Every writer needs to know why they write. Being honest about your goals and your motivations will save you heartache in the long run. If you understand why you are embarking on a project, chances are you will have less once-promising projects gathering dust in the corner. In Part One, I made the case for why introspection is important to writers. The first two reasons for writing that were covered in Part One were “because I can” and “because I want to”.
For the majority of self-directed writers, “because I can” and “because I want to” cover most of the reasons why we embark on a particular project. We want to take pleasure in our craft, and/or we want to say something with our work. But now I want to come to grips with the final two reasons for writing. I will preface by saying that these two cases pose their own special challenges, and might suggest to you that some of your problems with your writing project come from the type or quality of writing that you are doing.
Why do you write the particular project that you are currently working on?
Because I need to. There is an important difference between want and need. Whereas want is defined by how it adds to what you already have, Need is defined by its absence. When you aren’t fulfilling a need, some part of the whole is suffering. When you are fulfilling a need, you feel normal. When you are writing from need, the writing makes us feel human again. Anything less than that is a want.
To write because you need to write is a matter of no small importance. There are a number of reasons why people need to write, and I won’t speculate too deeply about the underlying reasons (because they are usually of a personal nature). The first reason is for cognitive or social aid. The second reason is for relief & closure. The third (and least distressing) reason is habit. I have written for all three reasons, so I’ll do my best to explain what these three things mean to me.
The “cognitive or social aid” is like Leonard Shelby tattooing crucial names, dates, words on his body in Memento, but not because you can’t remember things. This is the kind of writing that you do to put your life in order. Using writing to make to-do lists or work schedules is fairly common; but need can be more advanced than that.
For ten years I carried a journal with me at all times. When I felt overwhelmed (in a “I am going to vomit all over this Turkish rug” kind of way), I would find an empty chair and open my journal. I would jot down words, phrases, people’s names, descriptions of the ceiling, the walls, the decor, the food–sketching out the scene before me like I was writing novelisitic exposition. All of the things my brain could not process–as I wrote them, bit by bit, reality would reassert its hold. The panic would subside and I could get on doing what I was doing. Without the journal, it was all but impossible for me to function in a social world. The upside was that I had lots of scraps of well-sketched places, of emotion crystallized in its heightened state. Being a frugal writer, I never want to throw out anything I do. So I incorporated these descriptions into short stories or poems; I used these passages to springboard into story ideas.
The “relief & closure” reason is probably the most familiar to us as writers. Who hasn’t taken up the pen (or keyboard) after a blow to the heart? I started writing daily in my late teens. The relief I was looking for–the relief from mood swings the size of a Texas prairie. I would track these moods and puzzle out wildly exaggerated reactions to mild slights. Journaling was a way to get at the cause of a low self-worth and anger.
This writing was a mental health tool. It didn’t have an immediate project around it. I had just wanted to feel better. Over time, however, the journaling became the project that I needed to collect & polish into a novella. The crisis came to a head during my senior thesis. To graduate from my program, undergrads had to put together a long paper or a creative project. I had started and stopped a collection of short stories that were pretty objects without any real emotional heat. My love of a 3rd person objective voice didn’t help the bloodless, above-it-all-ness of these stories. All of my writing projects were falling flat. My thesis adviser finally sat me down and asked me about it. I told her it was because the story I needed to tell was suffocating my ability to feel sympathetic towards any of my other protagonists. It was scuttling all of my other stories before they were even told. Clearly, she said, that is the story you need to write. You can’t be a writer until you tell it.
The worst part of this story was that my need to tell it made it take a high toll on my relationships. It was a story of trauma, and it became difficult to continue. To continue meant to relive the pain like a blow to the body. To alleviate some of that too-close-to-home-ness, a writer is advised to disguise the story. If the trauma you suffered was physical, then make it emotional instead. If it was sexual, make it psychological instead. Just bring the need and the pain with you to the keyboard.
When you are writing for relief or closure, it is desperately important that you push through the pain and finish the project. Sometimes it means that you feel lighter when you’ve finished. Other times it means you feel pressed thin–like you’ve given some essential sliver to the page. It is impossible to tell whether writing will be felt like an unburdening or a wound, but it is crucial that you find out. Because leaving that one large project unfinished means that you can never quite close the book on the event that caused it. It will rankle. And it will spill out into every other project you tackle.
Finally, and least dire, writing can become a need through habit. Dan has highlighted Ray Bradbury‘s description of physical unease at going days without writing. Those of us who develop the taste for everyday writing begin to need it like a drug. Going off of it leads to a short-term feeling of euphoria and I’m-fines–followed immediately by decline and bottoming out. Don’t be put off by that comparison; I’ve heard the same from my cycling-addicting folks. Your body learns to reward any kind of exertion with endorphines, to make you keep doing what you do. Whether it’s 20 miles of biking or 20k of words.
