Friday, February 6, 2009

In the Mood

When I moved to Sweden just about four years ago, I was excited that I would finally be able to work for myself on my own projects. Since I would no longer be an editor, I imagined that I would be much more motivated during the days; after all, I would more directly benefit from all the work, it would all come right back to me.

I mean, think of all that time! I could work a few hours in the morning, then go for an refreshing walk or grab lunch with a friend, then be reenergized and reinspired for a productive afternoon. I'd have manuscripts pouring out of me, promotional materials flooding art directors all over the world, agents knocking down my door, trying to get a cut of the action... And what a fabulous lifestyle--I could sleep in! Go see matinee movies on a whim! 

Needless to say, I quickly learned that working by yourself on creative projects is definitely not what it's cracked up to be--at least, not in my case. I now know that I get most of my energy and motivation from palpable external influences: clear deadlines, a boss's expectations, coworkers with whom I immediately get competitive. 

I also totally underestimated The Power of Procrastination. It can be very easy to rationalize a break here and there...and there...and there... Oh, and ask me about anything that's been covered by The New York Times in the last four years--I'll tell you all about it! The Huffington Post? Ditto. New York public radio? I have Brian Lehrer's voice etched into my very being. If I don't know the latest minor commentary on the latest blip on the 24-hour news cycle, how will the world continue to revolve? I mean, come on, it takes work to be an informed citizen!
So, motivating myself to work every day--forcing myself, really--has been very difficult for me over the past few years, and I'm constantly thinking about ways to create the "ideal environment" that will inspire and sustain productivity. That was one of the reasons we got Oliver, the parrot--so I wouldn't feel so isolated working from home. Didn't quite do the trick, though--he hasn't learned how to say "Get to work, bitch!" yet. So, I started working outside the apartment in a rented studio space with other creative types, and that has been a godsend. (Oliver, of course, has been a godsend, too--but for wholly different reasons.)

In light of all this, I found the recent New York Times article about people losing weight because of bets very interesting to think about (see, the daily scouring of the Old Gray Lady is a good thing!). Could this be the right strategy to make sure I actually produce work for self-imposed deadlines? The article points out that people were most likely to reach their goals on if their money would go to a charity they actively disliked, a "foe or anti-charity". I could see that working really well for me--you can bet your little patootey that I would produce the Sistine Chapel in ten seconds flat before having a nickel sent to the Knights of Columbus, for example.

Of course, there are tools available that have been developed for writers in exactly my situation--Dr. Wicked's Write or Diefor example, is a website which provides a text box with preset parameters for you to type in. As soon as you start to slack off, the punishments can range from blasting you with unpleasant music (although *I* would have no problem listening to Hanson!) to actually deleting your work.

The time-pressure aspect of that strategy brings a whiff of nostalgia for me--one of my many dubious claims to fame was winning the regional title for a Power of the Pen competition in seventh grade. (Or was it eighth?) Looking back, it didn't strike me as particularly hard to whip up a short story in forty minutes. Where, oh where, did that skill go?

Ultimately, I'm not sure there is a perfect solution for me. I think it comes down to something similar to Jane Yolen's BIC ("Butt In Chair") method(And hey, whatever Jane Yolen has been doing to motivate herself must work really, really well. That lady is productive like nobody's business!)

So, when I'm between contracted projects and their associated deadlines, I just gotta keep the self-imposed deadlines coming. I've been holding writing workshops with two Stockholm friends for a while now, and we recently realized we need to meet more frequently (weekly). It was pretty clear that all three of us basically only wrote the day of the workshop anyway, so now we're acknowledging our weakness and working around it. 

But yesterday I heard a great tip: a friend was given a package of chocolate liqueurs by another writer with the instruction to eat one--just one!--before beginning a writing session. Apparently the combination of a stimulant (sugar) and a relaxant (booze) creates the perfect conditions for a productive session.

I'm down with that.

Oh, and do I even need to point out that I have managed to spend most of the afternoon on this post? 


  1. Love the post. I am a procrastinator too. Dan likes to have a beer sometimes when he is working. He says it makes him more creative. :)

  2. Ha, I love that. I'm too scared to drink real alcohol as I work--if history is any indication, it'll just mean I'll start a dance party. Even--or perhaps especially--if it's just me...

  3. I still have yet to test to see if this really works. Tonight...