Business Musings: Why We Do What We Do
Well, I’m sitting in a breakfast nook, surrounded by sunshine, in a condo I hadn’t seen as of January 1, living a life that I hadn’t expected to be living on that day either. Dean and I are now going back and forth between Las Vegas and Lincoln City. In fact, he’s in Lincoln City right now, while I’m helping two traumatized cats adjust to high rise living. (There’s noise! And lights! And sirens!)
For someone who really appreciates a schedule, finding myself in a new place at the end of the first quarter of the year, without planning on it, is unsettling to say the least. I need to plan my new schedule for the year, and as of last week, I had no idea what the shape of the next six months would look like.
Fortunately, Dean and I worked on our schedule while he was here last, and I now have a vague outline of how life will proceed, who will travel where, when, and how. Of course, things could change, but we have an outline, anyway.
So, I should’ve settled right back into the novel I’ve been working on (forever). But I’ve been running from it. And it took some analysis to figure out why.
I’m at what I call “the downhill slide” of the novel. That’s when I know more or less what has to happen, and there are very few (maybe no) surprises left for me. So I have to type and type and type on a project I’m mentally done with, while I’d rather be doing something else.
This is such a severe problem in my writing that when I was a young writer, I would skip this part altogether. I would write until I hit “the downhill slide” and then I would skip ahead to “and they all lived happily ever after” part.
When I would hand those manuscripts to Dean, he would quiz me on what happened in the missing part. It irritated me, and more than once I told him, I gave you all the pieces. You should be able to figure out what happened next.
I wasn’t yet a good enough writer to know that it’s my job to put the pieces together, because if I’m doing my job right, what looks obvious to me isn’t at all obvious to anyone else.
The point is, though, that I find this part of the job tedious work. It is the absolute worst place for me to quit, move across country, and then try to get back into the project. I know that, and I’m struggling with it. I’d rather be doing anything else. This morning, I even changed out the cat boxes instead of writing.
That should tell you how much I enjoy this part of the process.
So, Dean and I have been trying to figure out a way around this part for me. We’ve discussed everything from abandoning the project to writing to the end as fast as possible. To which my annoying muse replied, We’ll do it the way we’re doing it. In other words, finish this thing, and then move on.
All of that got me thinking about motivation. Those thoughts were helped along by the fact that I’m getting back to my various reading. I’m also driving more, so I’m hearing random snippets of things on the radio. (I love random snippets. I find them inspiring or edifying. I learn about things I wouldn’t have considered looking up myself.)
The first random snippet came from an All Things Considered interview with the author Leslie Jamison. She wrote about a book about being a recovering alcoholic. Only the book isn’t so much about the addiction as it is about art and recovery. (Or so it sounded from the interview.)
She spoke of her concern that getting sober would hurt her writing. I remember a similar concern when I started therapy not for addiction, but for chronic depression. I said to the therapist that I was afraid working through my demons would destroy my writing. The therapist calmly told me that my work would get better. I believed her enough to stay in therapy, but I was skeptical since she wasn’t an artist, so I figured what did she know?
Turns out, she knew quite a bit. I wouldn’t be sitting here—or maybe anywhere—if I hadn’t done the hard work on that therapist’s couch.
Jamison evoked that memory for me with these statements:
So, like a lot of young writers, I think I had internalized a certain mythology about drinking and writing that there was a kind of dark, moody, self-destructive temperament that sought out booze, sought out drugs, sought out intensity of experience in that way and turned it into beautiful art, that kind of suffering and dysfunction were what great art was made of.
And I had a real fear that getting sober was going to mean that all those sources of intensity were shut down, but I became really interested in the fact that some of the drunk writers that I had idolized most – Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson – had also gotten sober and had written really incredible things.
Apparently, I had internalized the same mythology. I’m not sure if the mythology had come from it the lies about Hemingway and his process that keep getting perpetuated. (The man couldn’t have written as much as he did if he had been drunk all the time.) Or if that mythology had come from the failed writers who taught English and related classes, using the drug/alcoholic myth to encourage themselves to write less (and drink more).
I just Googled Jamison’s age to see if we were of a generation. We are not. She’s 23 years younger than I am. So those myths continued, at least into the next generation. I hope something kills those myths eventually.
What Jamison was doing, as she saved her own life, was searching for motivation to continue writing. When myths like that go in deep, it has a serious impact on the writing itself.
Jamison had to figure out what fueled her writing. Did the booze and the darkness fuel her writing or was it something else? I recognize that space, because I’ve been there too.
