It's thanksgiving morning. I'm alone. No interruptions. No calls. The house is quiet. It's a good time to write. Nothing to do but settle in and work. I arrange my notes, thesaurus, stylebook and back-up disk on my desk, and then sit down. I punch a key to wake up my aging laptop.
As the hard drive whirs itself into life, my inner Brat whines, “But I don't feeeel like writing.” In my mind, a petulant five year old—arms crossed, head cocked—stomps a foot. “It's a holiday,” the Brat moans. “It's sunny out. I'm not in the mood.”
You can't win with a five year old. If you do, you feel like a bully. If you don't, the Brat directs your destiny. I sigh, push back my chair, and stare out the window. It is sunny, I think.
Shaking my head, I retreat to the kitchen to brew tea. When it's ready, I grab a handful of Fig Newtons and settle in front of the television. Talk show guests natter at each other, but I can't concentrate. Ray Bradbury's advice nags at me. “If you want be a writer,” he said, “first write a million words.”
I switch off the TV and then head back to my desk. But instead of pulsing with meaning, my words spread across the screen in a sticky, alphabetic mush. I quit after five minutes. “See!” sneers my pint-sized critic. “Let's go play!”
My leg muscles twitch. Ants scurry under my skin. I shove myself away from my desk, thinking, Maybe I should read. Or go for a walk. Instead, I pace the hall muttering, “I gotta get motivated, I gotta get motivated.”
This is the point at which I used to give in.
Manipulation Rarely Works
The Brat and I would grab windbreakers and walk to town.
After a latte and a cinnamon twist on the deck outside Barb's Buns, I'd try to shame myself into writing by reading a piece from Best Essays or The Walrus. Or I'd badger myself to practice The Knickerbocker Rule.
“Apply ass to chair,” Conrad Knickerbocker told future Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Rhodes, when Rhodes worked for him at Hallmark Cards. Rhodes wrote 25 books, I'd tell myself.
But Brats don't buy manipulative attempts to motivate them. So I'd suggest a compromise, "How about we sit here and make notes about what people say." The brat would stare at me, wary. Just when I thought he might go for it, he'd shake his head and snort, “No way, that's work."
The Brat and I frittered away many days before I discovered the 15-minute test — and realized that momentum will get you through times of no motivation better than motivation will get you through times of no momentum.
The Fifteen-Minute Test
I came by this momentum-building technique from two diverse sources. The first was from Joyce Carol Oates, who said, in an interview in The Paris Review:
One must be pitiless about this matter of 'mood.' In a sense the writing will create the mood. If art is, as I believe it to be, a genuinely transcendental function-a means by which we rise out of limited, parochial states of mind-then it should not matter very much what states of mind or emotion we are in. Generally I have found this to be true: I have forced myself to begin writing when I've been utterly exhausted, when I've felt my soul as thin as a playing card, when nothing has seemed worth enduring for another five minutes... and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.
Oates's response put into words something that I'd intuited. As an aspiring marathoner facing daily training runs, I often struggled with this matter of mood. At least once a week, I'd come home from my office job frustrated and bone weary. I'd whine to Patti, my wife, "I'm too tired to run tonight. I'm gonna put my feet up and have a Scotch."
A frown would work its way on to Patti’s face. She'd rub her hands together and say, “Oh, go for your run, honey. You'll feel better.”
But, in those moments, the prospect of pounding hard pavement on a chilly fall evening seemed overwhelming. “There's no way!" I'd moan. "I'm so beat I couldn't run two miles tonight, let alone five.”
If pushed, I could trump any pro-running argument that Patti (or my conscience) might put up by playing my Ace of Health. With a crack in my voice, I'd snivel, "I think I'm coming down with something. I better stay in and rest." Then I'd add, "And perhaps take a wee dram for medicinal purposes."
One fall night, having played the ace and braved my wife's disdain, I'd just taken the Glenfiddich down from the cupboard when I heard a calm, wise-sounding, inner voice ask, Why not check it out?
What? I replied, in my mind. Check out what? How?
See if you really are too tired, the voice suggested. Maybe your blood sugar is low. Try an experiment. Run for 15 minutes and see what happens.
Fifteen minutes? An experiment?
Yes, said the voice, That should bring your blood sugar up. You'll feel energized enough to run. If it doesn't, maybe you are too tired. If so, quit, walk home and enjoy your Scotch without guilt.
I fingered the Glenfiddich cap. 15 minutes? What could it hurt?
I left the bottle on the counter, and then went to the basement and changed into running gear and a light rain suit. When I stepped outside, the damp air chilled me. I plodded stiff-legged down the street. After two blocks, I turned into the park and began a slow, lumbering jog along the cinder path.
Stiff muscles protested. Each step jarred my head. This is a mistake, I muttered. Fifteen minutes, I promised. No more. Every thirty seconds, I checked my watch. I scanned my body for signs of illness or injury but found none. Disappointed, I chugged along, hoping for a symptom that would justify quitting. I could almost taste the warmth of the Scotch.
After a slow circle of the park, I eased out onto the bluff overlooking downtown and into a smooth rhythm. I forgot about my watch. Tension melted. My muscles loosened and lengthened. Momentum built with every step. I stretched out my stride. I floated past my three-mile marker and ran easily for another two miles. At the footbridge, I crossed the river and pushed hard up the steeps through the Douglas Fir forest. I coasted on the flats and then let my legs stretch out as I glided down the long, gentle slope back to the river. Warming down, I walked across the island bridge and up the hill to my house.
I'd just run ten miles, and Glenfiddich never tasted so fine.
The Habit Of Excellence
Motivation is an important source of energy, but it's fickle. It's hard to sustain.
Momentum is a more consistent force. It generates, as the Oxford dictionary says, "continuity derived from an initial effort." When motivation fails, try a 15-minute test. It doesn't matter if you move in the right direction, just move. Write or run or do whatever you like for 15-minutes and let the energy rise.
I use the 15-minute test whenever my Brat doesn't feel like doing anything that I know will move me closer to a result I want. I give myself to the task for 15 minutes and see if my mood shifts. Nine times out of ten, it does. Oates is right. The activity changes everything.
The 15-minute test works because it is not manipulative. You’re not trying to trick yourself, or your Brat. The test is an experiment. It honours both your desire to work and the feeling that you are not in the mood. So the Brat says, “OK, sure, if it's just 15 minutes.”
If lethargy refuses to release its bear hug on you, quit. Do something nice for yourself. Indulge without guilt, confident that, next time, the 15-minute test will get you moving toward a productive working session.
Momentum also builds when you work regularly, not just when you work well. If you make writing (or whatever you do) a daily practice, it will help you develop what Flannery O'Connor called “the habit of art.”
Habits simplify our lives. They work by eliminating most of the struggle with our Brats. Aristotle knew this. “We are what we repeatedly do,” he wrote. “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.
What About Thanksgiving Morning?
Instead of forcing myself to write, or giving into the Brat, I tried the 15-minute test.
Doing so got me past the alphabetic mush. My mood shifted. My energy rose. I wrote a draft of this piece in less than an hour, and then spent the rest of the day editing and revising. At the end of the day, I had a submittable piece and I had moved 1500 words closer to my first million words.
That night, I went to dinner with a friend, feeling proud of my day's work, and eager to get back to it the next morning.