All prose needs motivation. Not necessarily a plan or a scheme. I lack all power of abstraction. I would never be able to write a novel or even a story off a preconceived scheme. I could not make the scheme. I don’t even try it. When I write prose, the story starts dictating itself. Or it doesn’t; then it fails. If it does, to say that “it writes itself”, that characters ”take over”, is hogwash (as is everything metaphysical, by definition). What happens is that every next line or part opens up one’s mind to possibilities, to a next line, the compulsive turn; and, yes, halfway through one’s creative mind, even a mind as poor in perception and abstraction as mine, one may suddenly see where the story will be heading, what its pattern is, what has been going on in one’s own mind (which we are often largely unaware of), what the story’s logical finale will be, and what steps are required to get the story there. This is how the minds works. There’s nothing outside of one’s mind, no God, no muse, no inspiration. One is necessarily one’s own inspiration. Categorically impossible that this is different for any other art.
But all prose needs motivation. On the arrival of motivation one needs to take distance from oneself. One needs to play one’s mind as one would play a puppet by pulling and relieving its strings, similar to an actress playing a part. A good actress is as much in control of the character she plays as the director is of the scene. An actor pouring his being into a character fails at the role. To be good, true or honest, to cause anything to have and retain value, to be worthwhile, an absolute withdrawal onto oneself is essential – it is essential to put oneself at an insurpassible distance from anyone and anything else, from the part one plays or sees performed, from the piece one writes or reads, from the song one sings or listens to, from the news one reports or consumes, from the people one loves, from being loved by them. A life that is worthy and that is worthy of the effort of others is a life of utter detachment.
A short story I once wrote is called The Directress. I’ll reprint it after this. It took me a while to understand it, but after all these years I do.
Motivation is found in lust, longing, pining, recollection, greed, madness, most certainly in beauty. This (not being beauty) is why I take pictures of myself and post them, mostly unrelated to any text. Motivation I find in an Alice Munro story, in a story by John Cheever, in a novel by Virginia Woolf, in Hunger (Sult) written by Knut Hamsun (pseudonym of Knud Pedersen), which I’ve read ten times (ballpark) in five languages (an exact number) just to get up my motivation; in The Benefactor by Susan Sontag; in so much else I’ve read (a family tree blog maintained by a certain Paul Chiddicks (chiddicksfamilytree.com) and posts and stories of others that posts in that blog provides links to (mymischlingfamily.com/2021/01/26/tante-liesel/), unaware, until I started following Paul Chiddick’s blog, that other people’s preoccupation with genealogy and family trees might have any attraction to me, who has no genealogy beyond her beloved father and mother, who failed her, and nothing to pass on to her children beyond her material wealth and the consequences of her own failure as a mother).
Motivation requires mental energy. Perhaps it is (nothing but a form of) mental energy. If one finds the energy lacking, the only writing remaining to turn one’s hand to is poetry. Poetry requires motivation, but the motivation may be shorter-lived, although it needs to be very intense. Almost all poetry that people write and that is not vetted by professional critics is bad poetry. Or let’s not call bad poetry poetry. Let’s call it rubbish. Professional critics may praise poetry not worthy of such praise, but poetry that has been rejected by professional reviewers is almost certainly rubbish. Poetry that has not been subjected to the critical eye of a professional reviewer, that is existing discreetly, may be good poetry, but, given that most people write rubbish, the working hypothesis should be that such poetry is not poetry but rubbish.
What is good poetry? One knows it when one reads it. E.g. Amid Rising Tensions on the Korean Peninsula by Franny Choi. It’s easier to describe the principles of rubbish. A poem where one sees a next line coming is rubbish. A poem that one would understand if it had not been encrypted in words and turns that one immediately feels are a way of throwing away the key to something plain and simple and cheap is rubbish. Poetry that reveals emotion is rubbish. Poetry that evokes emotion (rather than a sense of the perfect, the complete) is rubbish (because all emotion is false, unworthy and petit, even the emotion at one’s beloved father dying, even the emotion at the death of one’s husband that one will always recall to be unrequited at the time). Pretty poetry is rubbish. Poetry that groups words (e.g. noun plus adjective) in ‘unexpected combinations’ is likely to be rubbish all the way, or such defect may be a glitch (“Your glassy wind breaks on a shoutless shore and stirs around//the rose” is the less fortunate opening line of a great poem (Nothing for it) by Anne Carson, marred a second time though (yet maintaining overall greatness) by the “gliding emptiness of the night”). Poetry that just goes on qualifying nouns by adjectives is almost certain to be rubbish. Classic Latin poetry and Shakespeare’s poems can pull it off, because language was purer then, not the blunt instrument of emotions that we know it for since, say, the Nineteen Forties.
If one is left with nothing but short-lived motivation, e.g. when one is tired, too busy, distracted or feeling dejected, then writing a short story is impossible, but one may just be able to write poetry. Such motivation then needs to be expensed all in one go in the vision, the concept, the draft, the finalized product. It will probably not be the greatest poetry, because great poetry requires thinking, reshaping and a willingness to fail. All these are beyond the sort-lived motivation’s arch. First time right may happen, but, let’s be realistic, it hardly ever does.