How to be a Better and Happier Writer
Today’s guest post is by Michael Mahin. Michael is a repped screenwriter and children’s book author, with two books forthcoming from Atheneum and Clarion. He blogs about writing and dreaming big at MichaelMahin.com. He also runs a web design business that caters to building sites for writers, actors, and other creative types.
If you’re like me, you love writing. And…you hate it. Sometimes at the same time. We writers are full of contradictions when it comes to writing. We savor our alone time, yet we want to be loved by our peers. We want to create art, yet we want to be on the bestseller lists.
Many of us are like Dorothy Parker, who famously quipped, “I hate writing, I love having written.” We of course have our reasons for wanting to be writers. And most of them are wrong.
How the Right Motivation Can Make You a Better and Happier Writer
What if I told you that having the right reason to write makes all the difference? What if I told you that having the right reason to write could make you a better writer and a happier person?
You’d say, “Snake oil!” And then you’d ask in a hushed voice, “Just in case I was wondering, what is the right reason to write?”
But what does intrinsic motivation look like for a writer? As Susan Perry puts it in her book Writing in Flow: Keys to Enhanced Creativity,
“When you’re writing because you want to, because something in the project is pulling you in, and not because it feels like you have to or because something outside yourself is pushing you, by definition you’re intrinsically motivated.”
Why Writing in Flow Makes You Happier
The reason this is important to you as a writer is that, according to groundbreaking psychologist Mihali Csikszentmihali,
“Intrinsic motivation acts like a ratchet on the development of personal capacities.”
Which is to say, intrinsic motivation can make you a better writer.
If you’re not familiar with Csikszentmihali’s work (or his unspellable name), he’s the contemporary father of expertise studies, a field which includes the bestselling work of Seth Godin, Daniel Coyle, and Malcom Gladwell.
Csikszentmihali spent his career studying peak performance, or how the best professionals in every field become the best at what they do. One of his key observations regarded the way that different high-performing professionals similarly experienced “being in the zone,” or what he famously called being in flow. For an awesome introduction, check out his TED talk.
The Key to Writing in Flow
What he discovered was that there were certain repeated markers for entering this state of peak performance, markers that could be strengthened and encouraged in the general population for the purposes of helping people live more fulfilled lives.
What Susan Perry did, as a student of Csikszentmihali’s, was to apply study flow as it related to writing. Perry’s Writing in Flow is a distillation of hundreds of interviews with award-winning writers (such as Octavia Butler, Philip Levine, Ursula Le Guin and others) and her discoveries about how these great writers achieve peak performance and find their flow.
In her book, Perry observes 5 keys to “writing in flow,” the first of which, and perhaps the most important, is having the right reason to write.
The Right Reasons to Write
According to Perry, for great writers, the right reasons, while idiosyncratic, tend to include at least one of the following:
- A belief that your work is worthwhile and important.
- A curiosity, bordering on excitement, about what is going to happen in your story or poem.
- A sense of play about the process of writing.
If you’re familiar with Carol Dweck, another seminal figure in the field of expertise studies, you’ll recognize these traits as being similar to those required for what she calls “a growth mindset.”
Cultivating a Mindset of Play
In my opinion, Perry’s three right motivations are really just variations on the idea of play. Play doesn’t question whether it is worthwhile, because it is not beholden to external markers of success.
And play cultivates its own curiosity because at the center of play is always an openness to discovery. Which is to say what any 5-year-old could tell you: there is no right way to play.
As a plotter and someone who was raised to “get it right,” I’ll admit that cultivating an attitude of play has been difficult for me. The results of “getting it right” have been masterful plots populated by lifeless characters who serve the story rather than themselves.
Perry herself emphasizes why this attitude of play is important when she writes,
“Researchers have found again and again that work feels like play when you’re motivated intrinsically, that an intense involvement in an activity for its own sake, with little or no thought of future rewards, leads to positive feelings, persistence, creativity and flow.”
But in realizing that in order to grow as a writer I needed to cultivate a growth mindset, I have started trying to make play not only a part of my writing, but a part of my attitude towards life. I have started cultivating the right motivations.
As a writer, what helps keep your attitude positive? Let us know in the comments.
Since remaining open to “play” is something I struggle with, let’s try an exercise that makes a game out of writing. Open a book of your choosing and select two words at random (closing your eyes and pointing works). Now, give yourself fifteen minutes to come up with the first line to a story (or poem, or screenplay, whatever) using those two words.
Don’t try to get it right, instead, try to come up with as many first lines as you can in that fifteen minutes. This will help shut off your internal editor and encourage your imagination to lead the way. When you’re done, choose your best (or bests) and post it in the comments section.
If you can’t stop playing and end up writing a story, you can post that too!
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