And I wonder about it with other writers, and with others who work in non-traditional professions. Frankly, it’s pretty easy to figure out why most people work their day jobs. Most people do it to support their families and sustain their lifestyles. Most people are disconnected from work. It is what they do to make the money to allow them to do something else.
Some people are lucky enough to work in traditional professions that they happen to love. My father was one of those folks. He worked as a professor to make money, yes, but because he loved teaching. (In fact, as being a prof changed toward the end of his career and “publish or perish” became a thing, he fought against it. He didn’t want to publish articles or write books; he wanted to teach. And he did.)
But those of us who do what we’re compelled to do, what we love, and what defines as much or more than how we look or where we live, we have to be really careful of motivation. Because the wrong motivation—or a motivation that was set improperly (and set deep) like the one about darkness and writing—can destroy a writer. If the writer’s motivation is to become a bestseller, what happens when she does? Goal achieved, there’s no more need to write.
I’ve spent my entire career studying writers (and others) who’ve succeeded, searching for the motivation that keeps them working long after the obvious goals were met.
In addition to Jamison, I heard about three other types of motivation this week, from three different types of professionals—an athlete, a musician, and an actor.
Athletes fascinate me the most. Because they know that their careers are going to be short. They’re not going to be ninety and winning races against twenty-year-olds. A professional athlete learns a career that will leave them as they age. Some plan for that change. Others keep going as long as they can.
And what about the athlete at the top of her sport? What happens after she wins the contests she puts herself in? What happens when she achieves the goals that drove her? Does she retire or does she continue, even knowing she faces injury and slow decline?
(Writers see the slow decline only if they’re diagnosed with some kind of dementia. Otherwise we can keep working, albeit slowly if our health is poor as mine was earlier this year.)
The answers to those questions came from the second thing on motivation I saw this week. Esquire interviewed 33-year-old Lindsey Vonn, arguably (as they say) the best female skier of all time—81 World Cups in alpine skiing, one of two women to win overall World Cup championships, and one of six to win races in all five alpine disciplines. Then there’s the Olympics. She earned a bronze this year to go with her gold from 2010.
She’s at an age where athletes decline, and while she’s faced a lot of injury, she is still going strong. The interviewer, Adam Grant, asked how she continues, even though she has “achieved everything an athlete dreams of.” Vonn’s answer is this:
Because I love it. I love going fast. I love competing. I love the adrenaline and taking risks. I think that’s missing a lot in sports. A lot of time, on the professional level, people just do it to get money—and I’m exactly the opposite. All I want to do is ski fast.
Grant, who co-wrote a book with Sheryl Sandberg on resilience, is focused on this topic throughout the interview (which is worth reading). He asked the question about motivation in a different way later in the interview, asking how she maintained her love of the sport in the middle of competition. Vonn answered:
Competition is what I find joy in as well. I like pushing myself. I like setting those goals. I like knowing that I’ve executed the plan I have set forth. All those things feel good. I don’t mind the mistakes. Failures are new challenges—they make me more excited to go back out there because I did something wrong and I know I can fix it.
The bottom line is that no matter how Grant asked the questions, Vonn’s answers were the same. She loves what she’s doing, and didn’t want to do anything else. (She also talks about overcoming injury and staying focused, again, things that sound familiar to me, but are outside the scope of this post.)
Vonn does what she does because she wants to, not because she has to. She’s excessively driven, and she seems to have filtered out the noise that sometimes comes with extreme success and fame. I say seems to because there are hints that her life isn’t perfect (her mention of her dogs as motivation to get out of bed on dark days, for example). But she has figured out how to work around whatever it is that comes her way, and manages (or tries to) stop her.
I say the same things about myself—that I do what I do because I want to. I also make it sound like I have no choice but to write. But that’s not entirely true. I do have a choice—a rather ugly one. If I don’t write, if I worked a day job (or a series of them, given my temperament), that depression that I received treatment for would have dominated. I would have been an utterly miserable person, and I would have been extremely unpleasant to be around.
I work hard at making sure I can write, just like Vonn works hard at making sure she can ski.
But even that compulsion, even that desire to do what you want, isn’t always enough, particularly when you’ve made enough money and you have had acclaim, and you realize that you could live a “real” life instead of the one you’re living.
So what motivates the work?
Well, in another interview in Esquire, Donald Glover answers that question. He’s staring down the release of Solo: A Star Wars Story in which he has the coveted role of Lando Calrissian. He knows it will take him from famous to superstar, just by being part of the Star Wars juggernaut.
He says the upside of it is that it will give him freedom.
And what, interviewer Bijan Stephen asked, will Glover do with that freedom?
Make stuff that no one else will make. Part of the reason I do what I do is because I’m the only one who can do it.
