How to Keep Working and Stay Creative: Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation
I am close to finishing the first draft of a novel on which I have been working for nearly two years. But close, as Rene Russo mysteriously observed in Lethal Weapon 3, is a lingerie shop without a front window[i].
What possessed me to write a novel? Why a fantasy novel? Will anyone take me seriously if I write genre fiction? Why do I care if people take me seriously? What if the story is rubbish? Not good enough to be published? Not good enough to make any money? How much longer can I keep doing this without making any money? What will I say to my wife when the rejection letters start pouring in?
This constant stream of doubts and negative thoughts is slowing me down and making it harder to write. I don’t think I’m the first writer to feel this way! This article is about getting over the finish line in the face of my own fears, without killing my creativity and just writing “fish” twenty thousand times.
To understand how to finish you have to know why you started. We all have our own reasons for writing. But these reasons can be broadly broken up into two types: intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Intrinsic motivations come from your own interest and involvement in what you are doing, such as your pleasure in putting words on the page or exploring a story. Extrinsic motivations are promises of reward or attention, be that a contract for work or praise from a teacher.
There has been substantial research showing that extrinsic motivation has a deleterious effect on creativity and productivity. In an experiment comparing poetry produced by volunteer writers, Amabile (1985)[ii] found that reminding writers of the potential for extrinsic rewards resulted in a temporary reduction in creativity. If you go into your writing thinking about impressing people or earning money, you are likely to produce worse work.
How did Amabile prove this? The experiment worked by dividing the writers into three groups and asking them to write a poem according to strict criteria. Group A were then given a questionnaire asking them about what was important about writing, offering a list of intrinsic goals to choose between (for pleasure, to challenge themselves). Group B had a similar questionnaire where the list offered mostly extrinsic goals (to get good grades, to win a better job or a place in graduate school). Group C had no questionnaire at all. All the groups then wrote a second poem.
When the poems were evaluated by a panel of experts, using an objective and well-known system for judging creativity, Group B’s second poems were significantly worse than both their own first poems and everybody else’s poems. The results were statistically significant and the study was rigorous. It couldn’t demonstrate that intrinsic motivation definitely improved creativity, but thinking about working for something other than pleasure had a definite negative impact.
It might be tempting to explain away these results as a one off, especially if you feel a little queasy about the notion of an objective measure of creativity. But this paper was one in a long series highlighting links between intrinsic motivation and higher quality work, from painting competitions and children being offered prizes for completing their homework through to how offering money impacts upon adult problem-solving skills in the workplace. Yes, your boss is making you worse at your job by paying you. No, you probably shouldn’t tell her that.
Amabile cites Harter’s comparison between intrinsic and extrinsic creators in the classroom being:
- Motivated by curiosity not in order to please the teacher
- For one’s own satisfaction not to get good grades
- Prefers challenging work to easy work
- Want to work independently rather than seeking help
- Internal versus external criteria for success
Now, I find writing intrinsically rewarding. Whatever job I have been doing, and wherever I have been in my life, I wrote, noted, scribbled, described, despaired of what I was writing, and then wrote some more. I like seeing how the words coming out and I like finding out what a character is going to do next. So that’s all good. But my anxieties are extrinsic; respect, pay[iii], recognition of quality, all the usual shit. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be paid or have people like your work. These things can be healthy; they can push you to write better, or to write more. And, even if they don’t, there is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be paid or have people like your work![iv]
The problem comes when having extrinsic goals gets in the way of achieving your extrinsic goals. First, worrying about whether my novel is any good is slowing down the production of my novel. Second, and at least as importantly, worrying about whether my novel is any good is likely to be having a negative impact on my creativity. This is a common problem for writers; Sylvia Plath, for example, wrote in her diaries “I want acceptance… to feel my work good and well-taken. Which ironically freezes me in my work.”[v]
You have to start to finish. It takes a thousand starts to finish a big project, morning after morning of staring at the page over your coffee and feeling like a bloody idiot. I’ve written before about how to overcome writers block and start getting words on the page. I like setting regular times to write. I use Pomodoros and write in 25-minute bursts. I set myself weekly word targets and draw graphs showing chapter progression.
