Monday, October 5, 2009

Motivate Your Writing! by Stephen P Kelner, Jr (Part 1)

This is an unusual book, which I came across in a spirited discussion on a writer’s forum. From the title one might assume that it is about the problem of character motivation, but, no: This book purports to explain why writers write.

Now, I’ve always wondered why writers write, though secretly I’ve always assumed it was because they couldn’t dance. Here was my chance to find out for sure.

As it turns out, while the book examines the motivations for writing, the thrust of this treatise is describing how to motivate yourself to write. Now, that’s baffling. If you don’t want to write, then cry hallelujah and go do something else. I can see why someone who doesn’t want to exercise might want a book on how to motivate yourself to exercise, or why a student who doesn’t want to buckle down and study would want a book on how to become studious, but if breathing is the least optional of human activities then surely writing is at the polar opposite end of that continuum. Many people have not written and have apparently suffered no ill effects, while many who have in fact written have suffered greatly.

Lawrence Block once said, as an illustration of nutty thinking, that many writers were afraid to stop writing because they might discover that they liked not writing and then they’d stop writing even though they didn’t want to. Well, I’m crazy, but I’m not that crazy. If I really don’t want to do something, I start casting about for a way to avoid it, not for ways to make myself do it.

Even though I clearly am not the target demographic for this book, I admit that it’s damned interesting material. The author is a motivational psychologist, and the leaders of his field have broken down human motivations beyond the basics (hunger, thirst, sex, etc.) into three main categories: Affiliation, Achievement, and Power. Beyond getting wined, dined, and laid, the reason we persist in any activity is supposedly one of those three motivators. Now, I think these could be better named, but that’s academia for you. Here’s what these are all about:

Affiliation. This means maintaining or extending relationships with others in your life. If you write for affiliative reasons, then you do it to please friends or relatives and to cement existing bonds. What close associates think of your work is vitally important to you, more important than what a wider public thinks of your work; more important, in fact, than your assessment of the intrinsic worth of the work.

Achievement. This one is particularly poorly named. “Achievement” is not necessarily a matter of recognition or awards; it can be nothing more than being motivated by a desire to accomplish certain artistic tasks to one’s own standards of excellence. Better terms might be “craftsmanship,” or “originality,” or “mastery.” Achievement can be satisfied in many ways depending on your own goal; the goal might be writing a story that rivals Joyce’s The Dead, or might it be writing a comprehensible novel without ever using the letter “k.” It might or might not matter whether your friends or relatives like it, and it might not matter if it is published; the only criterion is whether or not you met your stated goal as you perceive it.

Power. Again, a bad name. “Power” in motivational psychology apparently refers to “influence” or “having an impact.” Having power means that you can affect others—either convert them to your way of thinking, or open up new vistas for them, or, hell, just make them laugh or cry.

Motivational psychologists have studied people and developed profiles of the extent to which individuals are driven by these three poorly named factors. The author has also conducted such interviews with published writers. Care to guess which factors predominate?

Published writers rank far below the average on Affliation*. They might care what Mom or Uncle Bob think, but not as much as most people, and when it comes to friends, I guess writers figure that if their friends don’t like their writing, it’s time for a new set of friends.

You’d think writers would be high on Achievement*. Writing is one of the most painstaking of crafts, and every story or novel must succeed in its own framework. The archetype of the novelist is someone obsessively scribbling away in a garret, sure of his or her genius—possibly grumbling about being misunderstood, or possibly serene in the knowledge that their masterpiece will be recognized as a major work of art. Sorry. Published writers rank far lower on this measure of motivation than normal, nonwriting folk. (Note the caveat that these are published writers. The confident genius in the garret may be a perfect description of the average unpublished writer.)

Sorry to be the bearer of this tiding, but where published writers’ motivational energy is high is in Power*. Yep. We’re power-hungry nutjobs, driven by this mad lust to a far greater extent than Joe Citizen. “Power” isn’t a particularly popular word with delicate flowers like us, but there it is.

