Tuesday, August 02, 2016

External motivation

While participating in a panel discussion at this past weekend's ArmadilloCon in Austin, Texas, I had an epiphany about the role of external motivation.

Matt Cardin, Carrie Clevenger, Amanda Downum, Kirk Lynn, Ari Marmell, Jessica Reisman, and I were discussing "How to Deal with Writer's Block." Having never experienced writer's block, I, of course, claimed it didn't exist. The other panelists begged to differ.

My co-panelists are primarily long-form writers (novelists, non-fiction books, etc.), while I am primarily a short-form writer (short stories, articles, etc.), and our discussion of ways to overcome those periods when one does not feel motivated to put words on paper (regardless which term one uses to identify those moments) included a discussion of internal and external motivation.

Long-form writers require, and struggle with, internal motivation to drive them through the long slog of producing several hundred pages of publishable prose. The paucity of external motivation drives them to seek it from spouses, critique groups, beta readers, and others.

I realized that I don't struggle with internal motivation in part because, as a short-form writer, I am deluged with external motivation. For example, in the week leading up to ArmadilloCon, I received contracts for three short stories, responded to an editor's request for a bio to accompany a story in an upcoming anthology, received an update from another anthology editor, received payments for two short stories, and received royalty reports regarding contributions to four already published anthologies. (And, yes, my spouse also provided external motivation by asking when I'll finish another story for her to read.)

All of this activity represents a fairly typical week. In short, I receive external motivation on a frequent and on-going basis, so I rarely rely on internal motivation to drive myself to the keyboard.

This may explain why I concentrate on short-form writing. Early in my writing career I wrote a few novels (all of which were published), but short fiction provided greater and more frequent external motivation. That external motivation contributed to a feedback loop. The more I wrote, the more external motivation I received. The more external motivation I received, the more I wrote.

Would I experience "writer's block" were it not for this deluge of external motivation?

I don't know, and I hope I never have to find out.


Graham Powell said...

I have experienced writer's block, but it has nothing to do when the writing. When things are unsettled in my personal life I have a lot of trouble writing, or concentrating on anything, really. When they are't, I don't.

Brian Drake said...

Great article, Michael.

My external motivation is my bank balance.

Kevin R. Tipple said...

It has nothing to do with motivation and everything to do with one's own daily reality. It helps when one is able to have some sort of control over one's own life. When one suffers from disabling bad health, has a spouse who is also sick, and a host of other things that are all very bad and out of one's control, it is a huge block.

Michael Bracken said...

There are external pressures which prevent writing, as Graham suggests and Kevin elaborates upon, but I wonder if they truly create a "block." When those external pressures disappear, does the writing return, as it does in Graham's case and which, I hope, it does soon in Kevin's case?

Matt Cardin, one of my co-panelists at ArmadilloCon, described "writer's block" as an inability to put any words together in any form, leading to an internal crisis of self-doubt that spirals ever downward. (Forgive me, Matt, if I'm oversimplifying your much more cogent description.) Thus, if the removal of external barriers allows one to write again, one was never truly "blocked."

Of course, all this hair splitting in an attempt to define "writer's block" is of little value if one desires to write but is prevented from writing by any reason, whether internal, external, or existential.

And, Brian, I can help with your motivation. Send me half the money in your bank account. Looking at your balance after you do that will have you pounding the keyboard in no time!

Susan Oleksiw said...

I don't have writer's block because I could never afford it when I was freelancing. I started writing and editing in high school and then on into college. If I didn't write, I missed a deadline and would ruin my relationship with that particular editor. No matter how I feel, I have to go to work every day, either at my (now retired from) day job or my writing desk. I don't even think about it. But I do waste a lot of time if I'm feeling lazy. Like reading blogs and posting comments. I should be working. Maybe this is my version of writer's block.

Brian Drake said...

I would gladly send half the money, but you'd feel sorry for me and send it back. :)