Inspiration is something I touched on in my post about making your writing goals SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic) as that’s what helps you divide up a huge goal into smaller ones so you can maintain momentum.
In this post, though, I want to talk about the differences between inspiration and motivation, as well as another way people can feel blocked feeling either inspired or motivated: Not having a why.
Recently, I watched an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space 9 that takes place in the future (“The Visitor”). A young woman visits an elderly Jake Sisko (the son of the station’s commander) to find out why he stopped his successful writing career at 40 to study science. She also wanted to find out what his motivation for writing was.
I also remembered feeling as irritated by the young woman the first time I saw the episode as much as I did this time. She kept repeating how badly she wanted to be a writer. At one point, Jake asks her something to the effect of, “So what are you doing to become one?”
She replied, “I’m doing a lot of reading to study how it’s done.”
“Have you written anything yet?” he asked.
“No,” she replied.
She mistakenly thought that if she read authors she loved, read about writing, read about how to write, read about how to become inspired, read about how to read about writing…and so on…that made her a writer.
Moreover, she was confusing the act of studying about writing with actual writing.
Ironically, so was the author of that particular episode.
Knowing how writing is done and how other authors write isn’t the same thing as knowing how you write. And you can’t know that, or call yourself a writer, until you actually start writing. Moreover.
Now, I’m not saying that studying writing isn’t helpful.
After all, that’s what these posts are about. My personal philosophical take on how to/I write.
I took creative writing courses in college. Essay writing. But the way I actually learned was by writing stories and writing essays. I could have studied creative and essay writing for decades. But without actually writing either, how could I possibly know how to write?
The young girl in the Deep Space 9 episode was stuck where a lot of “aspiring” writers are: Caught in thinking that they have to know how to write well, even perfectly, before they can start writing. Furthermore, this is another form of self-imposed writer’s block.
I kept waiting for Jake Sisko to tell her to simply start writing, because that’s the only way she can become a writer and find her why, but he never did.
This irked me, because, to me, she needed to hear it. And, 20 years ago, when this episode first aired, it irked me almost as much. Likewise.
Philosophical understanding (e.g. reading about how to rebuild an engine when you want to become a mechanic) is only one aspect of full understanding. Practical understanding is necessary…actually rebuilding an engine, for example…to know how it’s done. Moreover, the more reading you do about something, that’s less time you have to put those skills into practice.
Additionally, the young woman kept saying she “didn’t know” what she wanted to write about and that she was “waiting” for inspiration. (But of course she didn’t know…the more she told herself she didn’t know, the more she trapped herself in believing exactly that.)
You can’t get inspiration (or motivation) from studying what it is you want to create. Both stem from having a why, and this young woman didn’t have one. And she was looking for it in all the wrong places
That’s where your motivation comes from: Your why. Inspiration is merely the wellspring of ideas. She seemed to think that her inspiration (and motivation) would come from other authors. Resources outside of her. Except one author’s why likely isn’t yours. It can’t be.
Because it’s that author’s why.
Maybe your why and another author’s why are similar, but, as I keep saying throughout these posts, it’s best if you write for yourself—and that means your personal why has to come from within you. It’s otherwise like watching your favorite author eat eat and expecting to have your hunger satiated.
You can feel inspired by someone else’s why, and that’s fine. But the next step is to ask yourself how you can make it yours. How you can personalize it so you find your own writing niche.
Action steps are what generate momentum towards goals. This is true whether you want to get your kitchen cleaned up after a messy meal or get that short story down. You can visualize and study about creating something, but without action steps you will never realize your goal.
Take a look at that word realize. The first four letters. R-E-A-L. You will never make your goal of becoming a writer real without actually writing. That young woman may have read every single book about writing in existence, may have talked to every author she could reach…but that makes her a reader and researcher about writing. Not a writer.
The only way you can truly learn about writing is to actually write.
But why is having a why so important?
Because that’s the engine that powers creation. It’s what inspires and motivates you to take those super-important action steps.
Your car isn’t going to go anywhere without that big hunk of metal and pistons under the hood, and neither will you without your why.
Having a why is important for those action steps reaching a goal. Any goal. Pretty much every resource you come across about reaching a goal (any goal) talks about the necessity of having a why. It’s something I explore frequently throughout my other blog, Small Change Life.
Here are a few articles I’ve written that you may find helpful:
Creating Motivation (a three part series).
(And there’s a lot more; just go to Small Change Life and type “motivation” or “goals” in the search box in the right-hand column.)
But maybe you do have a why, even a strong one, and there’s still simply no sense of motivation or inspiration. What then?
Ask yourself why you feel lacking in inspiration and/or motivation. And then really listen (hard!) to the answer that bubbles up.
Have you been working on something for awhile and now feel burned out?
If that’s so, maybe it’s time to take a break and work on something else for awhile. Another story, another format (a poem instead of prose), another genre. Even a completely different project altogether, like reorganizing your pantry. Going for a walk. Watching TV or a movie.
