It’s the most important question you can ask whenever you set out to do a thing.
Why do it?
Why go to the trouble?
From an unmotivated perspective — one I myself had not too long ago — it can sound like a discouragement.
Why would you even think of doing the thing you are about to do?
What’s the point?
And in that mindset, you want to keep the question as far from your mind as possible.
When trapped in lethargy, motion of any kind is a positive act.
But once you get the ball rolling, and action is automatic (or near enough to), then you need to start asking the most important question.
If you don’t have a satisfactory answer to this question, you’ll never be able to sustain your efforts. You might survive for a week or more on sheer willpower, but that’s an easily-exhausted resource that you’ll run out of eventually.
Trust me. I know from experience.
I can’t count the number of times I’ve started, and stopped, (and started and stopped again in an endless stutter) this ambition of daily writing.
To say nothing of all the other ambitions I might have had over the years. Missed opportunities and abandoned efforts litter the roadside of my life.
I have well over half-a-dozen half-finished novels stored on my computer. Every few months I neatly gather them together in an ever-increasing effort to organize my life, copy them onto flash drives and dropbox and whatever else comes to mind, and then promptly ignore them until my next burst of organizational effort.
And you’re talking to a long-aspiring (now published) author here. And not in the way that most people say, “I’d like to write a book someday.” I’ve finished four novels, and when I say the other half-dozen or more are half-finished, I mean multiple tens of thousands of words half-finished. Enough so that if I were out hiking in the woods and I thought about giving up, it wouldn’t be worth turning around because there’s just as much behind me as there is left to go on the trail.
I don’t say this to demean anyone, including myself. Only to illustrate that “Just Do It,” while a bold ambition, isn’t always the attitude you can have.
I’ve tried to go back and finish one or two of those novels over the years. I never got more than a chapter or two into the effort before giving up again. Those efforts were driven by obligation. A sense that I needed to finish the books because I’m a (self-described) completionist, dammit!
Any passion I once had for those stories, while maybe not dead, had gone dormant long enough that it was insufficient to motivate me to continue writing.
Systems help. Structuring your life in such a way as to make acting on your positive intentions more convenient than following your wasteful habits means you’ll keep up with your plans and goals and ambitions in a more sustained manner.
With the right structure, you can last for months or even years before burning out.
That’s how I got halfway through most of those novels, instead of giving up after the first few days.
But when you do burn out, it’ll still come back to the why.
I’ve heard this advice — know your why — so many times over the years that it really has become cliche in my mind.
And yet, I can’t say I ever fully grappled with it until this year.
I thought I knew my why. For years I wrote, and learned, and wrote some more assuming that I knew why I was doing it.
“I want to be a writer. I want to tell stories. I want to build worlds and invite people into them.”
I want to live in them myself, honestly.
I won’t say “for as long as I can remember.” I’m not that kind of writer. I distinctly remember the time in my life when I even realized being a writer was a job, and that stories didn’t just happen.
It took some time for me to settle on “yes, I want to write novels,” but I got there. (When I was twelve, I wanted to make video games. Turns out I was more interested in the stories and the worldbuilding, and not the coding.) By midway through high school, it was the only path I wanted to take.
That’s a decision ten-year-ago me made.
Ten. Years. Ago.
I won’t even begin to recount how much the world around us has changed in the past ten years, much less myself. I’m sure you can fill in the blanks with your own examples.
But I’ve been trudging along following that plan — a plan set down by a young man not even out of his teens yet — ever since. No consideration for alternative paths.
Sure, I may have made adjustments to how I write and how I publish. But that’s all attributable to the time and effort I’ve put into learning the craft and business of my chosen profession. A practice I knew I would have to implement regularly, even at that young age.
But at no point in this long process of study and practice and stumbling (rinse, repeat) did I ever pause to examine myself and how I’ve changed.
A lot of that came to bear on me this past summer. I fell into a deep lethargy for a season, unmotivated to do much of anything, seriously considering if I would ever write again. I won’t say that I resented my writing, more that I didn’t feel I was getting enough out of it. When there are so many good stories being told on television, why waste my time struggling with a mediocre talent to even churn out one finished thing?
That’s what I told myself, anyway.
In truth, I had failed to reconcile my present self with my teenage vision of where I would be in ten years.
I’m nowhere near it, obviously. But that’s not the problem.
The problem was that as I learned and grew and expanded my writer’s toolbox and my human maturity, I never reassessed why I wanted to be a writer. I never grappled with and truly defined what motivated me to sit down, all alone, and pour my thoughts out onto a (digital) page.
And without that, with only a vague notion of finding success and seeing the stories in my head manifest in the minds of others, I gave up subconsciously again and again and again.
And every time I gave up, my subconscious criticized me for failing to be that which I said I was.
I was a writer who didn’t write. Was it any wonder that I eventually became depressed?
There’s a line from Seth Godin that I absolutely love, and illustrates this point perfectly:
It is our narrative that determines who we will become.
The story we tell ourselves, about ourselves, is so powerful in shaping our behavior, our outlook, our attitude towards others, and so much more.
Honestly, I could do a whole week’s worth of blogs just unpacking that one sentence (and probably will someday). But for my purposes in talking here, it goes like this:
Conscious Josh: I’m a writer!
Subconscious Josh: Then why aren’t you writing?
Conscious Josh: Because I don’t know shut up.
