On Why “I Want to be Published” May Not Be Great Motivation

Hello again! I’m back from my NaNoWriMo adventure. Alas, I didn’t actually win NaNo this year, but hey! I got out of the house a few times, met a few new people, and got to better know some of the folks in my region. That’s a win in itself!

And now, let’s get back to the blog! …er, for a week or two, at least. I’m probably not going to be super busy during the holidays.

Cover of Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind.
Image originally from Goodreads.

A while ago, I started a post called “On Finding Motivation to Write, and Why ‘I Want to Be Published!’ Might Not Help.” I wrote it, threw it in my draft folder, and never published it.

The basic idea was simple: it was about how I’d get depressed and anxious if I spent too much time thinking about how wonderful it’d be to get a project published, and why I thought that success-focused motivation (“I want to write because I want to get an agent someday!”) might actually be unhelpful.

It was an honest post, but it felt like whining–or, worse, like it was some roundabout way for me to dump on myself. So I put it aside.

Then I picked up Wired to Create at a book swap. I wasn’t even through the introduction when I ran into something that reminded me a lot of what I just described.

The Difference Between Being Creative Because You Want to Create and Being Creative Because You Want to Accomplish Something

Check this out.

People who set aside a special time and place in their lives for creative thinking and work … also tend to score higher on measures of creative potential. In contrast, people who are more motivated to develop a final product (agreeing with statements like “I work most creatively when I have deadlines,” “If I don’t have something to show for myself, then I feel I’ve failed”) tend to score lower in creative potential and intrinsic motivation and higher  in stress and extrinsic (reward-oriented) motivation. Those who derive enjoyment from the act of creating and feel in control of their creative process tend to show greater creativity than those who are focused exclusively on the outcome of their work. [Emphasis mine]

Huh.

First–before I go farther–Wired to Create is about increasing your creativity. It’s not a book about how “Creative People” are just better and more productive. So the above isn’t saying that there are two types of people and one is just less creative, lol sucks to be you, they’re discussing how mindsets may affect overall creative output.

And that’s not all it says! It also describes the difference between what it calls “harmoniously passionate people”–who are driven to create because it provides meaning to their lives–and the “obsessively passionate”:

In contrast, obsessively passionate people are less motivated by a love of their work … They frequently experience anxiety when engaging in their work and feel constant pressure to outperform others because they see their achievements as a source of social acceptance or self-esteem. They are motivated to engage in their activity due to the promise of external rewards, not their inner inclinations … While it is paved with goals that can sometimes be adaptive for performance … [this] road tends to be marked by lower levels of vitality, positive emotions, and enjoyment…

Both harmoniously and obsessively passionate people, the book seems to acknowledge, are being creative–but the latter is more likely to be more anxious and less happy about it.

Writing Because You Want to Write vs. Writing Because You Want to Succeed

I’ve thought about this kind of thing a lot. A lot a lot. And it’s not just because I’ve been struggling with motivation this year. (Well, OK. It is.)

But it comes down to something you’ve probably heard before: it’s easier to motivate yourself to write if it’s the writing itself that you’re looking forward to.

It takes a lot to write a novel. Writing a YA- to adult-length novel will take you roughly 80,000 to 100,000 words. That’s months (if not years!) of work. So how do you get your butt in a chair every day? How do you motivate yourself through self-doubt, plot holes, and problems you can’t seem to fix?

The more you focus on the writing, the better you’ll probably do. You’ll still have good days and bad days, but if you enjoy the experience of writing, then you’ll probably feel at least a little good when you do the part you enjoy: writing. And that happens all the time!

But if your motivation to write is “All this writing will be worthwhile a year or two from now, when I finally get an offer from an agent!” Then… Well, all the good parts of writing are far off in the future–and may never happen at all! You’re setting up a situation where now you have to struggle, and someday this might retroactively end up being a good use of your time. And if you don’t eventually succeed, you might feel like you accomplished nothing. And now you have to waste another year or so to try again!

Super motivating, right?

So I would be super not surprised if that latter person was more stressed, more anxious, and less happy with the day to day process of writing.

Of course, dreams–and dreaming–is still important.

