This is an excerpt from my new book Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page. I’m giving away a ton of free bonus materials during the pre-launch and launch of the book. Check them out and order your copy here: http://www.theinternationalfreelancer.com/shut-up-and-write
CHAPTER 21: PICK YOUR MOTIVATION
A few years ago, I wrote a story about a blind theater group in India. Anyadesh, as they called themselves, means “another world.” These blind theater performers came from the lowest rungs of society. Anyadesh was made up of unemployed job-seekers, hawkers, and people who’d been told they had no prospects in life. They earned little more than Rs 100 per show (less than $2) and performed in small villages, small theaters, local parks, even on the roadside.
I spent a day with the troupe, traveling with them for their performance, climbing over the rubble in their makeshift arts school, and having dinner with them late at night until it was time for my photographer and me to depart. I sat next to Raju during dinner, who was a chatty man. In my story, I described him as such: “Raju, 25, sells incense sticks all day in buses, on the street, and at traffic lights. In the evening, he packs up his belongings, drops them off at home, and walks the few blocks to theater class.”
I wrote that his family didn’t like this. They asked him, “Who do you think you’ll become? Amitabh Bachchan?”
Raju was particularly miffed by this statement. It had often stopped him from going to his evening class. But it resonated with me in ways that he couldn’t have known, because as an engineer who quit to become a writer who only wanted to tell stories that mattered, I’d been asked the same question in various ways, sometimes by my own self. Who gave you the right to tell this story? Who do you think you are? The Indian Amy Tan?
It’s a question you’ve no doubt been asked as a writer. If you’ve been lucky enough not to have someone else ask it of you, you’ve certainly asked it of yourself. Who the hell do you think you are?
Sometimes, you answer it, too. I’m not good enough to be published in The New Yorker, to have a New York Times bestselling book, to win any awards for my fiction. I might as well throw this manuscript in the bin and do something more productive with my life.
Been there? I have, too. It’s why it took me five years to finish my novel.
But what I loved most about Raju’s story and that of the others is what they found in art. It’s the same thing most of us find in art. It’s not money. Money is important, of course, which is why they have day jobs. It’s been important for me, too. Not only because I have been the primary breadwinner for my family on and off and my freelancing pays some of our bills, but also because money gives my work legitimacy. It makes me feel valued and appreciated. Money in and of itself means little to me. But I want money—and lots of it, thanks—because it allows me to have freedom of choice and lifestyle, which as a traveler can be an expensive one. I don’t demonize money. Far from it. I do want a healthy bank account, but I don’t want to slave away at a job I hate, or even one I simply like. I want to make good money doing things I adore. I want to wake up in the morning and feel like what I do means something. And yes, I want to be rewarded handsomely for it.
When I asked the members of Anyadesh why they continued to practice every night, even after resistance from their families and when they knew, realistically, that as a poor, blind theater group, they’d only ever have a small audience, they told me it didn’t matter. They did it not because they were looking for some big reward at the end of the road. They did it because they loved the dancing they were doing while on that road. The act of leaving the house and going to their own little community where they could be themselves was the reward.
They did it for the love. And they did it for the community. To find a group of people, blind like them and passionate about theater like them, who would understand exactly who they are. Acting wasn’t going to bring the reward. Acting was the reward.
Why do you write? Can you remember? What’s your payoff for being a writer today?
There have been times in my own life when being a writer made no logical sense to me. None whatsoever. A couple of years ago, my husband and I went through a particularly rough period. Between letting go of my agent and almost losing my voice to seeing my income dwindle and struggling to even pay the bills, it felt easier to see all that was derailing in my career and in my life than to see the opportunities that were being born out of this massive change.
I had to step back and look at the big picture many times. Even though it logically made no sense to keep struggling with writing, I knew that I loved it. I loved writing, emotionally, mentally, and in my heart. I loved creating work, I loved putting ideas out into the world. This was one thing I could not let go of. It took long conversations and months of soul searching to see how writing could still be a part of my life, but without the aggravation of it. Until I realized that the aggravation is a part of the process, the price you pay for being a creative person. Nothing can ever make that aggravation go away. Could I love writing enough to put up with the crap it brought along with it?
I could. Eventually I saw that truth, but it took me a while to get there. If you find yourself in a similar situation every now and again, this is how to keep going despite it all:
One, keep the big goal in mind. Whatever that goal is. Maybe it’s a book deal. Maybe it’s smaller than that—to see your byline in a national magazine. Maybe it’s bigger than that—to buy a house with money earned from your writing. My own financial goal is written on a wall and prominently displayed. It’s a goal that’s independent of the work I do. When I feel like I need a reminder of why I continue to work toward my goals, it helps for me to see the bigger picture for my life. I don’t want to struggle for an income ten years from now. I want to travel, work on books every day, meet new people, and go on new adventures. This goal helps me remember why I make a stupendous effort now so I can make it easier for myself in the future.
Two, keep your people in mind. It’s cliché and it’s sappy, but let’s face it, nothing is a bigger motivator for most of us than our families. Ever since I became a parent, my vision has acquired laser-sharp focus. There’s more urgency in my days, more compassion and understanding in my behavior, and an increasing sense of wanting to be a person my son can look up to and respect. It helps me to think about the way I’d like my son to handle the challenges of his own life. Then I try to handle them with the same grace and dignity myself.
Three, hone in on that initial spark that attracted you to this work. A relationship with the writing life is a lot like a healthy marriage. There’s love, respect, and wonder at the core of it, but day-to-day you sometimes take each other for granted and snap when you’re in a bad mood. You wonder why the hell you felt the need to grow roots instead of living the nomadic life you always thought you were perfectly suited for. But then you remember the spark. Ah, the spark. That moment when you realized that this is exactly who you were meant to be with and how exceptionally happy he makes you. Writing is that deep relationship for some of us. We can’t imagine a life without it.
So remember why you love it and hold on to that feeling. Because that, more than anything else, is what will carry you forward when things don’t go as planned.
Check out the free bonus material and order your copy of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S Guide to Getting Words on the Page here: http://www.theinternationalfreelancer.com/shut-up-and-write