Subconscious Josh: You’re a bad writer.
Conscious Josh: *sad face*
My internal narrative, one based on defining myself by my creative efforts, led me to despair whenever I failed up to the (often lofty) goals my conscious self would set out.
Now, goals are good. Naturally. It’s the only way we ever get anything done. But defining your self-worth by those goals — and your completion or lack thereof of them — is a recipe for disappointment, in the same way that defining yourself based on the opinions of others is an inherently precarious position for your self-esteem.
Your subconscious is really just another you, trained up to be a fierce self-critic if you let it.
There’s another quote about this that is scarily applicable, from Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art (an indispensable book for everyone, everywhere. Seriously, go out and buy this book right now. I’ll wait.)
We [as professionals] do not overidentify with our jobs. We may take pride in our work, we may stay late and come in on weekends, but we recognize that we are not our job descriptions. The amateur, on the other hand, overidentifies with his avocation, his artistic aspiration. He defines himself by it. […] [The] amateur composer will never write his symphony because he is overly invested in its success and overterrified of its failure. The amateur takes it so seriously it paralyzes him.
Oh, man. There are so many good gems in that book. I remember reading it for the first time and having my creative productivity kicked into high gear. I re-read it probably a dozen times in a month. So good.
But, I also remember times in my life when I read this very passage and felt a little twinge of guilt. Looking back, I’d safely say that the bit about defining yourself by your work hit pretty close to home for me. After all, this is what I was going to do for a living, how else was I supposed to define myself?
There’s probably some nuance to discuss there, but we need to circle back to the original point of this post.
Why do you do what you do?
When the answer was, “It’s who I am,” (a writer! blegh) it seems to cover the matter. Hard to argue with “am this, so do that.”
But, again, then when I failed to write, I failed to live up to my identity, and my entire identity came into question. Into crisis.
That’s no way to live.
To be honest, I’m still not sure I’ve really pinned down my “why?” Not satisfactorily at least. Not in a pithy phrase that I can spout off whenever the doubts creep in or someone asks me in a (hypothetical) interview.
For now, though, it’s enough that:
a) I’ve identified that this is a question that (yes, actually) I need to answer after all.
b) I’ve been able to shift my subconscious script from: “Why aren’t you writing, you must be bad,” to: “We feel good when we have written, let us go do that now.”
So it’s a start.
Now, bringing the focus way back to this project. 31 blogs in 31 days. A whole month of daily blogging. (And, by the looks of this post, way more blogging than the 500 words I’m holding myself to.)
Why am I doing this?
Well, I think the evidence for why I should do this fills up this entire post. I’m tired of being an intermittent, inconsistent writer. Committing to this challenge is a good way to motivate myself to fight against my prior patterns.
But there are a couple other things that go with that.
First, for years I’ve read the advice that you should make yourself (and your writing) publicly accountable to someone in order to motivate yourself to finish. Every “Write Your First Novel” book or blog or whatever has this nugget of wisdom in it.
And, like a lot of advice we hear repeatedly, I ignored it.
“I’ve already written a novel,” I said to myself. “I know what I’m doing.” (Arrogance, much?)
“I don’t need to involve other people, I’ve got this.” (Loner, much?)
“I love this project so much, I don’t need encouragement to get it done.” (HAH. HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH…..oh, you fool…)
And so on. The excuses (and they were excuses) were ready at hand as to why I didn’t need to trouble the people around me with what I was doing.
And what do I have to show for it?
Well, again, see the entire preceding post.
So a part of me says, “Hey, can’t hurt.”
But there’s also another part of me that knows I wouldn’t have gotten my book up and out into the world last month — a book I’d finished, edited, formatted, and otherwise gotten fully ready for release — if I hadn’t already told my family and others that I was doing so.
And I don’t want to ignore the reality that I, like all us humans, need help.
Even if that help comes in the form of a well-meaning nudge of “I thought you promised us stuff!”
Second, I’ve kind of always wanted to blog regularly.
My first love is still fiction. And I’ve already talked about my intentions to pour more time and effort into that this year than ever before. But over the years studying the craft, I’ve grown a real fondness for certain non-fiction as well.
From Dean Wesley Smith, Kris Rusch, Joanna Penn, and other writerly bloggers, to educational YouTubers like CGP Grey, the Vlogbrothers, CrashCourse, and so on, to the universe of spoken word gold that is podcasting, I’ve learned so much from all these forms of non-fiction engagement, and feel a not-insignificant urge to help others more directly with my words.
I mean, fiction is great and all. We all learn through stories. But sometimes you just need the relevant details distilled into a bite-size chunk. (Which this post is not.)
So I figured committing to this challenge would be a great way to test the waters and see if I can float.
Turns out, I can swim. Because after years of learning and listening and watching and waiting, I now seem to have a lot to say.
By the by, today’s prompt, for those keeping track at home, was twofold:
1. Write down my goal for this challenge; what I want to accomplish.
2. Ask myself how I’m going to do this.
In rather a few more words than I expected, I think I’ve answered these questions. Though I’ll note that I came to them in more of a roundabout way than I initially supposed.
I expect that to be a trend over the rest of the days. And I’m glad. It’d be rather boring to get a series of prompts and see the prompts obviously answered in the text.
See you all tomorrow. And thank you for reading this far. If you don’t already know from all I’ve said above, I’ll say it here succinctly:
You’re the reason I’m doing this.