A friend of mine attended graduate school in psychology. On the opening day of a class in communication theory, the professor said that he wanted to start with a statement that he considered self-evident, but that many students would take issue with: The purpose of communication is to effect a change in another person.

The statement caused a slow but increasing uproar. Why, that isn’t communication—that’s manipulation! I don’t communicate in an attempt to change anyone—I’m just sharing! I’m not trying to affect anyone else—I just want them to understand me! And so on, ad, I gather, relatively infinitum.

That’s us, I’m afraid. People might write for any number of reasons, but those who go through the trouble to publish their writing want to effect a change in the readers. The goal might be as big as changing the reader’s mind about some social issue, or as small as changing the reader’s mood.

We’re power-mad. How about that?

More on this topic in the next post.
*If you’d like the hard numbers, published writers scored in the 20th percentile on Achievement and the 18th percentile on Affiliation, meaning that about 80 percent of the population is more driven by Achievement and Affiliation. On the other hand, published writers scored in the 88th percentile on Power…


Tim Stretton said...

I'm automatically sceptical of a book with an exclamation mark in the title; particularly one which then goes on to use its key terms in ways no lay reader would identify with.

That said, the conclusions are sound enough. Indeed, by and large they're a statement of the bleedin' obvious. That's academia for you. (One of my colleagues secured his doctorate in Marine Biology for a penetrating study of 'Fish Handling Times', the thrust of which was: the more fish there are in the tank, the faster they eat when food is added...)

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

I certainly agree about exclamation marks, which are out of place in almost anything, much less a title.

On the other hand, I thought "Fish Handling Times" was a newspaper. I could swear we used to have a subscription.

The fact that published writers score so high on the Power vector shouldn't be much of a surprise, since writing and publishing a book is an introvert's way of shouting from the rooftops. And the fact that writers score so low on Affiliation isn't much of a surprise; someone overly concerned with what Aunt Martha or the neighbors think probably isn't cut out to be a writer.

But I was surprised by the fact that writers scored so low on Achievement. I would have thought that, given the arduous and private nature of the writing process, that writers would be driven more self-defined goals and tasks.

Alis said...

I agree that the three attributes are poorly named, but as soon as I read the one on 'Power' I thought - yup, that's the one, that's what I'm up to!!
Communication all about effecting change and influencing others - of course, otherwise why would we bother? To leave our readers in the same state we found them?! I don't think so...
As for the whole thing about achievement - if I knew that a book definitely wasn't going to get published, I wouldn't write the thing, never mind craft it to within and inch of its (or my) life. Maybe those who enjoy writing for its own sake are bigger on Achievement and those of us who are writing for an audience are bigger on Power. This seems to be a live issue amongst MNWers at the moment.

David Isaak said...

Hi, Alis--

Yeah, for me writing without thinking anyone will read it is sort of like going to a remote hilltop and shouting. That might be fun for a few minutes, but it can't keep me going for long. It's all too Eleanor Rigby.

Tim Stretton said...

David, the thing on Achievement for me is this: do you any serious writer who is uncritically happy with their end-product? Writers who actually produce anything can't be perfectionists.

Alis, for me there's always the backdoor of self-publication. Whatever I write, *someone* will read it. Over the years I've built an audience, however small that may be. If I'm writing for 30 people, then I'm writing for 30 people...

Verification word: bleuch

David Isaak said...

Hi, Tim--

"David, the thing on Achievement for me is this: do you any serious writer who is uncritically happy with their end-product? Writers who actually produce anything can't be perfectionists."

I can't argue with that. Perhaps you've laid your finger on the crux of the matter.

Your verification word is one of the few places an exclamation mark might be appropriate: Bleuch! (I've seen people represented as saying "Blech!" before. I assume "Bleuch!" is the more Teutonic version.)

Janet Ursel said...

Very interesting. I will confess that the idea of somebody writing me to tell me that I made them think differently about something is a very strong motivator for me. So this definitely makes a lot of sense.