A friend of mine sent me this video recently. Maybe you've seen it:
RSA Animate-Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us from The RSA on Vimeo.
The basic idea is that when you offer a really big monetary reward for completing a difficult mental task, people get stupid. They can't do creative, high-level thinking very well. The stress and excitement probably interferes with their brain. We've all seen this. While we're sitting, relaxing in our living rooms and watching a game show we can remember all the answers to the million dollar questions. Why can't that idiot contestant do it? Well, it's because a million dollars is at stake.
How does this apply to writing?
Unfortunately, there's a natural tendency to assume that writers become rich and famous because most of the writers we hear about are the rich and famous ones. Of course anyone who knows anything about the business knows that's not true, but the impression is still there because the writers we hear about most often are the ones who are rich and famous. Sorry, that's the way it is. It's the same way with people who win the lottery. The losers are never on the billboards, only the winners, so we get this impression that winning isn't so unusual. This "all authors are rich and famous" effect is even bigger for people who don't know much about writing. When my friends hear I'm working on a novel for children, they say, "Oh, so you're going to be like J.K. Rowling."
So dig down deep inside and tear out any old, left-over roots of the idea that your brilliant masterpiece of a book is going to make your rich and famous. Not because that's impossible, but because if you're thinking it in the back of your mind, you won't do your best work.
This goes for ANYTHING you see as a big reward. Is your fat, juicy carrot a literary agent? A publishing contract? Ten thousand sales on Amazon? According to the research, carrots just get in your way when you're doing high-level creative work. Forget about your carrot. Tell yourself it doesn't matter. That's not really why you're doing this.
As Daniel Pink explains in his little video presentation, there are three things that people really want, three things they will do creative, high-level brain work for. The first is to be in charge of ourselves. We want the freedom to choose. Next, we want skills. We'll work hard to gain higher levels of expertise in anything that interests us. This is probably why I practice the harp for an hour a day so I can play with an Irish band that performs only four or five times a year for free at churches and libraries. What do I get out of it? Besides hanging out with friends, I'm getting good at something. Third, people want a sense of purpose. We want to be part of a greater cause, we want to make a difference in the world. This is probably why I spend all that time sorting and rinsing containers for recycling. It isn't exactly fun, but I feel like I'm part of a greater purpose.
So is this why I write?
I've certainly got a lot of freedom. At this stage of my career I can write whatever I want. As for skills, there is so much to learn about writing, so much to gain from constant practice, it's kept me happy for half a life-time and I expect it to do the same throughout my remaining years. Do I have a sense of purpose? I think back to the eleven-year-old girl I once was, who was constantly searching the library for a really good book, and the delight I felt every time I found and read one. I write because I want to make children happy. Well, happy, and sad, and angry, and worried, and scared, but then happy again at the end. Children need emotional exercise. I build emotional playground equipment called books.
So what's the external carrot that's tripping you up? Change your focus to the freedom you enjoy as a writer, the skills you're developing, and your sense of purpose. Those are things no one can give you or take away.