|Drew Coffman | Flickr|
Why would someone do this?
Research has a lot to say about what compels people to do creative, difficult work. Writing a novel qualifies as both. Intrinsic motivation, doing something for its inherent satisfactions, is necessary for high-quality learning and creativity. However, it’s not a completely independent quality. Intrinsic motivation seems to be conditional on people realizing some basic psychological needs associated with their participation in an activity. Structures that facilitate feelings of competence and a sense of autonomy in an activity increase intrinsic motivation.
Extrinsic motivation can help too. Extrinsic motivation refers to behavior that is driven by external rewards such as money or grades; some outcome that is separate from any inherent satisfaction associated with completing a task. While extrinsic motivation can undermine creativity if it is perceived to be controlling, it can also support intrinsic motivation. Structures that focus work, thus promoting self-regulation for making progress, can help people internalize values and behaviors that are necessary for creative, difficult work. The key is that there is still some level of autonomy or choice associated with participation. Choice is critical. It is both a necessary component for intrinsic motivation and a pathway from less autonomous forms of extrinsic motivation to more autonomous forms.
A research article recently published in Studies in Continuing Education explores issues around identity and learning in becoming a fiction author. Patricia Gouthro, who interviewed 40 published fiction authors, argues that fiction writers have a strong desire to do work that is meaningful to them. They are compelled to write. They are intrinsically motivated. Becoming a fiction writer is a particular kind of work that is pursued by personal choice. One does not stumble into this line of work. Gouthro found that successful authors benefited from gradual successes and feedback regarding their work, things that facilitate feelings of competence and autonomy. Also, while writers often report that much of the work is solitary, they benefit from the affirmation that comes through being connected to others in the field - writers, editors, and even readers - during the writing process. Stephen King, in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, talks about writing for his "constant reader," someone who reviews his work and is always in his mind as he is writing.
But for some, intrinsic motivation is not enough. While NaNoWriMo appeals to intrinsically motivated people and provides structures that help writers feel competent, autonomous, and connected to others, it also provides some external structure that is purely extrinsic: a word-count, a deadline, and the potential for status associated with being a winner. But choice is still important. One does not have to submit to this sort of structure. But they do, in increasingly large numbers.
Does it work?
Well, more than 90 novels begun during NaNoWriMo have been published, including New York Times Best Sellers Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and Cinder by Marissa Meyer.
So who gets to be a writer?
I like what National Novel Writing Month Executive Director Grant Faulkner says about this. “Start writing. Now. Write with moxie, with derring-do, with abandon,” Faulkner said. “Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not a writer because the definition of being a writer is to write.”
- Gouthro, P. (2014). Who gets to become a writer? Exploring identity and learning issues in becoming a fiction writer. Studies in Continuing Education, 36(2), 173-187.
- Ryan, R. &, Deci, E. (2000). Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations: Classic definitions and new directions, Contemporary Educational Psychology, 25, 54-57.