Motivated Mindstates When “Just Write” isn’t Enough

Mar 9, 2023

Originally posted on Reddit – r/screenwriting

I’ve been seeing this type of post a lot lately, and while some posts are genuinely low effort, some of them also express a desire for help with a problem I think hasn’t really been addressed.

Sometimes the answer to low motivation definitely is “just write”, especially when the question is more about laziness than anxiety. But this answer comes almost universally from people who have already experienced the struggle of achieving that skill for themselves, and take that somewhat for granted when passing along the suggestion.

It’s not particularly helpful to people who 1) don’t know why that approach works, and 2) aren’t really asking that question to begin with.

Creative Thinking Modes

Inspiration isn’t something that’s naturally accessible, but imagination is. It’s easy to confuse one for the other, because they both originate from a diffuse mode of thinking. The difference is that inspiration is generally involuntary; it happens to us. Imagination is a voluntary act, something we pursue.

We experience inspiration as a function of our artistic perception — whether it’s film, visual art, music, poetry, so forth. We are impacted by someone else’s realized concept, and our minds don’t have to account for the artistic labour — we just want to have created something that gives us that feeling.

It’s a deceptive feeling. Ira Glass talks about the Taste Gap, which describes the frustration of wanting to imitate our way to proficiency. If you’re starting out and you haven’t yet gotten to a place of accurate assessment of your own creative mind states, it’s easy to fall into motivation-killing frustration.

Imagination, while still functioning within that diffuse mode, is essentially the choice to create a series of “what if” questions, and ideate answers to them. The scope of this investigation is quite elastic — you can imagine the answers to small questions, or build large scenarios. You can start to formulate a research plan, or you can go back to those existential, thematic questions:

“What is this story really about?” “What does this person really want?” “Am I the best person to create this story?” “What am I missing?”

You can always, always refer back to this kind of thinking at any stage of your project. There is no set series of “steps” in dramatic narrative construction. This is a tool you can use for solving, rewriting, a way of pulling the elements apart and viewing them individually or relationally to each other.

The real question I think people want answered is not how to “be motivated” but how to deliberately access mind states to the point where it becomes a discipline. The diffuse mode state is really the end goal of creative inspiration exercises you probably already know— physical things you can do to change your mind. Take a shower, take a walk, listen to music, watch a film, do other kinds of art or writing, create mind maps, meditate, do physical exercise like swimming or working out, take a train somewhere, so on.

Figuring out your personal menu of focus options is a function of how you personally engage with the world. As much as possible, keep a means of note-taking on your person. I have an erasable, scannable Rocketbook I use, or if I have to, I’ll use Notes app, whatever’s handy. The fear of forgetting is a block that can easily be solved by getting into this very easy habit.

Hitting Flow/Compositional Mind States

When a writer or an artist refers to “hitting flow” it’s usually after a period of this type of ideation. I don’t always find “flow” to be the best catch-all, since I think of it as a directional creative state. Since I tend to go off in a lot of directions, “compositional mind state” is sometimes a more helpful paradigm for me.

Composition applies to any output — handwritten notes, outlining, speculative prose, diagramming or storyboards, and of course scriptwriting. Anything that’s taking the ideation process and making it manifest in some way that can be built on. Any writing you do, whether you’re priming, solving or composing fresh material, is output.

Sometimes using an oblique approach is the best way to trigger this state. I write both novels and screenplays, and one strange thing I’ve noticed in my development writing is an inversion of format tenses. I’ll use present tense (it looks like screenplay action lines) for novels, and novelistic past tense for screenplays.

I asked a couple of other writers and they also do this. There’s something about reframing the narrative in a different format that allows us to let go of the self-imposed editor/audience, and to stop seeing every single thing we write down as sacred. Crumpling gets a bad rap — but that’s actually doing the work. You have total control over what you decide to use later.

When you’re in flow, or you’re in a compositional mind state, your brain is working from a slightly subconscious place. On paper this can look like messier handwriting; for me, I know I’m pulling from my inherited dramatic instinct when I misspell words and create typos. I type too fast, outrunning the part of my brain that is obsessed by self-editing.

This dramatic instinct is a function of cultural influences that connect all of us — it’s why we fall into certain audience categories, why we find consensus one way or another about what we find entertaining. It informs the stories we want to tell, shapes our “voice”.

Finding this feeling doesn’t always mean you’ll get it across, and feedback can be even more brutal for that reason, but it’s where your understanding of your story is most reflective. You’re off-book. You’re getting to “voice”. And you can make good on those pages later.

“Just Write”

The reason this is such a common piece of advice is that it’s a way of reverse engineering the mental process that gets us to flow. Writers who are capable of doing this are employing the “fake it until you make it” approach, because a lot of us have trained ourselves to perform those series of mind states automatically.

We’ve also trained ourselves, in a Pavlovian way, to reap the benefits of those mind states with the act of typing itself. So you’ll hear a lot of emphasis on pages, on getting text on the page, that any writing counts. These are all facts — but it’s not the only way that people compose. There are writers who are capable of going from idea to finished script with almost no intervening composition. There are writers who ideate on paper, generate reams of meta documents, and spend months before they get to The Script.

No one learns how to do this overnight, and no one learns how to do this if they’re only getting the told to perform the last step. You’re also not necessarily being advised to work on your script. You can free write, sketch, outline, create notes, etc. The objective is for you to link all of the mental processes to the physical act of writing, to create the discipline for yourself so that you know when to start putting words on the page, or when to take a walk, when to take a break. When to reevaluate. When to just write.

I understand where this advice comes from. I started writing as a kid, it’s very easy to feel like just making myself do it is obvious because I do it every day. Regardless of that, I’ve still found over time is that the thing that tends to trigger a creative urge comes from having options. Being presented with three options will almost always cause me to identify the best one. Being given a specific task, a what-if question, or being recommended to help someone else can reorient someone out of their inertia.

In general I think we should be a little more sensitive to the fact that writers block is an emotional state, not a narrative one, and that “just write” is not a useful note — but “imagine this” or “go back to your inspiration”, or “try writing a page of prose” is something a person can engage with. It’s still “just write” but I don’t think it would hurt any of us to exert ourselves creatively by offering something a little more specific when people ask for help.