My month of Zoom morning writing classes was magical. The wonderful mix of bonding, support, craft lessons, writing time and critiquing energized me. I wrote daily and submitted weekly. As the month drew to a close, I wondered: How could I continue this pace after my inspiring class ended?
Then I realized part of my motivation came from the power of the variable ratio reinforcement schedule, the same reinforcement plan that draws people to slot machines and lottery ticket lines. Unlike gambling, we’re guaranteed frequent wins if we keep writing. As a side bonus, writing doesn’t require smoking, buckets of cash or polyester.
The variable ratio reinforcement schedule provides rewards after an unpredictable number of responses. For example, a mouse might receive a treat after pushing a bar three, thirteen or twenty times. Under this schedule, mice (and men) produce a steady, high rate of responses over very long periods of time. Knowing a win will ultimately appear if we keep playing is incredibly powerful. So powerful in fact, that this approach maintains desired behaviors in the classroom, casinos, social media, sales and elsewhere.
This same power can invigorate our writing practice once we consider the numerous rewards writing provides. Besides obvious rewards of publication, payment, recognition and work in print, writing offers feelings of accomplishment, creativity bursts, introspection, a community learning and much more.
As a writer I don’t know when or specifically how I’ll be rewarded, but I know the rewards will come. I admit I want my words to appear in the world, but it’s invigorating to know reinforcement will appear regularly. For example, I met my 200-word writing goal and submitted a pitch on Tuesday, edited an essay on Wednesday, submitted an essay and wrote for thirty minutes on Thursday, drafted a poem and met my writing goal on Saturday, and gave and received writing critiques, laughed and supported my writing group members on Sunday. Eleven rewards in five days; not bad for a light writing week without an acceptance.
But like those gambling rewards, you can’t win if you don’t play.
The Play to Win analogy is critical to keeping those submissions in the sent box. I’m happiest when I have at least six pitches or essays out for review. When one or two are declined, I send not-yet-accepted essays back out. They don’t have a chance of acceptance while hiding on my hard drive. Submitting is key to big writing rewards: having work accepted, published, paid for and recognized. Pitch acceptances and tiered rejections are lovely as well. Being read and heard, even by a small audience, are also huge wins.
When I realized the actual exercise of writing brings direct, immediate benefits, I was hooked. As long as I behave as a writer, rewards will ultimately arrive.
A feeling of accomplishment comes from meeting the numerous goals we set—time spent, words written, pages edited and more. Even when not goal-setting, that same pride and satisfaction comes from creating a perfect sentence, decent outline or rough first draft. Another reward is those bursts of creativity when the outside world almost disappears as words or ideas flow onto the page. Improvements and solutions often emerge after writing is done for the day, while doing dishes, walking or sleeping. Becoming more skillful at this complex craft is a huge win, as is getting an important message or theme on the page in a coherent fashion.
The introspection writing provides can be as impactful as time on a therapist’s couch. I never expected my attempt at a poem about medical gaslighting would convince me to switch physicians, but reliving the painful office visit made me realize I need a new doctor more than publication. When I described how caring phone calls provided hope during a crisis, I realized my elderly mom would look forward to scheduled calls. I’m grateful writing provided these insights while I can still take action. Awareness gained from reflection and time at the desk can be the most precious of writing rewards.
The writing community is a great source of a variety of rewards such as bonding, laughter and learning. Offering constructive feedback in a way that energizes other writers is a win, as is buying books, writing reviews and supporting each other in person and on social media.
I learn something new every day in class. Whether I was more skilled at identifying Freytag’s pyramid in essays or movies, heard an inspiring essay a classmate wrote in forty minutes or created a coherent story based on five random words, I learned about craft as well as what my community and I can produce.
The reinforcement analogy reminds me that it doesn’t take magic to bring the writing muse back. If creativity or the writing spark eludes me, it may be time to refresh my writing practice, increase my writing community participation or enroll in a class. I know that if I write regularly, interact with a vibrant writing community and keep learning, rewards will appear.