Why I Write and Why You Should, Too

Craft Lessons
The punishment of Sisyphus, on an antique jar/Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich

Why do you write?

What brings you to your desk every day?

Do you seek fame?

Fortune?

The Pulitzer Prize?

There’s nothing wrong with these goals.

But sometimes, the going gets rough and your dreams seem far out of reach. Your latest story just got its tenth rejection, an editor just turned down your pitch, an agent said try elsewhere. Or you’re supposed to be writing but are just spinning your wheels,; you hate your latestsdraft but you don’t know how to fix it.

At times like this,  it can be useful to consider why you chose this life in the first place.

Who wouldn’t want Hollywood or a famous literary agent with a stable of writers you admire to come calling? Who wouldn’t be thrilled to land a coveted assignment based on the strength of your news stories?

I certainly harbored those dreams of glory and success as I toiled as a newspaper reporter, later wrote short stories, a screenplay and a full-length play. I imagined my name in lights on Broadway. Still waiting.

The reality is that you have no power over how your work will be received. You can only control what you write. Everything after that is up to other people.

So why should you bother? Writing is hard, lonely work. It keeps you from your family and friends. It robs you of time to leisurely watch the world go by. If you’re not careful, it can suck the life out you.

It can be tedious, especially when you’re struggling to find the right architecture for your story. Writing can be an uphill slog as you build your characters into vivid, believable creatures or render scenes that bring drama and comedy to life.

It can be especially hard when a story you’ve been working on for months just won’t come to life. It has good points, a beginning that came out of nowhere, or a voice or point of view that you’re proud to reveal.

But the middle is a muddle and no matter how hard you try the ending is flat.

I wish I wasn’t speaking from experience, but I am, so as I look at this latest short story for perhaps the 20th time, I find myself asking, why bother? It would be so easy to throw the drafts into the trash, hit the delete button and move on. I understand Amazon has openings in its fulfillment centers.

There’s only one reason to write

There’s only one plausible reason why anyone would commit to this life: you love the craft of writing for the sake of it. It’s the single most important reason why you, or anyone, would — or should — choose this path.

It’s not only for the talented, but for those who understand that, as the French master Gustave Flaubert said in a letter to Vincent van Gogh, “talent is a long patience and originality an effort of will and intense observation.”

And then I realized why I keep trying. Because sitting at your desk trying to make meaning out of words brings meaning to your own life and, if you’re fortunate, to others who read your work, even if for now, it’s a small but loyal audience of family and friends.

Knowing why you write can help you when the struggles seem Sisyphean, a burden as overwhelming as the one the doomed Greek king was forced to carry up a hill every day only to see it roll down.

Writing demands resilience as much as talent and discipline. And the rewards are elusive.

So it can be helpful and inspiring to learn why other writers have answered the question that plumbs their motivation.

Why others write

Joan Didion answered it in an essay called, “Why I Write.”

“I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

Flannery O’Connor, the Southern writer, said she wrote “because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

Aerogramme Writer’s Studio collected the thoughts of twenty-one writers who answered the questions in a variety of ways. As a former investigative reporter, one of my favorites came from the British journalist George Orwell:

“When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, ‘I am going to produce a work of art.’ I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.”

Indian author Nitya Prakash also has others in mind. He is motivated by a desire to tell untold stories, to give voice to the voiceless and to heal.

“I write,” he says, “for those that have no voice, for the silent ones who’ve been damaged beyond repair; I write for the broken child within me…”

These are all valid and valuable reasons to write. They helped after I asked myself why I write after a long and exhausting day, juggling freelance assignments, blogging, coaching and trying to find time to work on my own writing.

I shouldn’t complain. I’m grateful for the gigs and the freedom to write.

Even so, it’s a feeling we all have when facing a story is the last thing you want to do.

There has to be an easier, less stressful way to spend my time on earth. I’m pretty sure you say the same thing from time to time.

That’s why the reason that spoke to me most deeply as someone who spends his days at the keyboard came from the writer and activist Gloria Steinem. “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.”

Come up with reasons to write

But I knew I had to come up with my own answers to understand what compelled me to get me through the days when I imagined I could be happier doing something else.

I write because:

  • I have to.
  • It makes me feel whole.
  • It exercises my brain.
  • It fuels my creativity.
  • It feeds my soul.
  • It immerses me in the life of the mind.
  • It fills my psychic bank with optimism and hope.
  • It makes me money, not much, but green stuff nonetheless.
  • It makes me feel like an artist, an explorer, a seeker of truth.
  • It puts me in a state of flow.
  • It represents a challenge worth tackling.
  • It lets me write the stories only I can do.
  • It deepens my understanding of the human condition.
  • It makes me see the art of the possible.
  • It’s a gift I have to keep deserving.

I hope some of my reasons help you decide why you should write. But you should come up with your own.

All of us are storytellers, whether we do it with a pencil and paper, a laptop or a video camera. It’s in our DNA, the human impulse to create, to remember someone familiar or to create someone you’ve never imagined before you sat down to write.

Ask yourself: Why do I write? The answers will keep you going when all seems lost and you wonder why you’re spending your days and nights wrestling with words.


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