Usually these writing habit grow up around a certain kind of writing. Mine was journaling. Ray Bradbury’s was writing super-awesome publishable fiction.
While it was nice to be writing daily (with a bonus smugness that comes from being able to say that you write at least 300 words per day), after I worked through most of my pressing issues in my novella, journaling wasn’t the kind of writing I wanted to be doing. How, then, could I channel my need to write every day into writing that I wanted to do? I haven’t rightly figured out how to switch that same level of dedication to the more optional “want-to” kind of writing. But I have learned that to make headway in the projects you want to do, you must finish the projects you need to do first. And then learn how to let go of that writing once it is no longer helping you meet your goals.
Because I have to. If you have ever had a paid (or unpaid) job where you were required to write, produce, design, draw, or create on a deadline, you know this reason all too well. Depending on how well you do with deadlines (some of us rise up to meet them, some of us procrastinate until we hit them, some of us crumble at the sight of them), this is probably the best category in terms of motivation because it will illuminate your writing persona.
If you are the type to crumble at the face of deadlines (self-imposed or otherwise), there are undoubtedly a host of organizational, motivational, and self-esteem issues lurking under the guise of not being able to meet deadlines. You will need to deal with these issues a step at a time, and to let go of your preconceived notions about what kind of writing you are doing on a day-to-day basis. You aren’t making art, you aren’t making perfection, you are just getting it done.
Grad school gave me a crash course in how bad my procrastination had become when I tried to write two quarter-long papers in the course of a day. I don’t think I have overcome that procrastination tendency with projects that are imposed on me. It is the downfall of the deadline. If you know when it must be finished and you don’t have the spark of passion for the project, the temptation to ride the line may become impossible to overcome.
However, with the “have to” impulse, at least work is produced. If your self-started projects are languishing, the deadline is the single most powerful tool to get it jump-started. Most of us are programmed to respect and/or fear the Deadline; we will produce in the face of one.
If you are writing for a self-started project, you have some flexibility in setting deadlines. In my experience, the solution to this kind of procrastination is smaller, frequent deadlines with a more open-ended date for the finished product. That way work is produced at a steady rate, and the flexible finish-by date gives you a bit of wiggle room if (when) the project takes more time in revision. In my experience, when you are turning okay okay or average prose on deadlines, it takes a bit more work to make it pop when you are shaping it into its final form.
Most of us have the necessary tools at our fingertips: blogging platforms, community writing goals, public accountability. They keep our deadlines honest. Even if you fudge yours, as I am doing for ROW80 (I’m only checking in once per week on Wednesdays), a written log of work you’ve done for your self-imposed deadlines can show you how to chip away at your project, one step at a time.
If neither privately-affirmed nor publically-stated goals have the power to motivate you to work; if you don’t feel guilty/anxious/disappointed/whatever when you watch your deadlines blow by (or even if you do, and choose to do nothing about it)–at this point I’d suggest taking up a different craft than writing.
So. What does this all mean?
A few years ago, I had the good fortune to collaborate with a friend on an epically-scaled project. We were both enthusiastic fans with time to burn, so we decided to create a fan fiction alternative season for our current tv obsession (Buffy). Our fascination with Victorian England led us down a literary fiction route to old Sherlock Holmes stories and H. Rider Haggard’s adventure novels. We wanted to blend pop culture and Victorian lit, and have a good time while we were doing it.
Production schedules were created, character charts were fleshed out, character artwork was drawn. Amazingly, we had attracted a stable of four writers to write an entire season’s worth of stories.
Of the 140,000+ planned words, only 16,000 of them were ever written. Only one finished episode was produced. The stable of writers evaporated, leaving an unrealized world in shambles. While the planning itself was immensely enjoyable, and I had the pleasure of brainstorming with writers who constantly impressed me, I couldn’t get past the wasted planning.
Quite simply, there was a crisis of motivation. All of the writers approached the project with different motivations. Some of the writers saw the project as an opportunity to write “worry-free”–it was just fan-fiction, right? But the moment when they were confronted with a word processor, a story, and some general deadlines, they discovered that writing fan fiction isn’t a magical gateway into writing motivation. You have to be already motivated to write. The writing won’t show up just because you do.
In fact, most of the project writers (myself included) chose to try fan fiction because they were having trouble with “serious” writing. Each writer had a novel that they would take off the shelf to tinker with. This shiny new fan fiction project promised deadlines, editors who cared about their work, and rigorous fore-planning. As each of the writers had crises of motivation–some caused by the amount of work they were putting into the project, some caused by the stress of writing itself–many of them asked the question, “why am I devoting so much energy to this fan project? Shouldn’t I be doing serious writing?” And honestly, I would have to answer yes, why the hell are you wasting time on my project? It wasn’t their vision after all.