And there it is, that thing, that truth. I don’t believe most of us think about that much. We’re trying to get our stories on the page. But in reality, they’re our stories, not someone else’s. We write from who we are. We can’t help it. If we allow ourselves to be ourselves in our work, then our work will feel original. If we try to emulate others, it won’t. (Vonn says the worst advice she ever got was to try to be like someone else.)
Glover’s pithy paragraph encapsulates Jimmy Buffett’s entire life and career. Buffett is the musician I mentioned earlier in this post. But Buffett isn’t just a musician. He’s an awesome businessman who has turned his signature song into a lifestyle—one the New York Times gleefully pointed out earlier this year that he does not live.
Buffett’s empire has 5,000 employees. He doesn’t license the rights to his stuff. He creates everything associated with Margaritaville and he tours and he performs and he micromanages the new projects. He is, according to a Times witticism, “the lone occupant in the Venn diagram of People Who Outearn Bruce Springsteen and People Who Are Mistaken for Men of Leisure.”
Buffett’s not a man of leisure. He sees himself as being in the good and services business. He says,
If you like what I do in goods and services, if we make you feel better after a hard day of work and you want to come blow off some steam and you pay for that, I’m going to give you your money’s worth and have a good time doing it.
But, as the Times points out, he still oversees that good time. They write,
The work ethic his family instilled in him when he was growing up in Alabama means that he can never really hand the wheel over to someone else. “I think it was just the way I was brought up in a seafaring family,” he said. “I wanted to be in charge, like a captain of the boat.”
He is in charge. He could, as the Times says, “never work another day in his life and still dive like Scrooge McDuck into a swimming pool full of money.”
But he doesn’t. He still, according to the Times, remembers what got him to this place. The Times believes that’s motivation enough to keep working harder than most people ever work, let alone at the age of 71.
I don’t think that’s it at all. It’s clear that Buffett loves what he does. And he respects his fans. And he enjoys the business part of his job. And he refuses to provide an inferior product, even if it’s easier to let someone else license his work.
I find inspiration in all four of these people, for different reasons. Jamison, for facing her fears. Vonn, for continuing through the injuries and the success, Glover for following his vision, and Buffett for maintaining his vision throughout the decades.
I saved Buffett for last for a major reason, though. Buffett established his own record label in 1999—long before the internet made what we all do now possible. He held onto his rights, which enabled him to build a net worth of $550 million (according to Forbes, reported in the Times). That net worth inspires him not at all. The product—the goods and services—inspire him. His business sense allowed him to keep control of what he does.
I admire that more than I can say. But Vonn is the one who put it the most succinctly: “…it doesn’t matter who your coach is or who helped you along the way—it’s still you at the starting gate.”
That’s why I don’t take credit for my students’ success. The successful ones did it on their own. They picked the bits of my advice that worked for them. Just like I’m picking advice that works for me. As I’ve done in this blog post. I’ve found the bits and pieces of motivation in a whole bunch of different areas, and combined them into something that means something to me.
And, I hope, it’ll help you as well.
Now, excuse me. I have an annoying novel to finish, so I can get to something new and exciting (which will, some day, become just as annoying). Until next week…
The move still isn’t over. Half my stuff is in Oregon, and half of it is in Vegas, and Dean and I are still trying to figure out what remains up north and moves down south. But we’re more organized than we were three weeks ago, which is saying something. And I actually have time to contemplate things like motivation, rather than struggling to set up my office. (Which still isn’t set up entirely, but at least I have a desk and a chair!)
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“Business Musings: Why We Do What We Do,” copyright © 2018 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / PhotoEuphoria.
But, but, but…! The middle is the GOOD part. You have it all set up – that was work. You know the end – or you wouldn’t have started writing (if you’re me). But even though I know WHAT will happen, I am going to find out HOW – and that is the very best part of the writing.
I guess we’re really different. Yay variety.
What you are talking about is a variation of “Critical Voice” like you guys always talk about.
You have a persona that does not write telling you that the rest of the story is obvious, so cut to the end and finish this.
Been there, done that, but I don’t have the tee-shirt to prove it. HA!
A very simple test will prove that.
Write an email to yourself and Dean laying out in a couple of pages what is so “obvious” about the unfinished part of the story. And if all that persona can do is say that it is “all right there on the page” that it is “obvious”, yet never actually lay out what is so “obvious” then you know that you are dealing with a persona that does not write.
Once you can see that you have somebody looking over your shoulder, you can firmly tell them to go away if they cannot actually write the next part of the story for you.
