Some time ago, I realized I’d missed the two opening rounds of tickets for this year’s World Domination Summit and added myself to the notification list for the third round. And promptly forgot about it.
Over the weekend, I’d gotten an email reminding me that more tickets would be available soon, so I went over to the website and read up on the speakers.
I watched this completely amazing (to me) talk by Gretchen Rubin from last year’s conference.
The segment about the Rubin Tendencies (begins around 19 minutes in), four different ways of approaching internal and external motivation was revelatory for me.
If you don’t want to watch the video, here’s a link to descriptions, from which I’ve excerpted the following short quote:
Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense (my husband is a Questioner)
Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves
(I also think there’s an inverse to the Obliger, which I’ve labeled Self-Obliger for the moment.)
It’s like someone explained my life to me in a way I suddenly understand.
Now, some of us pretend to be one of those that we’re not. And we can have tendencies in other directions. I’m a Rebel with Questioner tendencies, and I’ve gotten through life by masquerading a Questioner.
But I’m not, and the façade is exhausting.
So How Do You Motivate Yourself?
I’m a very in-the-moment person, and I suspect many Rebels are. We make choices without necessarily considering long-term implications. Yet, many Rebels wind up in either the clergy or military/police, which are very structured.
My preference is for well-defined loose structure: several large constraints but without a lot of rules, but where the structure is consistent. I prefer large swaths of nothing on my calendar. A day feels “busy” if it has one timed item on it, no matter how short that time slot is. This week, I have timed items on my calendar three days in a row, and that feels impossible.
Thus, I’ve tended to work best on long projects where I don’t have a lot of daily (or weekly) milestones that are externally imposed, but can proceed making progress at my own pace.
The catch is what motivates me: whatever it is I’m doing has to be the most interesting thing to do in the world at that moment.
And I’m a person who’s fascinated by a lot of things.
You see the inherent problem here.
There are a couple of other things that motivate me.
The thing I want to do can be the thing I most want to do in that moment. I can work on talking my way into that being something I really want to do. “Wouldn’t you enjoy eating something better for you than this bad thing? If you cooked it, you could have that.”
Like most rebels, I’m motivated by a realistic challenge.
A funny story of my teen rebel years. I wanted to take college classes while I was in high school, but the high school counselor said I couldn’t because it was against the law. Went to the library, photocopied the law (which, btw, said the exact opposite), came back and pointed out it said nothing of the kind. He still wouldn’t let me go to college, so I actually switched schools to the alternative school. My senior high school year, I had English, Physics, Horticulture, and (I can’t make this one up) Independent Study Table Tennis. In college, I took French, Calculus, and some other stuff.
Not many people would have done that at age 16.
On the flip side, I genuinely have never given a fuck about my GPA except where it has mattered for some goal I was trying to achieve. Instead, I’m that asshole who took notes during class, dutifully copying down all the professor’s jokes, never looked at my notes, never studied, often never bought the textbook—and aced the test. Obviously, I hated project classes unless the project was The Best Thing Ever.
Yet I wound up not only with a BA but also an MS (Computer Science) and an MA (Writing Popular Fiction). However, when I went back for the “F” (my MA program turned into an MFA program), my brain balked. I wound up dropping out because I realized that, for me, the money/energy/time was better spent on world travel.
That short stint in the MFA program led directly to the book I’m now working on, though, so it wasn’t a waste of time.
How This Affects My Writing Process
Given what I’ve told you already, do you think I’m a planner or a pantser? (Pantser refers to someone who writes “by the seat of their pants,” meaning without an outline or plan.)
My attempts to outline ahead of time essentially wind up like this:
Outline says: “Jake wants rents a boat and discovers a long-rumored sea monster.”
What I actually write: Jake gets mugged while hiking in the mountains.
Me, arguing with mss/outline, “But…!”
At the point where they diverge, I can’t even think.
Or, if I’m trying to interview characters ahead of time:
Me: “So what do you really want out of life?”
Character: “If you followed me around, you’d know this shit.”
Character: Turns back to me, and, like a cat, thumps her tail loudly on the wooden floor.
Fuck that shit.
I just can’t do an outline before I do the work. If it doesn’t lead to an outright block, what it does is drain the “new” energy out of the piece. That “new” energy is exactly why I like writing. I feed on it.
Some day, when I dig through this pile of stuff, I’ll upload the “outline” I did for grad school when I had to turn one in. Basically, I reasoned that I had X deadlines throughout the program, and each of those deadlines would be a chapter, and therefore I had X chapters to write. I was in a restaurant that had paper placemats, so I moved my plate aside and wrote down a short phrase (2-5 words) for each chapter.
That got me through the first draft, and it stuck.
I can only do that once I’m to a certain point in writing a piece, though. I generally have to start blind, write down a few ideas, and then Just Start Writing. I usually start at the beginning. In a short piece, I usually need to write the ending (so I know where I’m going) before I write the middle, but even that’s not consistent.
I often write longer books out of order, which I’m doing with the current book.
I keep a list of things I want to accomplish in the piece at the top of my document, and I’ll just delete those items as I use them. It’s not an outline, it includes all kinds of things like places, characters to introduce, a scene I want to write but don’t know where it goes, etc. Most of the items are plot pieces, though. (This was easy when I was writing in Byword, but not so easy in Scrivener, and I need to figure out a way that works for me in Scrivener. In Byword, I just peeled off a chapter as I finished it and kept writing in the same working document.)
When I know the order of those items, I’ll move them into order at the top before any of the unordered items.
At some point, usually 1/4 to 1/3 of the way in, I hit a wall. I know I’ve hit the wall when my productivity slumps and every time I write I feel like I have more questions than answers. Often those questions include, “Does this really go here?”
That’s when I need to start organizing a loose outline. It’s not what I’m keeping at the top of the document, but something more like a short synopsis.
The important thing here, though, is that it’s when the number of raised questions exceeds my comfort level. That’s something that happens organically during writing.
I’m Not Uncomfortable with Open Questions
I’ve discovered that I’m happier with more open questions than the average person.
As a real example of that, last year my boss told me a week before I was headed out on a long trip that I needed to cut it in half. I made a bunch of changes to my itinerary, but one of the questions that was left open was how I was going to get home from South Africa. I had a tentative plan in place, but it didn’t meet the constraint he’d set. Close, though.
I don’t know how many people would set off on a trip with such an important detail hanging. But I did.
Did it bother me? Only insofar as I wanted to meet my boss’s constraints.
I trusted that I had the ability to return from South Africa. After all, as an experienced traveler, I know how to work the system, and I know that there is a system. Plus, there’s always the “pay more cash for what you really want” option, even though that’s not the way I preferred to do it. So I waited for something to open up, and returned via London, catching a show I’d wanted to see.
Part of My Process is Trust
Trust that I can make it work, trust that I will make it work. When it’s something I haven’t done before, I worry, but then I remind myself that I’ve done similarly complex things before.
I trust in my ability to be resourceful and adapt to new information.
One of the things I know I’ll need to do for an upcoming project is to make a small font. I have no fucking clue how to make a font. Worse, I’m going to have to learn Illustrator for some of the mockups I’m working on, and I’ve been resisting learning that for about 25 years.
I know I can do it, though. I just haven’t had a real need to before now. I’m excited about it because I know it’ll be interesting and different. Yay.
That’s the single hardest piece of the stuff I’m doing. I am working on other things (to go with the font), and it’s all new and fun.
World Domination Summit
Getting back to the start of this post, why yes, I am going to the World Domination Summit. July in Portland, Oregon. Fun times.