?” “Will I impress the hiring committee?” etc.) often interferes with the process of writing. Unless you are free-writing, or merely writing for fun, which I admit is an ambiguous concept, writing is often accompanied by a knot of pressures. This is exactly when the practice of shifting your perspective on writing may come in handy.
When under pressure, try asking yourself: Why do I have to write this piece I’m working on?
If you’re working on a cover letter, your answer could be, to make sure I impress the hiring committee and get the position. If you’re writing an argumentative essay, you could find yourself say, my goal is to receive an A in the class. To finish that manuscript my publisher needs by next week? To get my graduate degree? To be a published author? Do not filter your thoughts–write down whatever comes up.
Next, try digging deeper.
Why do you want that specific position? Why do you really want to become a published author? Why do you really want to receive an A?
How does writing whatever you are working on align with your values as an individual? Will it help you become a better communicator and thinker? A strong-er candidate in the job market? Will finishing a piece of writing get you closer to achieving a bigger goal like graduating, having the funds to move abroad, making yourself proud, getting your words and ideas out there in the world and sharing them with others?
As you begin to think about the bigger picture, you will have a better sense of your purpose(s), which can allow you to take a holistic approach to writing.
Meditating on why you are writing in the first place takes you one step closer to your goal of writing better. Shifting your perspective from I have to to I want to because… can help you to write with a purpose, to find your voice as a writer, and to focus better.
In this context, it doesn’t necessarily matter if you’re an aspiring writer, a writer who has lost the motivation to continue writing, or a student who is taking a mandatory writing course. Here’s what I always tell my students and myself: get your money’s worth–literally and figuratively.
I often tell my students, you’re in this class; you are here. You’re investing time and money, yes, but there is also a reason why you are here right now. There’s a bigger picture. So, why not try your best and make the most of it?
In a similar way, I tell myself, Well, this is what you’re doing with your life. This is what you’ve decided to do with your life so don’t be hard on yourself. Meditate on why you are here in this moment working on this draft.
Easier said than done, of course, but remember this along the way: “Frustration is not an interruption of your process,” as Elizabeth Gilbert writes in Big Magic, “frustration is the process.”
Here’s an example that illustrates how I work to shift my perspective when I’m frustrated and procrastinating.
When I was writing my dissertation, there were times when I simply did not want to. The pressure was too much. Time was running out. My committee asked for a draft or a revision. I built it up in my head; I called my dissertation my baby. There were times when I thought it had to be perfect–a masterpiece. What helped during those moments was to sit down and free-write by responding to the following questions:
1. Why do I have to finish this chapter?
Deadline approaching/My committee needs a draft of the chapter by next month. I do need to graduate and I really don’t want to go through this for another year
2. How/What do I feel right now when I think about working on my chapter?
Frustration, dread, fear, pressure
3. Why do I want to write this chapter? Why did I take a path to get here?
I want to graduate, get my PhD, and move on. I also sincerely care about my topic, and I am here because my goal is to contribute to the conversation about muslimness in contemporary literature. I do believe that what I write has the power to add to the discourse even if it may take time. It may also inspire someone else to do research on the same topic.
4. How will I feel once I am done working on this chapter?
Excited, accomplished, confident, relieved, calm, fulfilled, and proud
5. How does writing/finishing this chapter align with my individual values and the bigger picture?
If I finish this chapter, I can move on the next chapter, which will bring me closer to graduating and ultimately to my goal of getting a job that I find meaningful and to moving back home. I’ve always dreamed of becoming a doctor so writing this chapter will help me reach my goal. It will also help me reach my goal of becoming an expert in the field of contemporary migration literature
These questions allow me to pause, observe, and reflect when I’m feeling blocked and/or overwhelmed. As I respond to these prompts, I:
- actually start writing
- identify the ways in which I approach whatever I’m working on, which then allows me to shift my approach if it’s not working
- bring awareness to some familiar patterns of negative thoughts and feelings that come up
- can see the whole picture, which motivates me to keep going
As is the case with any inner work, you may resist taking the time to meditate on these questions, or you may not be able to come up with any responses. It may seem like a waste of time or energy, and it is okay to feel this way at first. As psychologist Tim Pychyl notes, “Self-change of any of sort is not a simple thing, and it typically follows the old adage of two steps forward and one step back.” Continue to make time to sit down and reflect, and you can find a “worksheet” that can help you organize your thoughts below.
You can always experiment with these prompts and add other questions that relate to your own process.
The prompts do take on different forms for me depending on the project I’m working on, but the last question always encourages me to take some action.
6. What are some steps I can take to write/finish my chapter?
—-which takes me to my following post on creating a writing ritual.
Stay tuned for my next post where I discuss some of the most effective methods that can help you get back on track.