I’m certain all of us have asked the question. Why am I doing this?
Some more often than others, I’m sure. As in, “Why am I putting myself through this?” Particularly when stuck, or while collecting noes during submissions. Or after a daunting critique. I mean, there have got to be easier gigs than this one, am I right?
But I don’t mean as a passing thought. I’m talking about taking a good hard look at the subject. Really examining why you’re spending so many of your finite hours on earth in this pursuit. I’ve often heard the succinct answer, “Because I have to,” or, “Because I can’t imagine not doing it.” Those are good ones. I accept them as valid.
I’m also sure a few lucky souls out there will answer, “Because writing is my retreat/respite; my joy/solace; my healing/me-time. I consider it a reward not a labor.” (I’m looking at you, Benjamin Brinks.)
But beyond that urge or longing, beyond the respite/solace gained, what do we really hope to achieve? Because, after all, even if we feel we “have to write,” or find reward in it, many of us could satisfy ourselves in an hour or so a day, or with a few longer sessions a week, and without the intent of having it read or reacted to in any way.
I’m sure that every WU reader appreciates the time, dedication, and passion necessary to acquiring and maintaining the sort of writing competence that’s worthy of being consistently read.
If you’re serious about gaining and keeping it, you’re giving a lot of yourself. A LOT. Certainly enough to warrant the question.
A Question That Sprawls
As I suggest in the title, this isn’t the first time I’ve asked myself why I write. It usually happens between manuscripts, as I am now. I find that it’s worth reexamining because the answers inevitably change. In my case, it’s more of a refinement than an overhaul, but my reasons have indeed changed.
At the core of it, I have to accept that my goal is larger than simply to tell a story (relatively speaking, that’s the easy part). I’m seeking to express stories in the best way possible; to construct and present them so that they are as meaningful, memorable, and moving as can be.
But that elaboration of the goal begs the supplemental question: well-expressed and meaningful to whom? For me it’s a reminder that, yes indeed, I’m doing this to be read. Which naturally leads me to ask what sort of readership that entails. I have been read, after all. By… um, dozens of… well, mostly friends and family. So then, how many readers are enough? If I need more, why? To what end do I seek them?
See how this question tends to sprawl?
The Usual Suspects
I suppose we writers can take the usual reasons for seeking an audience for granted. For many writers, one of the primary motivations is financial—to make a living derived from doing what we love. I’m no exception. I love that idea. But I’ve grown realistic enough to recognize that financial motivation isn’t enough. I’m pretty sure that switching even half of the hours I spend writing to being a Home Depot greeter, and then spending half of my earnings from it on lotto tickets, would not only yield a better bottom line, but offer better odds on hitting it big. So let’s set that one off to the side.
Another of the usual suspects is to gain recognition, or even fame. While I am definitely not a writer who daydreams of being on Ellen, or even interviewed on NPR, I will admit that it would be nice to have a respectable publishing track-record. If only because of how exhausting it gets explaining to the 135th dinner-party acquaintance how I’m “still plugging away,” and that I’ll be sure to announce it when there’s an actual book. But that’s still nowhere near a big enough motivator to answer the original question. I could simply start telling social acquaintances that I’m holding out for that Home Depot greeter slot, and leave it at that.
Then of course there’s earning validation—being told I’m good enough to make the big leagues by those who not only know the literary marketplace, but who’ve dedicated themselves to elevating it. For me this one’s always held a level of appeal. But as I said, my answers as to why I write tend to evolve. Five or six years ago, I would’ve put earning validation near the top of my list. Although it hasn’t entirely disappeared, my longing for validation has evolved. I’ve received just enough of it—from people I greatly admire—to reveal its true nature to me. It’s not so much that validation is fleeting, but that the longing is unquenchable. Hence, its power over me is diminished.
Another Reason—A Big One
By now some of you are squirming in your chairs, wondering when I’m going to get to one of your biggest motivations for seeking an audience. You want to reach them! Duh, right? You’re seeking human connection. You want your words to mean something to someone. You want to offer new perspective, to prod deeper examination, to leave them thinking. You want to move them.
We’re a social species, after all. Wanting to share, in such a personal way, lies at the core of our humanity.
I recently had an experience that was a part of the impetus for revisiting the question of why I write. A writer friend, met through WU, recently became a beta-reader. My friend not only enjoyed the work, she related to it. She found my characters’ circumstances applicable to her own life. She expressed to me how she was moved, and the myriad ways in which she was left thinking. Not to mention the bonus that her insights have already improved the work.
The experience is a special gift. I’m honored and very grateful.
And yet, as the experience relates to my question, it begs another. How many of such experiences is enough? What if this has all been for those who’ve already read my work and were moved by it, or found new perspective? Would that alone be enough for me to go on, to continue to pour so much of myself—my time, effort, and passion—into making this manuscript the best it can be? And to start on the next one and do it all again?
One Last Person To Consider
Maybe you are doing it all for the readers—no matter how many (or few) there are, or will be. It’s an altruistic goal. But maybe, just maybe, that overlooks the one person who is certain to be the most effected by our individual quests. That person is us—the writer.
“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”—Joseph Campbell
I’ve been watching the old PBS series, The Power of Myth, on Netflix, in which Bill Moyers interviews Joseph Campbell just a few years before his passing (shout-out to WUer Susan Setteducato for the recommendation). I was familiar with The Hero’s Journey, but I’m finding the series captivating. It provides much that is applicable to our craft, but having come to it with this essay’s original question in mind, I’m gaining so much more.
Campbell asserts that myths offer clues in the ultimate journey each of us must make. Each of us has in some way heard the call to this undertaking. If we are to succeed on the page, each of us must descend into the darkness of uncertainty, overcome our fear, eschew the Ego, recognize the vastness of the subconscious, and come to accept some form of personal spirituality. For Campbell, the journey—the result of any story, even our own—is about the transformation of consciousness.
My True Calling?
In asking myself why I write, I must recognize that I am also asking: Is there something else I should be doing instead? Is there something else more worthy of my time, effort, and passion? From a Campbellian perspective, the answer is an unqualified no. I cannot deny that this is my calling. I have to recognize how far I’ve already come. I can’t deny that, as a result of my writing journey, my consciousness has already embarked upon its transformation.
Moyers: “We’re not going on an adventure to save the world, but rather one to save ourselves.”
Campbell: “And in recognizing it, we save the world!” (From The Power of Myth, Ep.1)
It can feel selfish, spending so much of ourselves in the pursuit of art. It can seem pretentious to believe that our words can make a difference.
But I’m thinking those things are beside the point. After all, they’re based in fear. It’s the Ego talking. In Campbell’s perspective, staying true to ourselves is our duty. Only through transforming our consciousness can we become vital to the world.
And a vital person vitalizes.
Campbell called the notion of changing the world by seeking to change its rules misguided. We instead bring the world to life by finding our true selves and being truly alive. And by staying true to ourselves, we inspire and enlist our fellow humans to their own quest.
Maybe, just maybe, an instance or two of this has already happened for me. And who knows? Maybe it can happen again. And again. Only by staying true to my calling will I ever find out. And, for me, that’s reason enough. It’s why I’ll continue to do what I do.
How about you? Have you asked yourself why you write? How often do you reexamine the question? How big of an audience is big enough for you? Or do you even need one? Do you believe this is your calling?
[Image is: Ancient Emerald Forest Trail, by Nicholas Raymond on Flickr]