A friend of mine recently wrote a post about staying motivated. She is what she referred to as an “aspiring” author. Personally, I consider her very good author; she’s just not published yet.
Quitting: The Lesson of Murden’s Lawn
When my wife and I first got married, to save up money for a house we tried to find odd jobs. We both had full time jobs but we wanted to make more money faster for a deposit.
(Learn about writing better action scenes HERE)
The business I was in at the time allowed me to be in many, many people’s homes during the week, and one nice house I was in belonged to a firefighter. I asked him, “Not to be rude, but how does a firefighter have a house like this?”
He explained that he had a lawn mowing business on the side. Because of their work schedule, firefighters have lots of free hours, and he said in Florida there’s no shortage of people wanting somebody else to mow the lawn.
He and I chatted for a bit and I said, “You know, you’re in New Port Ritchie; I’m in Tampa. I don’t think I’d be a competitor to you if I started mowing lawns.” His reply was generous as well as inspiring. “There is so much business out there, there’s plenty for all of us.”
I never forgot that.
There is so much business out there, there’s plenty for all of us.
A couple of days later I made up some flyers and I was out canvassing small neighborhoods – to mow lawns. Any lawn, $10.
(I did say they were small neighborhoods, meaning the houses were really close together and they had tiny little yards. $10 was not a great price to charge but it was a great price to be charged, and before we knew it, we had lots of customers.
In fact, before I even had a lawnmower I had my first customer. I scheduled the lawn for Saturday morning and on Friday night I went out and bought a lawnmower – on credit, from a department store.
Well, my wife and I spent the summer happily mowing lawns, and at some point she decided “This is not how I want to make my money.” The Florida sun is very hard on the skin, and she didn’t want to look like she was 60 when she was only 25.
Right around that same time, we got a referral who said, “My friend has a very large lawn that is completely overgrown; will you do the job? You don’t have to charge $10.”
Being a man of principle, I insisted: my rate is $10 – for anyone. (The idea was, once we get out there and showed you how good we were for 10 bucks, we would negotiate a fair price to continue to mow the lawn every week. For the little tiny postage stamps lawns, 10 bucks was fine. For other ones, we’d charge more. Before we knew it, we had so many customers we could raise our prices to whatever we wanted. As we added a customer at $35, we dropped a $10 customer on the other end, so our hours didn’t change but our revenues increased dramatically. That really doesn’t have anything to do the story, it’s just something to explain I wasn’t completely insane; there was a method to the madness.)
So, this guy Murden had a huge lawn. Maybe, I don’t know; half an acre or an acre – it was big. It had a nice house on it and he was a manager in a technology company, so he had money but he didn’t want to mow his lawn.
It was big. It was overgrown. The grass was literally two feet tall in some spots. And it had very few trees.
I had a tiny push mower…
Well, I launched into that thing with vigor. Me and my little mower. And it was insane. Every step was a battle. Every. Single. One.
After a few hours, it was hard to tell that I had mowed anything.
I was dying.
My wife was there, and she said, “You know what, we don’t have to do this. Nobody will be upset if you quit. This was too big of a task for us to take on.”
And I wanted to quit. I really did.
Right up until the time when she said I could.
Once she gave me permission to quit, there was no way in hell I could not finish.
If a reasonable, rationale person would stop, then I would be a borderline superhero if I in fact finished the task – and the prospect of being a superhero, the prospect of being above and beyond ordinary, appealed to me.
Over the next few hours I finished mowing that guy’s lawn.
And a week or two later we quit mowing lawns altogether because we achieved our goal for the deposit. But it was one of those odd things: by being given permission to quit, I found it within myself not to quit. That is a backwards type of motivation, but understanding failure enabled me to surpass it.
When I sit down and have a big task, I remember. As soon as somebody tells me something is overwhelming, then I realize I have taken on a superhuman feat and it’s no longer Dan against the challenge; it’s No One Else Can Do This Except Me And I Will Be Godlike For Accomplishing This Task (and even if I don’t beat the task, by God at least I tried something big.)
How many people can say that?
And so it is with writing. When I get up at four in the morning to write, that is not the super human task. (Read about my sad story HERE) Telling people I get up at four in the morning and watching their jaw drop as they ask “How can you possibly manage that?” Well, I wasn’t up till 12:30 watching Jimmy Fallon. When I lived in West Palm Beach, I used to record the David Letterman show because I had to get up too early to drive to Miami to be able to stay up late and watch Dave live. I just watched him the next day instead; when I would get home, I would work out and then watch the prior’s day’s Dave at dinner. The fact that I was 18 hours behind on the comedy didn’t seem to make a difference at the water cooler the next day.
You will find within you your own motivation – or you won’t. You may have to go look for it.
That picture I have of the guy up on top of the hill says “The mountain top is only reached by the ones who don’t quit.” That also means that when everybody else starts dropping out, THAT’s when you know you are getting close to the mountain top.
In writing, you won’t get beat by physical exhaustion very often. It’s not digging ditches out in the heat where your muscles can give out. It’s typing.
You won’t get beat by a faster typist. It’s not a race.
You’ll get beat by NOTHING.
No one reads the story, no one writes a review, nobody notices the stuff you’re putting on your blog (FIX that HERE). You’ll die a death of anonymity. If you find some writer friends, you’ll see many of them fade away and give up.
I get it. I’ve been there. I have been beaten down physically and emotionally to the point of wanting to quit – and that’s when I don’t let myself quit.
I’m human. I’ve languished. Then I say, “Okay, you had your pity party. Get your ass back in gear because that book is not going to write itself.”
And then something magical happens.
I may not even feel like writing, but I write a few words. And a few words become a few sentences. And a few sentences become a few paragraphs. And then a chapter exists where one didn’t before.
And at the end of the day I’m saying “Wow, I wrote X number of words!”
And if I happen to talk to one of my writer buddies and they say “How did you manage to get 3000 words done in two days? I can’t get that done in a month…
“… but let me tell you about what was on Fallon.”
To me, it was a matter priorities. Did I want to write a book, or two, or ten, or did I want to know the latest, greatest joke on Fallon?
The answer for me was simple. I can probably get 10 minutes worth of Fallon highlights off the internet and then I don’t have to watch 60 minutes of the Fallon show live. That’s a pretty good trade. And if it’s that darn good, I’ll go watch the show. But it’s probably more important to me to finish the book.
And as hard as it was to get that first book written, I knew what Truman Capote said – that finishing a book is like taking your child out in the backyard and shooting it. I knew that’s why people don’t finish. They don’t want to say goodbye to those friends.
I don’t either, but it’s not the only great idea I have for a story. I have to get on to the other ones otherwise the other children don’t get born.
And by the way, you’re not shooting the kid. Those happy characters and friends are there every single time you open and turn to page 1, and that is something else I learned. Tom Sawyer is alive and well every time I open the book. Pony boy and the other Outsiders are still getting into trouble when I open that book.
My character Sam in Poggibonsi is still a train wreck every time I open that book.
So if I don’t like saying goodbye to them, I don’t really have to.
But I do have other friends I want to go meet or create, and that doesn’t happen if I don’t start writing them. So, for me, motivation it easy. Knowing what I want and knowing that other people would have given up by now, plus realizing that it’s okay to be overwhelmed sometimes, all combine to give me the energy I need to hang in there and tough it out.
But that’s me. What motivates you?
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Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi: an italian misadventure.” Check out his other works HERE.