Of course, Wired to Create doesn’t suggest you forget about accomplishment and focus only on the joy of creation. In fact, there’s a whole section about having a dream can inspire creativity. It’s just that dreams, alone, are not enough:

Having dreams and goals alone is not enough to push us through the difficult times… What’s clear is that while we need a dream and a positive self-image, we must also develop strategies for keeping sight of those dreams while we work through the investable challenges that the creative journey presents.

And, interestingly, the type of goals you set are also important to consider:

People who are hopeful tend to create learning goals (like experimenting with a new type of sound), which support personal growth and improvement. Those without hope, on the other hand, tend to adopt mastery goals (like selling a certain number of records), which are less focused on growth and more focused on outperforming others. … Hopeful thinking may actually promote creative thinking skills, insofar as it involves coming up with various flexible strategies to achieve a goal.

Overall, none of this is too shocking. This sounds really close to a book like Talent is Overrated, by Geoff Colvin, which describes how people who are masters of their craft constantly challenge themselves by giving themselves growth-oriented goals that push their boundaries. Or even Mindset, which is all about how growth-oriented people focus on, well, growing their skills, rather than demanding complete and utter perfection of themselves.

In any case, there’s nothing bad about dreaming about getting an agent or publishing a book. Having a positive dream to aim for is helpful. But when you sit down and set goals for yourself, they should be growth-oriented and manageable: more “My goal is to work on my dialogue on this project” and less “My goal is to be famous!”

So what do I take out of that?

Almost all the content above came out of Wired to Create‘s chapter on Passion, and on how important joy and enthusiasm are for creating your best work. And when I look at what motivates me, and what I’ve been passionate about, I realize… I’m kind of all over the place.

I do love writing. I’m blissful when I hit a moment of flow, lose myself in a story, and produce something that feels emotional. I write because I love those moments. But I also really, really want to reach my goals. I want an agent. I want a publishing deal. I want to have the chance, someday, for writing to make up a significant part of my career.

And it’s that–the dreaming, the “I want to accomplish things” part–that I tend to beat myself over the head with. I want these things! And what did I do to accomplish them this year? Not enough! I’m not writing enough at the moment, so hey–guess what, me, you’re never going to attain those goals at that rate! And when I look at a reason to sit myself down in the chair and write, I think “Hey, maybe this’ll be the project when I accomplish my goals!” And then my enthusiasm tanks. Because that’s not very motivating.

And then people tell me “Hey, good luck on your queries–I hope you get an agent!” And I get sad. Because maybe I won’t! That’s depressing, too!

That’s not exactly what Wired to Create was describing, but some of the things it discussed are very familiar to me. I wonder how much of my stress and frustration might be because I’m not treating my dreams like positive and encouraging aspirations, and I’m instead treating them like goals I’m currently failing to attain?

I don’t really know if I can distill this all into a concrete work list of things to do, but it’s  food for thought.

3 thoughts on “On Why “I Want to be Published” May Not Be Great Motivation

  1. Thank you so much, Ellie, for writing this post! I’ve been feeling anxious since Nanowrimo ended. Fame has never been the motivation for me, but I focus too much on “finishing” the novel instead of how I could improve as a writer. The definition of “productivity” in the writing community can be unhealthy and stressful sometimes, and your post is a great reminder that reading others’ work is no less productive than rewriting my first draft. I hope the best for your writing!

    1. Oh man, the way the writing community approaches productivity can be weeeeeeeeeeeeird. But even though I’m saying that, my go-to way of making myself feel like a failure is to look over this spreadsheet I have–which tracks how much I write every day, and lets me track what I completed each year–and guilt myself about not doing more.

      Beating yourself up over productivity is so easy to do. So yes! I absolutely hope you can take some time to do some totally-also-productive reading and refill that creative well–or whatever else you need right now. :) Good luck with your writing, too!

      1. Exactly! I heard that using spreadsheets to track goals is super helpful and I have been meaning to try it out but somehow even that doesn’t feel “productive” so I have been procrastinating. But the spreadsheet is just a tool, if it has become unhealthy for you, maybe it’s time to adjust? Maybe count the time you brainstorm or think about writing. I read your post about defining productivity and I hope the process is working for you!
        I’m trying hard to not beat myself up, because for me guilt will only lead to being unproductive (and mental health issues). Spending more time to read is definitively a well-needed distraction.
        Thank you!

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