6 Tips: How to Stay Motivated for Big Creative Projects

GrubStreet Instructor and Consultant Cara Benson on what it takes to stay focused on a long-term project in our hyper-stimulated times.


It’s news to no one that we live in a hyped-up, hyperlinked world that operates at the speed of the scandal-driven media cycle. Our phones alert us to the latest attention-grabbing incident the instant the headline is written, often without our bidding (just how do you turn that function off?). The internet, where the majority of us receives our news, traffics in trending topics, jump-cutting GIFs, and LIVE streaming videos—all literally blinking in an effort to get us to click. And let us not forget that recently spawned journalistic form du jour: the ever popular if also much criticized “hot take.”


Even in the world of arts and letters we can feel a sense of urgency—both in the need for content and in the methods that outlets enact to cultivate a following for this content. From poems in our inboxes to pop-up windows that appear as we move our cursors to close a webpage, it can feel that there is no corner of literature that isn’t affected by the often overwhelming milieu that is the digital age.


Of course, much has been written about the great democratization that new technology has brought about in publishing. A few short decades ago, it was the desktop revolution that gave rise to an abundance of independent presses to rival the big NY five. Now, the Internet affords newbie publishers free WordPress sites or other low-cost platforms to produce and promote online journals and even more upstart presses. And then there is that water cooler conversation the size of the world wide web to help get the word out for stories, books, and podcasts. The opportunities for emerging and established writers alike are greater than ever.


These opportunities, though, can be burdens. More than creating the feeling that what a writer makes should trigger a viral response, or that she should maintain an online “presence” to support this work, the very fact that these outlets exist can be the siren song a writer must sail past every day on the way into her unfinished manuscript. What writer hasn’t occasionally delayed getting to the actual writing in favor of checking Submittable for upcoming deadlines for work she has yet to finish?


Then there’s the pressure a writer can feel on social media. Between “book Twitter” and Facebook author pages (full disclosure: I have one), these sites can seem to be filled with writers announcing their publications, prizes, awards, and accomplishments. I don’t know a writer out there who hasn’t experienced feelings of inadequacy or a fear of missing out if she doesn’t publish by the time she is [fill in the blank]. True, I have seen immense and generous buoying up of writers by other writers over rejections or generally tanking self-esteem. This, too, creates hubs of attention (likes, comments, “engagement”) that has the potential to make a writer feel that she should be consistently generating likable material, even if it is about her unlikability.


So, what to do? How, in what writer-editor-publisher Rob Spillman has called the bell-ringing casino-like atmosphere of publishing, can a writer stay with a long-term project that is producing absolutely zero hits (not to mention income) day after day, month after month, year after year? How, in other words, can we give ourselves over to a writing project that could take up to a decade to pay off?


To be clear, by “pay” I don’t necessarily mean financially, though certainly that, too. I am speaking to that state of completion that feels satisfying, wherein a writer can say to herself: “I am ready send this into the world to be read in its entirety.” (A note on completion: I remind students and clients of Walt Whitman when they ask how will they know when a piece of writing is finished. The Leaves of Grass he left behind is known as his “Death Bed Edition” because he continued to revise the work until he died. They don’t always like to hear this. Ultimately, I tell them, the writing might not ever be done, but they will know when they are done. And then they will come to know what Junot Diaz has called “the enormous beauty of flawed work realized.”)


As a published writer and one who is deeply committed to revision on a novel at present, here are a few things I've learned along the way that have helped me to see a work through to its best version.


 1. Set achievable and measurable goals.

Today I will write for twenty minutes. This week I will write 1500 words. This month I will write two chapters. This year I will finish a first draft. I’ll send the draft out for feedback. You get the picture. I find that having concrete plans helps tremendously when I’m worried I’m not doing enough. More than that, these goals can call me to the work when that bratty teenager in me would rather complain about, well, anything.


2. Acknowledge hitting these marks as achievements in themselves.

There should be an app that gives us a round of applause when we make a word count for the day. I’m not kidding. It can be so difficult to coax ourselves back to the work if we feel like we’re toiling without any reward for too long. Revised that paragraph that was giving you so much trouble? How about a nice footbath. Cut an entire chapter that you loved but wasn’t working? Treat yourself to the movies. (Sure, you can stream something, but it’s also fun to make an event of it by going to a theater.)


3. Get with other writers.

Separate from getting feedback on the writing itself (which is crucial), connect with other writers for support on the writing process. Sometimes, I email or text a writing friend both before and after a writing session so that I’m not going in alone. This can help me stay with it when it seems like every other thing in my life wants my attention.


4. Read.

This one is so often said that it’s almost annoying, but it’s so crucial that I’ll risk it. I have some go-to excerpts, stories, poems, and books that absolutely delight and wreck me. More importantly, they make me want to write. If you don’t have those yet, find them.


5. Write something short.

It can be existentially painful to end each day in a state of non-completion. If you’re working on a book-length project, you know what I mean. Why not put it aside for a week or two and make a piece of flash? Or a short book review? You can submit it for publication or just put it up yourself on social media. It can be so gratifying to create the perfect order (or sublime chaos) in a short piece to remember that we do have the ability to wrangle words into a pleasurable shape.


6. Know that some days will be really, really hard.

You will want to give up. You’ll think you’re a hack. If you’re anything like me, this feeling will leak over into how you feel about yourself as a person. (I’m so uninteresting! Banal. Pedestrian. A bad friend. Terrible spouse/sibling/child/parent.) Recognize these feelings as a signpost of the path! People who aren’t writers might think they aren’t any good at writing, but this thought won’t wake them up at night.


Your job when low self-esteem strikes will be to encourage yourself. Writing might not be coal mining, but it is emotionally, intellectually, and psychologically gutting work. You will not do your most interesting writing with the aim to solely appease the criticism you imagine your work would receive if anyone were to read it. How you will get to the good stuff is by digging deep to find what it is that you find interesting. It’s there, I promise.


Need guidance on a long project? You can work with Cara through Grub's Consulting program!

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About the Author

Cara Benson is an award winning writer whose stories, poems, book reviews, and essays have been published in The New York Times, Boston Review, Best American Poetry, The Brooklyn Rail, Fence, Electric Literature, Hobart, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, 3:AM, and in syndication. She has received a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Literature and is in revision on her second book, a novel. Of her first book the Huffington Post writes: “Benson does more with the two-word sentence than many poets do in two stanzas or even two poems, largely because it would be difficult to find even a single wasted word." Cara teaches Creative Writing in the Graduate Program at Prescott College. Her online home is:

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