William Kowalski

Trouble Staying Motivated

July 1, 2015
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William Kowalski

Many hopeful writers have told me they’ve gotten a story well under way, but were perplexed to find that they ran out of steam before even hitting the halfway point.  They just couldn’t bring themselves to work on it any longer.  They ask me why this is, as if I am some sort of physician of writing who can diagnose the various maladies that afflict people of our kind. 

Actually, to some extent, I can.  Nearly all of the roadblocks we run into are self-imposed.  And sometimes, though we are loath to admit it, our problem is that we are afraid of success.  We have inner demons that prevent us from pursuing what we really want, because we don’t believe we really deserve it.  We do things to sabotage our own futures.  To you people, I say:  Your issue is bigger than you realize, so get thee to a therapist, pronto.  Your neurosis is not imaginary.  It’s real, it won’t fix itself, and it can ruin your life. 

(Does going to a shrink mean you’re crazy?  Hell, no.  In this insane modern world, where no one goes outside any more, our food is literally killing us, and everyone is bombarded with thousands of bits of stimuli per day–much of it horrifying–you’re crazy if you don’t see a therapist.)

Or, maybe we got to a certain point and realized we just didn’t need to write this book any more.  Once we found out what’s really involved in writing a whole book–the tedium, the repetition, the hours in the chair, the frustration, the very real chance that it will never be praised by anyone except friends and family–we decided it’s just not for us.  There is nothing wrong with making that decision, not if it starts to feel like punishment. 

I am reminded of my first year at St. John’s College, which is located in the foothills of the beautiful Sangre de Cristo mountains, just outside Santa Fe, New Mexico.  I was so entranced by the beauty of the landscape that I often went hiking.  It was easy to do.  Just outside the door of my freshman dormitory, there was a mountain called Monte Sol, or Sun Mountain.  The hike to the top afforded a stunning view of the city of Santa Fe and the entire Galisteo Valley.  It took about an hour, and at 7,500 feet above sea level, it was a taxing climb.  Often, as I made that hike, I thought about turning back before reaching the top.  After all, the view from there was nearly as good as it would be from the summit.  I had gained practically all the same exercise benefits I would from finishing my climb.  The only difference would be that I couldn’t say I had made it all the way.  That, more often than not, was what kept me going when nothing else would. 

My attempts to minimize the importance of reaching the top were really just a way to justify giving up.  There was no substitute for the feeling of coming out onto the broad, bald rock face of the summit, where legend had it an ancient tribe once worshiped the sun.  It was a great sense of accomplishment.  Writing a book is very much the same. You can write most of a book, and you can learn a lot from the experience, but you won’t really feel that you have written a book unless you actually… you know… write a book.  All of it.  Just like I couldn’t honestly say I had climbed a mountain unless I had climbed the entire mountain… not just most of it.

The fact is, lots of people start books and never finish them.  I have no hard and fast numbers available, but I can easily invent some:  for every hundred people who start a book, only one of them will actually finish it.  There, that sounds, convincing, doesn’t it?  In my experience, it’s close enough to the truth to be called truish.  I know plenty of people who have great ideas for books, or have started writing books, but very few who have finished.

The biggest difference between successful writers and failed writers is that successful writers finish what they start.  This is more important than talent, more important than a brilliant idea, more important than a fancy education or a strong vocabulary.  There is no substitute for it.  If you don’t finish writing something, none of those other factors even matter.

But let’s be reasonable.  You don’t need to force yourself to finish every project you start.  Sometimes there are very good reasons for abandoning something.  It could be that the idea just wasn’t very good to begin with, and it took you a while to see it.  That’s okay.  It happens to me a lot, in fact.  For every book idea I have, I probably only pursue one percent of them, and ultimately might only finish %.001 percent.  That means for every thousand book ideas I have, only one of them actually becomes a book.

So then, so what if you start a book and don’t finish?  Whose gd business is it besides yours?  No one’s, of course.  But there is something I want to warn you about, and that is regret.  Regret for simply not having tried is the worst kind of all.  She got lazy, she didn’t feel like it, she got caught up in other stuff.  There’s no shame in any of this, either.  The shame comes later, sometimes years later, when she’s married with three children and is working a soul-crushing job with no end in sight.  Then she will think, What would my life be like if I’d finished that book?  Maybe it wouldn’t be any different.  Chances are it wouldn’t have brought her fame and fortune.  But it would have been finished.  Maybe she would feel better than she does about herself now. The thing is… she’ll never know.  And that’s the real shame.

So, I really can’t tell you much about how to stay motivated.  You’ll have to find your own way to do this.  All I can say is: that book isn’t going to write itself, and if you don’t write it, no one else will.  The world won’t be any different if you don’t write it.  And that’s precisely why you should.

Learn more about Bill  at https://williamkowalski.com/ 

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This post was written by William Kowalski