Essentially, “I” do not write. My job is to get out of the way, and let the words flow onto the page. The only person present when the prose is being written is me. “I” learned to stay out of the way long ago. “I” am the one that has to recognize the other personae that show up and start causing trouble. “I” always thank the people looking over my shoulder and try to put them to work. If they can’t actually help, “I” thank them and send them on their way.
Another simple test of there being a non-writing persona giving you grief is a very simple test:
Do you read your published books for pleasure.
If you don’t like to read your own published books for pleasure, you have to ask yourself, why not. And if it is a vague answer like, “I already know the story.” Does that make any sense when you are more than happy to read books over and over by other writers, but not your own.
A book is to be read, right there in the moment, it’s not about sitting on a shelf having been read.
I publish the books to read the books. Publishing the books locks down the final form. The books are there for me to read, not for other people.
BTW, when Dean talks about the “English Teacher” that starts barking orders I see her as this.
Love the English teacher.
As for the other, um, well, no. It’s not my critical voice that wants to cut to the end. It’s my inner two-year-old who is easily distracted and bored. That’s my muse, I’m afraid, always interested in the next thing. Learned that one a long, long time ago. If it were the critical voice, it would be a lot easier to tame, since I cultivate the inner two-year-old on most things. But she is two, and two-year-olds are both marvelous and annoying…
Yikes! I can use that in Story.
I read my own book (will be trilogy, but only one FINISHED yet) for pleasure. Over and over, a bit at a time. That’s why it has to be good, that and because it has my name on it.
I’m not a typical writer, but I know who I am and what I want. Chronic illness makes me slow – who cares? It still has to be as good as I can ever make it.
Great post. You really nailed it: it’s our stories, and only we can write them. If someone else takes the same or a similar idea, it would turn out completely different. Another part of that is reading so much, but seeing the way YOU want to do it. When you see an idea and you love it, but at the same time, you want it to be different in this way and that way, and soon, you have a whole new novel. So many of my ideas have come from seeing an idea I love and then wanting to do it MY way. As writers, we can do that. As for professions, I do have a day job, and I love it, too, even though I don’t love the overall profession. I love it because I get to talk to a lot of interesting people, but I can leave it at work and then give all my energy to my writing, my house, my cat, and myself. It doesn’t pay well, but it pays enough so that I don’t have to stress about my writing (which so far, is paying ~$25.00 per year, which is better than nothing, but not enough to pay bills with).
Thanks very much for this post Kris. It really fit the bill for where I am, what I’m doing and why.
I write because I love stories including mine. I’m getting better with each one, the more I practice the better I get. We’ll see where I end up. Cheers, Rita Schulz
Kris, I LOVE this post.
As I write in relative obscurity, working a day job to pay the bills, working long hours to get some writing and publishing time in, I do it because I LOVE to tell the stories. Not for money, I’m not much. Not for fame, I sure don’t have it. Not for that point in the middle of every story when I think it’s absolute crap. I write because I love the creative process, seeing wonderful things emerge, for the equivalent of Vonn’s feeling the speed.
This post makes clear that is what us writers need to hold onto during the tough, long days.
[…] – Dean: https://www.deanwesleysmith.com/day-four-exhausted/ (power of streaks) – Kris: https://kriswrites.com/2018/04/04/business-musings-why-we-do-what-we-do/ (motivation) – Harvey: http://hestanbrough.com/the-journal-wednesday-april-4/ (read your work […]
Thank you for this. For me, day job = depression, too. I was a very cranky person when I wasn’t at work and needed to be the polite, helpful customer service person. Staying at home and writing doesn’t mean depression doesn’t work it’s way into my life occasionally. Just means that the work of getting out of it are mostly under my control.
I also loved what you had to say about the end of a novel. For me, the end is a downhill slide and it’s fun to tie everything up. It’s the last pass through of everything that I hate. I know the story, it’s all done except for tweaking to make things more clear and cleaning up clumsiness. And it’s boring. My motivation to finish it comes from being able to start a new shiny thing. Also, I get to make a pretty cover for the finished thing. I love making covers. It’s a delight to be able to that. I’d really be miserable with trad pub and having no cover control.
Linda, I too love “skiing” that downhill rush of the story as I race madly to the close. I don’t get bored, because there are always surprises contained within that interval of story. I may think I know exactly what happens. And I do know generally what happens. But some of the “how” always turns out to be a surprise.
Like you, I don’t much care for that last pass to make sure everything really is the way I want it and to make sure what I’ve said is clear to the reader. In fact, I loathe it. The story really is complete in my mind then and I’m eager to move on. But the last pass has to be done, so I slog through it.
I also love designing covers. It’s pure fun. (Although I also find it stressful, because I’m aware that if I get the cover wrong—no matter how attractive it may be—I’ll be hurting the sales of the book.)
