Gumption is Psychic Gasoline

Every few years I go back and reread Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This book is transformation and I can’t recommend it more highly. This must be the fifth or sixth time I’ve paged through it and each time I exit the text a different person. 

The narrator expounds the virtues of gumption. And I like that word. It has an old-timey feel to it. That sort of keep-plugging-away attitude that is essential for writers and artists to have. 

What struck a chord with me was when Pirsig called gumption psychic gasoline. I’ve never believed that your will power is a fixed quantity. Just like your physical energy, it ebbs and flows in your body.

The particular section of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance dealt with gumption traps, those events that sap your will power and stop you in your creative tracks. Although, continuing along the lines of psychic gasoline, I’m going to call these gumption leaks.

One is an external leak – a setback along your artistic road. Something that punctures your gumption gas tank and spills your willpower all over the road. These are those little events that happen in the course of writing or drawing that irk you. Multiple times I have inked my work only to find I drew lines in the wrong spots. Worse, since I add text to my drawings, I occasionally ink in a spelling or grammar mistake. 

Imagine a writer finishing typing out a lengthy chapter, only to discover that they have forgotten to add in an important plot point. Not something you could drop in, but a scene you’d need to weave throughout the whole text. 

Instances like these can really deflate you. The urge is to work even faster to make up for lost time. Yet in this mental state of desperation, the work you create will often end up substandard (something you will come to dislike).

This is where time can help. Leaving the project alone for a few hours, or a day, will bring a fresh perspective. Often I find that when I’m going back to fix the mistake, I notice something else about the drawing or writing that I missed before and now have a chance to improve the overall work. 

The other type of gumption leak is internal — a personal hangup about your ability to create art. We all have doubts about our personal ability. If we didn’t constantly question ourselves, we wouldn’t make the art that we do. But sometimes this internal anxiety overwhelms us to the point that we don’t feel we can do anything.

Let’s go back to the idea that gumption is like gasoline. You need to take an easier road so as not to burn through the gumption you have in your tank. There’s a psychological study done years back on ego-depletion. (It has since been challenged, but the theory still holds.) The idea being that when you are faced with an gumption sapping task (like facing that blank page) you can “give-in” to your will power in other ways. Give yourself a yummy snack. Something to get you over your internal hangup.

A timer also works for me. When the words aren’t flowing, I stick with it until the time is up (even if I don’t write anything else). It trains my brain to not get sidetracked into other distractions. 

So fill your gumption tank up with psychic go-juice and get on the road. That novel won’t write itself.

Tim Kane

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