I want to write

I was put on earth to be a writer but I'm struggling with a deep lack of motivation. How can I get over it?

Cary Tennis
April 13, 2004 11:06PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I often feel I was put on earth to write. As you've said about yourself, the best way I know to share myself with the world is through my words. Selfishly, there is no greater pleasure than writing the perfectly tuned sentence, capturing the exact emotion or idea from the pool of emotions and ideas floating in my creative mind. To go to bed at night having committed to paper a word or phrase or story is hugely satisfying, different from a great movie, a great conversation, great sex, because it is a singular experience, unshared, one I have created alone and purely from the depths of my own imagination.


Problem is, I don't write. For as long as I've been moved to express myself through words on paper (now a screen), I've also struggled with a deep lack of motivation to write. When I do it, I'm a good writer, and as I said I find it rewarding. But I've always felt an extreme repulsion along with the exultation that comes with sitting alone in a room and reconstituting the world in a story or article. Left with just my journal or computer, my attention wanders, my fingers tense, my body rebels, thinks of a thousand other things I could be doing (biting my fingernails, making coffee, e-mail, solitaire, watching the swirling snow from my window), and suddenly whole days have passed without a word. I feel unproductive, wasteful, angry. I don't sleep well, and I get up the next day hostile toward myself, toward my process. And thus the cycle continues.

I work well with deadlines. I love freelance assignments because they require that I turn in a piece by a certain time -- I am never late. I am motivated by the other, but simply don't seem to be able to regulate my own time, give myself the space -- without procrastination or excuses -- to accomplish anything substantial. I've been out of college (where I majored in writing) for four years now, and worry that if I don't start really writing soon, I never will.

What adds to the internal cacophony keeping me from my work of late is that I recently moved away from the bustle to a place where I can live cheaply and concentrate almost solely on writing. It's a dream, really, and yet still I let the days and weeks go by without making any real headway with all the ideas I know I possess, including a very real book I've been researching and planning tentatively since I moved. My boyfriend (I live with him) and my family and friends are hugely supportive. And yet.


How can I get over this? I bought a soon-to-arrive laptop, which I hope will liberate my writing space (in case restlessness at home is the problem). I've cut back on my other work in order to have as much time as I need (in case distraction is the problem).

At a reading when I lived in New York City, the writer Francine Prose advised burgeoning writers, "If you can do anything else -- do it." But honestly, despite my lack of focus and self-discipline, I can't imagine ever giving up the sheer peacefulness of that rare moment when the thoughts are wholly aligned on the page and I read them, my own words, with awe. I want to move on from this inertia to a sustained, creative life -- I've set myself up for it, I know I can do it, I just don't know how.

Ready to Write


Dear Ready,

I have this yoga posture that I use. You must be sitting at your desk with the computer on to do this posture. Close your eyes and put your elbows on your desk. Then bring your hands together so the little fingers are touching, and then bring your face into your hands and sit there with your chin in your palms and your fingertips over your eyelids. OK, now just sit there with your head in your hands. Breathe through your nose. Do you hear anything? Do you hear the birds? Do you hear the whining of the computer? Do your shoulders ache with tension? Ah, that's good. Let your head rest in your palms. Let the tension go out of your shoulders. You're yawning. That's good. Yawning is good. Do you feel sleepy? Me too. There's a couch over there. Go over to the couch and curl up in a little ball and go to sleep.


That's my favorite writing exercise. Whenever I find myself unable to write, I do that.

When you wake up, come back to the computer. Sit and stare at the screen. Do the "sitting up at the computer" posture: Sit straight in your chair and place your hands on the keyboard. Make sure the computer is turned on. Make the "opening a word-processing program" motion with your hands. Then stare at the screen. Make sure your back is straight and your hands are on the keyboard. If you start typing, don't worry. It's just your fingers moving over the keyboard. Pay attention to the screen. Did some words appear there? Good. That means you are writing. Don't worry what the words mean. Just keep making them appear on the screen. If you find yourself slumping over, tense your abdominal muscles to keep yourself sitting up straight. If your legs become uncomfortable, place one ankle under the opposite thigh on the chair. Alternate ankles. Breathe. Let the tension go out of your shoulders. Keep moving your fingers over the keyboard, making words appear on the screen.

You may experience intrusive thoughts. Observe those thoughts with interest. One thought I call the "cappuccino" thought. The image of a tall cup with foamy milk over espresso appears; sometimes I even seem to hear the sound the steamer makes. This is an intrusive thought, but it can also be a sign that it is time to perform the "ordering a cappuccino" posture. Other thoughts can be intrusive and detrimental to the writing process. Observe these thoughts with interest but do not fight them. Let them go. If some of these thoughts make you feel like a worthless piece of shit, observe that with interest, and let it go.


Keep doing these postures until you feel depressed, irritable, murderous, suicidal or find it hard to breathe. Then perform the face-in-hands posture as described above, with your elbows on the desk and your fingertips over your eyelids. When you begin to yawn, go back to the couch, curl up and go to sleep.

If you alternate between those two postures, the "face in hands" posture, and the "sitting up straight at the computer" posture, you should be able to spend enough time at the computer that the words will accumulate. Once you have accumulated many words, perform the "printing out my story" function. Look at your words and try to understand why they are there. Do they seem to have some purpose? Do they tell the truth? Look for places where the words do not seem to tell the truth, and when you find those places, draw a red or black line through those words. When you are done, see if you have any words left. If not, no big deal. Just repeat the "curling up on the couch" posture until you awake with renewed energy with which to tackle your seemingly hopeless task. Go to your computer. Turn it on. Place your hands on the keyboard, and begin.

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Want more advice from Cary? Read the Since You Asked directory.

Cary Tennis

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