This move sounds a lot like what you both went through when you had to tackle your friend’s estate, only it’s your own stuff. Both easier and more difficult depending on the area, I suspect.
As far as writing, it’s so interesting to see an experienced writer’s take on knowing the end. I just got a glimpse of how my story could end, and it gave me confidence that I can get there!
My creative side is being stubborn, too. I mostly finished the short novel I’m working on. What tends to happen is that I’ll get at a point where creative side wants to cycle back through the entire story and make sure things are in order. A lot of housekeeping stuff. That’s a sign I’m bumping up in the end. I’ve actually written everything except the validation.
Except with this book, I’m ending with the quadruple whammy of Research for Fiction Writers, Novel Structure, Teams, and Secondary Plots. I’m reverse outlining the story now because I know I’ve got a couple of gaps and I have to figure out where I want to fill them in. I’m also identifying the secondary plots, because it has been such a weak area for decades and I want to make sure I’m learning from what I’m doing. Creative side is going, “Outlining! Phht!” It’s been like pulling teeth to do the reserve outline (and for the record, I did try it during the writing of the story. Creative side was having none of it. It does not trust ANY outlining). So, at the moment, it’s like trying to take a cat to the vet. Oy.
Yes! That’s a part of why I write. My stories are indeed mine, and no one else will ever even thnk of them, let alone write them. They will not exist in the world in the form I want them to have, unless I write them.
The other piece—a larger one—is that I love creating. It’s like I’m painting a picture or designing a quilt or planting garden. Except that I love telling a story more than all those other possibilities. Plus I become unhappy when I’m not writing.
Thank you for sharing this post today. I’ve been doing through a rough time in my life and struggling with holding the full-time job, raising two kids, getting involved politically, and oh, writing novels… There are days when I look at my slim sales and I ask myself: “Why do I keep writing?”
I expect each author has their own reason.
I love telling stories and sharing them. Always have and always will. The challenge for me is to learn, read and grow as much as I can as a writer with limited time. But if I’m honest with myself, even if I had all the time in the world, I’d still have challenges. So instead, I’m flipping the script on things and focusing on seeing the positive.
I may not have financial success, but I have a small following of loyal readers. I’m honest with them in my newsletters and share (as you have in this post) the challenges I’m going through as a means of letting people see who I am and what I stand for. Most recently, I’ve decided to take more of a public stand politically and I was afraid to do that for fear that my readers might be upset with me.
But then I realized that who I am, what I write (and why) all ties into how I live and see live. I’m motivated to keep writing because I love storytelling. I can’t live one way and then try to “hide” that from my readers. It’s just not true and I wouldn’t be honest. Life isn’t like an Instagram feed of all the beautiful places and dishes of food people get to eat. Instead, it’s often a mixed bag.
Posts like the one you shared with us today are helpful, especially in this social media frenzy these days, because your honesty helps ground not only yourself, but you can share (in an intimate and vulnerable way) with your readers. I admire your courage and thank you for sharing.
Best of luck to both you and Dean in finishing your move.
Hey Kris!! How are you?? I lived in Vegas for fifteen years, so if I can help in any way, let me know. I wish you the best there. It’s not a bad place and the writing scene is starting to flourish a bit. As to you blog today–boy I needed that. Most days I feel like I’m wading through tar when it comes to my story. I’m excited about it; it’s working; it’s just…well, I’ve thought it all out, done all the research and now I want something NEW:) But, well theres this other half of the book thing left to do:) So thanks for the swift kick in the keister–very subtle BTW. And thanks for letting me know I’m not alone.
You’re welcome. And yes, I’ll pick your brain off the site here, particularly about surviving summer days… Glad the post helped. Now if I can only remember the same thing day to day…
Summer day survival, Vegas-style. for sure can help with that!! Hope you’re getting settled in and enjoying Sin City. It’s a trip, but a nice place to live, all things being said.
What motivates you is a good question. While it would be nice to have the perfect answer, often good enough will do, even if good enough is along the lines of “because, just because.” For me, I write, I just do. Writing a novel is just being more focused and a more constructive use of my writing. It just is.
That’s an imperfect answer, and sometimes I fear I’m no good, which is doubt; driven by the unknown uncertainty that’s life.
Optimistic me, then comes out to play.
I think that drug/alcohol myth goes back centuries. Going to take a lot of stakes to put that one to rest. Reading this about motivation now is good. I seem to have lost mine after a bout of real life kicking me in the shins and then walking away. If we need to get it done, thinking about it or putting it off doesn’t get it finished. Time to jump back on the treadmill again.