Once-mighty magazines seem to go out of business every week. Surviving publications are assigning fewer pieces and in some cases cutting their rates. The book industry has its own tales of woe. And the Internet? Don't even ask. What a great time to be a writer.
I'm not being sarcastic. I really mean it. Challenging as these times are, they also offer opportunities that don't come along often in a writer's life. If you can just keep yourself motivated, that is.
Of course, staying motivated isn't a problem only when times are tough. Writing is hard work, and life is always full of distractions and temptations. A lot of us are nearly as creative at avoiding writing as we are at sitting down and actually doing it. Fortunately, there are some tricks we can use to keep our noses to the proverbial grindstone and our fingers on the keyboard.
Step back and take stock
When assignments are plentiful it's easy to get caught up in the work of the moment and lose sight of what we really want to accomplish as writers. Maybe you always yearned to be a humorist but ended up writing travel guides (or vice versa). Slow times are ideal for revisiting those old dreams. If you're enthusiastic about the writing you've been doing, good for you. But if not, this could be your chance to change direction. Sign up for a workshop in the kind of writing you want to do next, buy a book on it, or just start experimenting on your own.
Even in the best of times, it helps to take a deep breath and ask yourself whether 10, 20 or 50 years from now you'll be glad you devoted your energy to what you're currently doing. If the answer is no, consider this an opportunity to spare yourself some regrets.
Swing for the fences
If you find yourself with extra time on your hands, why not take on that major project you've dreamed about but could never find the hours for? Write the play that's been bouncing around in your brain. Finish the detective novel you started but eventually set aside. Hit the highway to collect facts for that blockbuster nonfiction book. Sure, the risks are higher than with smaller, easier projects, but the rewards could be far greater.
Or, devote some of your down time to a personal project that may reward you in ways far beyond money. Now, for example, could be the perfect time to interview older relatives and put your family's history down on paper. You'll be exercising your reporting and writing skills, and future generations of your family may treasure it more than any shelf of books or pile of clippings you could leave behind.
Turn off bad, turn on good
When the business pages bum you out, remember that you're under no obligation to read them. Instead, why not head to the library or bookstore and grab something more positive, such as one of the classic motivational books?
Corny as their advice may seem, there's a reason that positive thinkers like Norman Vincent Peale have sold millions of books. Besides Peale, check out the works of Dale Carnegie, Napoleon Hill, W. Clement Stone and Zig Ziglar.
Writers face rejection and other indignities even in the best of times. Part of staying motivated, says veteran freelancer Richard A. Sherman, is "understanding that there will be many hills and valleys." Sherman, whose humorous advice columns on computers and the Internet appear under his pen name, Mr. Modem, says, "Being 'down' is part of the process, in my opinion. I'd be very leery of anybody who was 'up' all the time. Personally, I think a drug screening would be warranted."
Many writers find a little bribery can go a long way. One writer I knew bribed himself with miniature ship models and eventually owned a vast fleet. When I was freelancing at night after a full day of magazine editing, I promised myself a new jazz CD for each column I completed. So, what would work for you ... a certain candy bar? A 30-foot cabin cruiser? Name your price, but whatever you do, make yourself earn it. Set a goal, whether it's an amount of writing time or a word quota. Then stick with it.
Keep pushing ahead
The biggest challenge we face, regardless of the day's economic news, is simply getting the words to flow. And if we're perfectionists, we may barely get a sentence out before we start rewriting it. There's nothing wrong with rewriting. In fact, rewriting, more than divine inspiration, may be the secret of great prose. Too much self-criticism, however, can not only slow you down but discourage you from finishing what you start.
The novelist Kent Haruf, in a New York Times essay published a couple of years ago, said he types his first drafts with his glasses off and a stocking cap pulled down over his eyes. If that seems a bit itchy, you might try what a woman I met at a writers conference does. Rather than don special headgear, she simply turns off her computer monitor and types happily away. Only when she's well into a piece does the screen come on again.
Celebrate your successes
Once you've seen your name in print a few times, it's easy to forget what a real accomplishment that is. So try to enjoy every success as if it were your very first. Celebrate when you get an assignment. Celebrate when your work is accepted. Celebrate when it appears in print. Celebrate when the check arrives ... and when it clears.
Remember, bad times never last forever (and good times don't either). But there's always a perfect time to write. And that time is called now.
This article appeared in the March 2003 issue of Writer's Digest