Are you sitting at your desk, staring at a page and an unmoving cursor that’s blinking at you, getting more and more frustrated?
If so, what are you thinking in that moment? Are you feeding the belief you’re stuck and blocked by telling yourself you’re stuck and blocked? (If so, read this post about my take on writer’s block.) Again, maybe it’s time to take a break. Or maybe you haven’t yet defined your why.
And maybe it’s time to redefine it, as sometimes your why changes.
It could easily be that your lack of inspiration and motivation stems from trying to squeeze them out of a why that no longer fits or exists. Or it’s the wrong why. My why for Small Change Life is vastly different than the one I have for this website. If I tried to swap them, I’d have zero inspiration and motivation.
Trying to work from an ill-fitting why—or one that doesn’t work at all—is like trying to use the key for a Toyota in a Ford. You can no more expect the engine to turn over if you have the wrong key than you can expect to find inspiration and motivation from the wrong why.
It’s also important to know that even when you have a why, inspiration and/or motivation can come and go, even if your why remains the same and still fits.
This is very normal. It can certainly be frustrating, sure. But understanding that inspiration and motivation come in cycles of varying power allows you to accept those times when your well seems to have run dry. Neither is a resource of perpetual motion.
This is the first post I’ve put up in awhile, mainly because I burned out from trying to produce two posts a week. The articles started sounding as uninspired as I felt.
And so, I decided to take a break from writing wholly and start recording Coming Home as an audio book (as well as editing the tracks myself).
However, even though I felt unmotivated, I still felt inspired to continue with this website—because I still had my why.
So, as you can see, you can have inspiration without motivation, and you can have motivation without inspiration. But neither can exist without a why.
However, one thing to consider about motivation: sometimes the very act of simply starting a task, even if you have zero motivation to do so, actually generates motivation—as well as the inspiration to keep going.
I realize that sounds counter-intuitive, but it’s something I frequently experience with a lot of goals. Housework, for one. Exercising. And, yes…even writing. Additionally.
But I’m certain you’ve experienced this with your own projects. How many times have you made yourself start working on something (such finally clearing out that box-choked garage), only to discover you want to keep going? Think back to one of those times.
What was your why?
Now, pretend you didn’t have one. Notice the shift in the remembered inspiration and motivation. It disappeared, didn’t it?
A why doesn’t have to be something enormous and groundbreaking. Earth-shatteringly nifty.
This is something I often had to mention to my clients when I was a life coach when we broached the subject of having a why (another variation is having a purpose) to power them towards their goals.
Often, a client thought they needed some kind of why or purpose that would turn them into a blend of Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, and Mother Theresa. Or that their why needed to not only contain the power of a five-story rocket, but also be permanently continual.
You can have a purpose and why in life that’s perhaps “small” but makes a difference somehow, and you can get to the grocery store just as easily on a small scooter as you can a street-legal Formula 1 racing car.
So that means your why for your writing merely needs enough importance and power to generate momentum in a way that works for you so you can take those crucial action steps.
So if you’re recognizing yourself (somewhat or perhaps greatly) in the young woman from that Deep Space 9 episode, it’s time to take the next step. Stop thinking about becoming a writer and write.
Get something down. Also.
If you’re freaking out about the quality of what you put down, stop. Remember, as Ernest Hemingway said, all first drafts are shit. Your second one may be as well. And that’s okay, because each time you work through it you’ll improve it.
If you’re thinking of how other people won’t like what you write, start writing for yourself (as I keep saying over and over!) Doing so, as well as getting that shitty first draft down, then working on it as steadily as you can, will generate more and more confidence in yourself and your writing ability.
If you don’t have a why for writing, define one (use the exercise below if you need help, or please feel free to email me). Remember, it doesn’t matter if anyone else feels inspired by that why. Your why isn’t meant to inspire or motivate me, any more than mine is meant to inspire and motivate you.
All that matters is it’s yours. Because then you can, like the quote says above, write from the soul. Your soul.
And that’s an inspiring thought, isn’t it?
Write a short scene or story using these five words or phrases: Underwear, battery, instant potatoes, jousting match, inner tube. DIFFICULTY: Your setting is a kitty litter factory.
QUESTIONS TO ANSWER TO HELP YOU FIND YOUR WRITING WHY
1) What’s your personal definition of inspiration and motivation?
2) When do you feel most inspired about writing?
3) What kinds of stories do you want to tell?
4) What is your target audience? (Remember, it doesn’t matter if your readers like your stories.)
5) What would you like them to take away from your stories?
6) What is the biggest fear you have that you could explore through one of your characters?
7) Pretend you’re being interviewed and you’re asked why you like to write. What’s the first reply that comes into your head?
Questions? Comments? What’s your why for inspiration? How do you remain motivated? Leave a comment below, or email me using the “Contact” link, or at heather (at) heathercurryselfbooks (dot) com. You can also follow me on my Facebook page and on Twitter (@HCSBooks). I’m also on Instagram (heathercurryself). Also, do leave me feedback about this post!