My motivation was different; I wanted to see if I had the ability to self-start, finish, polish, and publish a single story. I hadn’t written a single finished story in workshop; I hadn’t written any kind of fiction in more than a year. I wanted to know if I still had the stuff. From this initial spark, my run-away enthusiasm of working with like-minded writers inflated the project well beyond the bounds that any of us intended it to (as noxious gases tend to do). The production schedules were a part of that bloat… they didn’t reflect in any way shape or form my honest motivations for starting the project.
Although the failure of this project squatted in the “regret” portion of my brain, it took me awhile to recognize that I did in fact accomplish my original goals. I wrote, and I revised. I wrote “Eleven Quid” in about a month; I finished it, polished it, and published it. (After its website went defunct, I slapped it up on Fanfiction.net.) By that measure, the project was a success. Had I kept a clearer focus on my goals–on my own reasons for writing–I would either kept the enthusiasm from running away with itself (haw!) or realized that the project’s dissolution wasn’t a waste of time. I got what I came for. And based on the subsequent creative output of a few of the other project members, they too found the motivation they were looking for.
The reasons a writer writes, how they started, what their goals are, and why they choose to work on a particular project have everything to do, then, with what projects get finished and which ones get discarded.
So. Why do you write?
2 Replies to “Guest Post: Why Do You Write? Part Two”
I really dug this two-parter, Liles. I think you covered the bases pretty darn well, and for me, the reason why I write is frequently a combination of all of the reasons, with the different aspects in greater or lesser proportion, depending upon the project.
I do harbor regret over my failure with the Buffyverse project. In retrospect, I think I failed primarily because I’m a control freak, and the project ultimately wasn’t my vision. As I wrote, I found myself thinking of ways to take my tiny little subsection of the story that just didn’t align with the goals set by the collective, and I found myself floundering with a ballooning word count and treading water. The responsibility of the failure rests squarely on my shoulders, and what I probably should have done was not committed to do anything but help brainstorm or offer advice/feedback. I am capable of collaboration, but only in the rare instance where I not only share creative control in equal measure, but also when my vision an that of my collaborator(s) overlap nigh-seamlessly. I think that’s why I was able to finish a screenplay with my longtime buddy, but not Buffyverse — which was a truly awesome concept, and your story for it was fantastic. And you’re right: that project did jump start my creative output. So it was a successful failure, if you want to call it that.
One of the most important aspects of writing, in my view, is the timeframe question. (Or “deadlines.”) I believe in setting realistic goals and trying to meet them. I simply don’t function if I don’t have a timeframe in mind. Over the years, I’ve gotten to be more philosophical about self-motivated projects, though. I firmly believe in firm deadlines for externally-motivated projects, especially ones that are of a more professional nature, where the writing is done more for craft and compensation than internal “need.” At the moment, though, I have two big projects going on in my own life. One is applying for school, the other is my novel.
A lot of writing and revising needs to be done to hit the application deadlines, and I’ve worked out a fairly tight, regimented schedule for myself for the next couple months to make sure I get it all done on time and with as high a degree of accomplishment as I’m capable. These deadlines — both self-imposed and externally-imposed — are non-negotiable. They need to be met, or the whole thing simply won’t happen. I’ve been on top of things for the last three weeks, and with prayer and luck, I should be able to continue to do so.
With my novel, on the other hand, my timeframe has always been nebulous. Originally, I wanted to be finished by this last summer. That didn’t happen. I’m not too bothered by it, though. Not because I don’t feel that constant gnawing at my gut (which may be the bacon I ate this morning as much as writer’s guilt), but because when I started the project, I had no fixed idea of what shape it would take. The further along I got with the writing and planning, the more I understood about how long it would be, what mental/creative resources I’d need to make it happen, and how long it would take. Realistically, it will probably take me another year (at least, if not more) just to finish the first draft. I’m okay with that because I have worked out what’s going to happen and in roughly what order, and I *know* I’m going to finish it. Nearly every other big-time project I’ve undertaken but failed to complete was started in the first, fervid flush of excitement, and petered out once I realized I wasn’t sure WHY I was doing it. This story is different. The ideas (or their seeds) have been in my head for a long, long time, and it took me quite a while to work them out. Considering that the brainstorming essentially started in high school, and I never found the focal point for my story until I was almost thirty, expanding the timeframe just a bit more for a project to which I’ve been committed for my entire adult life doesn’t seem too bad.
My point with all this, though, is that I wanted to re-emphasize — and then emphasize again — how much I agree with you on goals. They’re incredibly important; they occupy the blazing center of a writer’s known universe. Without goals, “writers” are simply directionless dreamers. Being a dreamer is fine. But dreamers aren’t Writers, and that’s a distinction of which only writers seem to be jealously aware.
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