When’s the last time you asked yourself “Why?”
Why am I pursuing writing? Why am I writing this particular project? Why am I working on this book proposal or replying to this email or spending time over here on Facebook when I should be finishing an article to meet a deadline—and why “should” I be finishing that article?
Asking why about why we write helps us get to the root of our life motivation.
Why Do You Write?
And why do you write what you write?
Asking this from time to time—exploring it, maybe even through a quick daily review—helps us stay on track and avoid shiny object syndrome, because if we know the overall reason why we write, we can say no to the opportunities and requests that come up, realizing they don’t fit with our why.
We can have multiple answers to the question of why we write: We can write for our own pleasure, to express our thoughts clearly, to get the stories and ideas out. Maybe we write because we want to share those stories and ideas with others, or we want fame and fortune, or we want to preserve details about events or to make an impact on the world.
A lot of writing life questions flow from bigger questions and bigger issues, so although I’m not a life coach, I often end up talking with clients about higher-level issues in their lives. If you spend some time pondering this “Why?” question at a more existential level or from a values angle, determining your main values as you try to figure out your purpose, you may find clarity for a lot of areas in your life, not just your writing.
But that could be overwhelming, and since people meet up with me to talk about writing, writing is a good place to start asking why.
Writing is such a revealing process, whether we write privately or publicly, we might as well start by asking “Why write?” and let that start to reveal other ideas about the “why” of our lives overall.
Why do you write? Be honest about your answer. If you really just want to make money from writing, record that somewhere, like in a journal, and own it. Knowing that you want to make money—even earn a living—from your writing will help you make practical decisions; instead of submitting essays to literary journals, for example, you might focus on building a business doing technical or corporate writing.
If your compelling reason for writing is to contribute memorable art without regard for financial gain, knowing that is your “why” will help you make decisions about how you funnel your creative energy.
If your “why” is to gain popularity in a particular genre, you’ll study the market and focus in on that goal, and decisions will be far easier than if you generally think you want to write because it satisfies your creative impulse.
Maybe you write for fun, to make people laugh, to reveal an issue you’ve seen and want to bring to light. You want to help people, entertain people, touch people, connect with people.
The Evolution of Your Why
As you write, your “why” may evolve, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean your principles have crumpled or your dreams are dying. It may mean you’re discovering new dreams and see new possibilities you may not have even known existed!
In the year 1997, who knew blogging would be a thing? In 2000, who imagined someone could write a novel or memoir, image by image on Instagram? Maybe these new possibilities have awakened a new “why”: to lasso current technology and playfully discover new ways to interact with people, writing tighter and clearer poetry and prose.
You might not have even thought like that in the early stages of your career because you couldn’t have imagined it. You might have looked around at what existed—books, magazines, newspapers—and worked within those constraints.
Why This Particular Project?
Asking “why” about a particular project helps us figure out how it fits with the overall “why.”
At some point in your writing, you’re going to see some of those new possibilities. You might dream up something creative you could do on Instagram, too, with poetry or some kind of creative nonfiction project.
Or you might dream of finding fame through self-publishing in order to have one of the Big Five publishers sign you and then see your book turned into a major motion picture, like The Martian.
While you might certainly explore these ideas in a playful, experimental way—and I advocate experiments as a way to stretch ourselves—you might want to take just a second to ask “Why?” Why do I want to write an essay using Instagram images? Why do I want to self-publish instead of pitching straight to an agent who would represent me to major publishing houses? Why am I writing this blog post? Why am I trying out flash fiction?
How does this project fit with my main why? Or does it?
We can so easily veer away from our main why without realizing it and realize it represented our deepest values. The answer can get us back on track.
Knowing Our Why Helps Us Push Through
Also, by realizing the reason we are doing something is to propel us toward are big goals, we can carry on through a challenging project knowing it’s part of a bigger plan and fulfilling the bigger “Why.”
Charles Duhigg in his book Smarter, Faster, Better, writes, “When we start a new tasks, or confront an unpleasant chore, we should take a moment to ask ourselves ‘why.’ Why are we forcing ourselves to climb up this hill? Why are we pushing ourselves to walk away from the television? Why is it so important to return that email.”
I might add, Why research this topic? Why finish this blog post? Why send a query to this magazine?
Once we start asking why, those small tasks become pieces of a larger constellation of meaningful projects, goals, and values. We start to recognize how small chores can have outsized emotional rewards, because they prove to ourselves that we are making meaningful choices, that we are genuinely in control of our own lives. That’s when self-motivation flourishes: when we realize that … it is part of a bigger project that we believe in, that we want to achieve, that we have chosen to do. (36, 37)
In the Appendix, Duhigg explains how he motivated himself to read studies while traveling on an airplane. He’d write at the top why it was important. Seeing the reasons at the top of the paper made it much simpler to start. He felt in control, like he was moving toward meaningful goals (273).
If you need motivation or clarity or vision or direction for your writing life or for a particular writing project, ask yourself why you write, and why you’re writing this particular piece. Hopefully your answers will help you get started, feel in control as you move toward meaningful goals, toward the writing life you really want.
Click on the podcast player above or use subscription options below to listen to the full episode.
- The Martian Started as a Self-Published Book (NPR article)
- The Big Five Trade Book Publishers
- This 23-Year-Old Is Writing Her Fairy-Tale Memoir Entirely On Instagram
- Telling a Strange Love Story, Post by Post on Instagram
- Smarter, Faster, Better: The Secrets of Being More Productive in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg (affiliate link)
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Images by Ann Kroeker.
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