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Writing Wednesday: The Fire Inside the Eye of the Tiger

June 8, 2011

Today’s topic comes from legendary basketball coach Phil Jackson via ESPN’s Sports Guy.  In an interview published about a month from when this posts (and I’m not sure how long before that the interview took place) Jackson noted that Michael Jordan was the best player ever because he used every slight (many of them imagined) as motivation to destroy his opponents.

This brings up the topic of motivation.  What fuels you when writing a story?  Is it dreams of fame and fortune?  (If so then you’re a moron.  You’ll never be rich and famous–unless you already are, in which case maybe publishing a book will make you richer and famouser.)  Is it some mealy-mouthed blather about loving your characters and story?  Or are you just passing the time?

Unlike Jordan, I’m pretty sure none of us are using our writing to settle old scores with people, although maybe you might get back at that jerk who cut you off by writing a scene where some jerk in a black Escalade goes flying through a guardrail and over a cliff.  But there’s probably something that fuels you to finish a novel.  Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint, so you need something to keep you going.

My hypothesis for today is that the better the motivation, the better the book.  I consider my book Where You Belong to be my best work, even better than anything I’ve done since.  One reason:  motivation.  Since 2002, when I endeavored to be more “literary” I had wanted to write a book like my literary hero John Irving.  I tried a couple of times but it didn’t work out.  Then after a sabbatical in 2007 and a dreadful warmup novel I assembled the pieces for the eventual story.  This time I was more determined to get it right.  I was a lot more focused than I ever was before, working until 9-10pm most weeknights and sometimes much later than that on weekends.  If I hadn’t had to go to work then it probably really would have been working around the clock.

The end result of that added focus, that added motivation, was the best thing I’ve done.  Since then I haven’t really been as motivated.  Last year I wrote a lot but I don’t think it was as good.  My motivation was really just to get things done, stressing quantity more than quality.  That’s not the kind of motivation that can propel you to greatness.

The better motivation is to say, “I’m going to do this and get it right and nothing’s going to stand in my way!”

In Irving’s own World According to Garp, the titular main character completes his first “serious” story after reading about Marcus Aurelius and not being impressed very much by it.  Like Michael Jordan years later, Garp uses the perceived negative of reading a bad book to write a good story.

Of course a perceived positive is just as motivating.  My motivation wasn’t really negative.  I’m sure other people have been motivated by love to write something really exceptional.

On a final note, I think it was in the comment’s of Michael’s blog where someone mentioned that no one wealthy had ever really published a great book.  Maybe because being wealthy gets an author too complacent to muster up enough motivation for a great book.  Maybe you do need to be a starving artist in order to push yourself enough to be great.  Maybe it is like “Rocky III” where achieving fame and fortune got Rocky so soft that Mr. T was able to knock him out and then only by going back to basics was he able to get the motivation–the Eye of the Tiger–to win again.

So what’s motivating you to achieve your goals?

Friday’s entry is a mystery about prequels…


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  1. Nice post!

    My motivation is my inability to give up, no matter how dire the situation looks.

  2. That sounds more like a character defect than motivation…

  3. Lisa Potts permalink

    Very inspirational post, RM. I do think there’s some kind of “zone” writers get in when they realize they’re creating something spectacular. I’ve felt it while working on short stories but never yet for anything novel length. But there is always tomorrow.

    • Sure, I think just like an athlete can get on a hot streak, so can a writer. Of course I’ve been on a cold streak for about six months now…

  4. Interesting post Rogue. For me I think it’s the challenge of it since I am sort of a starving artist. I also like the satisfaction of finsihing my projects. Finishing a novel is an accomplishment if it’s well done.

    • After I finish a novel I like to pop open a bottle of sparkling cider. It used to be cheap champagne, which was perhaps better motivation. Spumante champagne is the shit, no doubt about it: sweet, bubbly, and something like 13% alcohol! Yeah baby.

  5. I think that if I’m ever a successful writer, I will do one of two things. 1) I’ll grab a bunch of grad students to churn out crap that has my name on it because the name will sell = $$$$ or 2) I’ll get everyone to have a vested interest in what happens with some characters and then not write about them for seven years. Then I’ll post video blogs on youtube (George R.R. Martin did this) where I tell my readers to fuck off because I’m a millionaire and LOL to the bank. I think those are worthy goals and fuel enough for writing.

    • Hey, why wait, grad students are probably pretty cheap. Just be like Frey and offer them a percentage of the profits in lieu for their services. All you need are a couple of suckers who think you actually can get it published.

  6. Boy, do I feel like a sucker. I write for two reasons: 1. I enjoy it. 2. I get paid (a little) for it. 3. It was a challenge from my wife.

    That’s how it began (again): me complaining about a terrible horror movie we’d seen and saying “I could write a better horror story” and Sweetie saying “So do it, then,” and I did. But I’d written stuff going back to when I was a kid; I just enjoy it the way some people enjoy golf, or being from Seattle.

    So it’s nice that I can make a little extra money off of it, which is what prompts me to write most days; that little bit of ad revenue or book sales gets me dinner at Chili’s, or a trip to the store to buy a trumpet, or something.

    But my bigger motivation is when people comment — no matter what people say about it, the fact that I got them to read what I wrote and then say something about is excellent.

    Here’s my question for you, Rogue: You said you were motivated to write a literary book — but why was THAT your goal? What did you personally get out of it? I was motivated to write a horror story to prove to my wife I could do it. What’s your reason behind the reason?

    • My reason behind the reason was similar to yours but not exactly the same. When I read “The Cider House Rules” I thought to myself, “I want to do something like that!” Which is as Mr. Irving put it in World According to Garp, write a “serious” novel. Because before that I’d pretty much just been doing sci-fi stories. So from 2002-2005 I tried writing a number of “serious” novels, though none were maybe as good as I had hoped. Then I gave up and did some YA in 2006. In 2007 I hardly did anything, followed by one crappy sci-fi novel. Then as I was saying, I thought I should try again in 2008 and that’s what I did.

      There’s the whole sordid story!

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