There's a set of emails I've held onto for over ten years that contain the best writing advice I'd ever received. I was thinking about that advice the other day, so I went back to those emails to find the exact wording. That's when I discovered that I'd been remembering the advice wrong this entire time.
The spirit of it was there. But the wording was entirely different, and much more open to interpretation, than I remembered.
The context is that in 2011 I'd left my games industry job to enter a one-year Master's degree program. I also in a fit of "why the hell not?" applied for a writing gig at an, at the time, prominent, industry-leading PC games journalism site. I didn't land the gig (not surprising, as I had zero experience in the field), but in the rejection email, one of the site's editors invited me to pitch them some pieces.
Being in my twenties, overwhelmed at the idea of pitching, about to start a prestigious grad program, moving states, and generally socially awkward, I read the invitation as more of a consolation than a serious suggestion. So I didn't pitch anything.
A few months later, I'm in the middle of my grad program, it's my birthday, and one of the site's other editors emailed me essentially to say that he thought my writing was pretty special and he was wondering why I hadn't pitched anything to the site.
(I'm paraphrasing and not naming names here mostly because I'm still very embarrassed by this story.)
I was bowled over. This was a writer whose work I respected a great deal. So naturally I wrote back something entirely too earnest about how I'd just been overwhelmed with grad work and wasn't sure if I could handle writing articles and grad school and still have room to breathe.
Here's where the advice comes in. He wrote a very nice response, and he concluded it with: "I generally consider breathing a luxury."
Now in the strange way of memory, this sentence has transformed over the years into something much more explicit and on-the-nose. Something to the effect of, "If you want to do it, you'll do it." But as I was re-reading the emails the other day, I found no trace of these words. Maybe I lost an email somewhere? Maybe I read it somewhere else and got it conflated with this exchange? Maybe it's just one of those things--the Mandela effect, but for this one small, private moment of my life.
I have lived over a decade with these misremembered words swirling in my brain. For a while, I read them as a kind of snarky judgment on my choice to focus on graduate school. But as time has gone on, as my life has become more busy, rather than less, these words, the words that writer did not write, have become a kind of mantra, the core of my approach to writing motivation, and the most siginificant advice I can offer to writers at any stage of their work.
In 2020, when I wrote my first novel in the midst of work and pandemic-necessitated homeschooling and all of life's other responsibilities (the pandemic did not bring extra downtime for our family; rather the opposite), it was because I wanted to do it more than I wanted to do anything else that I could have done with the little free time I had. I carved the time out of other activities. If I had a moment to think, I had a moment to sit in my chair and write. I reached the point where I felt restless and idle without the work.
I wrote that first novel. I wrote a second. I'm working on a third.
I spent my twenties being busy and waiting for the time when that busy-ness would subside; when I'd be secure enough in my job, stable enough in my income, sure enough of myself to be able to take the time to write. (Keep in mind, I was a game writer, so I was still writing almost every day, just not on my own work.) In that time, I tried all the various methods to trick myself into writing. Daily sessions, rewarding myself for wordcount targets, focused writing tools, and so on.
The only thing that has worked is the advice I did not actually receive from that other writer: "If you want to do it, you'll do it." You'll get up early, you'll stay up late, you'll arrange playdates for your kid so that you can get an hour or two to yourself, you'll let the house get messy from time to time, you'll sit with the discomfort of a story that isn't quite coming together, you'll pass on watching the latest TV show, playing the latest game, making a dent in your to-be-read pile, all so you can write.
If it feels like a hard pill to swallow, you're not alone. I didn't swallow it at first either. I submitted some pitches (again with more apologies and emotional earnestness), didn't hear anything back on them, and then instead of following up or trying again, I simply gave up. A part of me very much regrets it, another part of me accepts that there were simply other things I wanted to do more, and those things are what have given me the career and life I have today. I'm pretty happy with both, even as I wonder what might have been.
So when other writers ask me what my trick is, I tell them there's no trick. I tell them "If you want to do it, you'll do it." And then I try to soften the blow.
I tell them they have to find out why they want to write in the first place. If it's to publish a book to fame and riches and glory--well, I have some bad news for you about the publishing industry. If it's because they genuinely enjoy writing, they're probably on the best track. If it's because they have a story they believe really needs to be told, then great. If it's because writing is something they're decent at and they think with enough effort they might be able to scrape together a living off of it, more power to them. If it's just for fun, or to learn new things, those are also very good reasons.
The closer the reason you want to write is to something that drives you in your day-to-day life, the more core that motivation is, the more likely you are to do it. For me, it was discovering that I enjoy the process and can express things through novel-writing that I can't express in any other medium. For you, it will probably be something different.
Go ahead and use all the lifehacks and mind-tricks you want if they actually help you switch from "needing to be bribed to write" to "actually wanting to write." But seriously ask yourself, "Why do I want to write?" and "What am I doing in my life that's can give way to make room for writing?" If the answer's nothing, you won't write. If your incentive to write is permission to do anything else but write, that motivation probably won't last long before you end up doing what you really want to do instead.
I'm not advocating for overwork or burnout here; I take breaks during projects. I step back; I go on vacation and don't bring the laptop. There are times when it's absolutely fine (and beneficial!) to want to do things other than writing. Breathing shouldn't be a luxury.
But life is short. It goes by fast; it's full to the brim of things you can do. If you want to do it (and you don't need to do it to care for yourself or others), why would you want to trick yourself into writing?