Writing motivation

On Sunday, Tiger Woods won his 13th Major, putting him just five back of the all-time record. Now, what does this have to do with writing? To you, maybe nothing at all. To me, though, there is absolutely a connection. I love watching Tiger, even though I don’t like watching golf in general, and I would never think of watching a golf tournament without him in it. I love watching Tiger, even though I hardly play golf. (Those who have joined me on the course would probably insist that I’ve never played). Tiger is something special because not only of how good he is, but how damn hard he works. Here’s a quote I love about him, from another golfer named John Cook. “His work ethic is incredible. When the number one in the world is at your club and he’s hitting three bags of 9-irons trying to flight his ball, he is doing it for a reason. He is trying to beat us up. It makes you want to work harder, because you know he is.”

This is one of the reasons I love sports. You can SEE the work that goes into the rewards. Watching Tiger is a study in intensity. And at least once a year, I pull out my bootlegged DVD of Michael Jordan’s “flu game” and watch that. Dude’s skin was gray he was so sick, and he still put up 38 and won the game for his team. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that level of effort displayed so clearly. Here’s a line about Jordan from David Halberstam, who was a wonderful journalist and writer.


He was the first player at every practice and the last to leave, the hardest-working NBA practice player any of them had ever seen.

The only problem was the degree to which he dominated everyone else. Early on, Rod Thorn called over to the Bulls’ practice facility, Angel Guardian, to talk to Loughery, only to find that everyone had already gone home. Why was practice over so early?, he asked the next day. “I had to let them off early,” Loughery said. “Michael was wearing them all out.”

Okay, but that’s sports, right? Doesn’t really correlate to writing. So I offer this, from an interview with Craig McDonald about his wonderful collection of interviews with crime writers, Art in the Blood. This is taken from the “Things I’d Rather Be Doing” blog. I don’t know who is responsible for it, so I apologize for the lack of specific credit.

What affect has talking to so many writers had on your own writing?

Demystification. I’ve also concluded that the most successful authors – not necessarily the best-sellers, but the ones who sustain the most stable careers and who maintain the best arc – are the ones who approach it with steady determination. They come at it with wicked self-discipline and they’ve taken the time and trouble to evolve a style and a recognizable “voice.” In most cases, I’ve also been fortunate to interview writers who really care about writing good books and who push themselves in new ways each time they sit down to start another novel. The best ones don’t content themselves with rewriting the same book over and over and counting on their readership to accept that. You can’t help but be inspired by that… to sense that’s the thing to do.

A lot of interesting observations lurk in that answer, but I was particularly grabbed by the phrase “wicked self-discipline.” That’s what it takes, and that’s hard to come by. It’s what I see in guys like Tiger and Jordan, and how I derive some writing motivation, odd as it may sound, from sports. I can SEE it in sports. I know Michael Connelly and Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos and Daniel Woodrell and Laura Lippman, and etc. etc., etc. work damn hard. But I don’t get to see it. I see the results, I might hear a bit about the process, but I can’t see the agony, the effort, unfold in front of me. Watching that sort of thing from athletes serves as a reminder of how hard you have to go at it to have success, and I think those sorts of reminders are incredibly important in a business that is so isolated. We don’t have coaches in our faces, demanding more. Hell, nobody is watching. You might have an editor and a publisher waiting to respond to the final product or urging you to hurry that product along, but on a daily basis it’s just you and your writing space, and I think that’s an environment that sometimes can feel empty of the intense motivation we need. So, you go elsewhere to help find it. I watch Tiger and Jordan and (sorry Laura) Peyton Manning, athletes who are as famous for their work ethic as for their success. I read books by the authors who inspire me. But where do you guys go to get that motivation, that refresher that makes you work a little harder, put in a little more time, rewrite a little more savagely? Any ideas?