But just writing isn’t enough. So, great, you’re grinding out the words, and every time you look up what do you see? Shit. Reems and reems of shit. Today is your day to make EL James look like Proust. Frankly, at this point you just wish you could hang a story together as well as EL James. And now you’ve stopped writing, and you’re back on Facebook, because why write if you’re shit? All these techniques I use to get myself writing are extrinsic motivations; deadlines, word targets and putting my progress somewhere my wife can see have little to do with the intrinsic pleasure of writing. How can you produce anything good if you’re just painfully forcing words onto the page?
I found this paragraph from Linda Anderson helpful:
“What if you find it painful to produce clumsy, ineffective lines and sentences? You should understand that all writers, even the most experienced, can write badly. The gift of writing is a power that flickers – everyone has mediocre days as well as magical ones. Try to cultivate an attitude of curiosity.” Anderson L, Creative Writing, Open University (Milton Keynes: 2006), p26[vi]
Bad writing does not make you a bad writer. You need to learn to live with your horrible first drafts. And your horrible second, third and fourth drafts. Look at it this way. If the early drafts are perfect then they probably lack energy. You aren’t writing freely enough if there isn’t some crap in the floodwater, and you can sort it out in the edit. But is that all there is too it? Do we just have to suffer through the first draft until you can suffer through the edit?
There’s a lot of bullshit about suffering artists. I’m not saying that producing art doesn’t involve suffering. This many coffees and late nights in, I’m definitely not saying producing art does not involve suffering. But I do my best writing when I’m enjoying myself. When anxiety and doubt consume me, I can hardly write at all. Somehow, you have to get from not being able to write to having fun writing.
I can’t think of many times when I’ve started out in the blissful, transcendental state where the words just come from your heart straight out onto the page. It happens somewhere in the process, after you force yourself to start. Sometimes, when it works, the writing just takes you away and you lose all track of time. Those are good moments. I don’t know whether you get better writing from it, but you get more writing (and thus have more chance of having good bits within), and it certainly feels better.
Those feelings are essential to intrinsically motivated writing. First of all, do what you can to make the writing experience pleasant. Find nice spaces to write, be fed and watered and rested, look after your back. I have an old friend whose photography career seems to be fuelled by the consumption of ice cream in front of pretty sunsets. The intrinsic motivation kicks in when you feel relaxed; when writing becomes play; when you mess around with words and start daydreaming ideas, characters and events. Do those little things you need to help you enjoy yourself!
Next, remember that nobody is going to read your first draft (not if you’re sensible). Enjoy this time when quality doesn’t matter and fool around. Go exploring. Sling the first words that occur to you down on the page, no matter how silly or banal. Bored of the story – change things up! Throw new problems at the characters. Gender swap, blow up their essential-to-the-rest-of-the-plot starship, end their love affair just as the stock exchange collapses. Write fast. Don’t wait for inspiration. If you don’t have any good ideas write bad ideas. If you don’t have any bad ideas, write “Quick Brown Fox” until your fingers take you somewhere new. Stop worrying so much and learn to love writing again.
This is how to combine the need for extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. Deadlines, targets and pomodoros get you past the initial anxiety and force you to write. Playing and messing about with your writing gets words on the page and improves your creativity, that essential quality for any good fiction. You need to keep some joy at the centre of your work or you’ll never finish, never mind make any money.[vii] First drafts are fun. So have fun.
photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/29233640@N07/25154629035″>happy sisyphus</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a>
[i] I have no idea what this means either. Apparently, she made it up on the spot.
[ii] Amabile (1985) “Motivation and Creativity: Effects of motivational orientation on creative writers”, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (48), pp393-399
[iii] Made worse by the probability of making a steady income as a novelist seeming not a lot better than the probability of making an income as a serial lottery player.
[iv] Any fucker who tells you that you shouldn’t be paid to do something you love is a fucker, and probably exploiting you. Don’t work for those sorts of people. As long as you’re working for free, work for people you love and people who deserve you.
[v] Amabile, p394, quoting Plath’s diaries.
[vi] Anderson also cites Amabile, which is what led me to her paper.
[vii] See endnote 3. I’m thinking about buying a lottery ticket. I’d go back to writing about economics but writing really bleak science-fiction is somehow a great deal less depressing!