How to Figure Out What [You Really Want] to Write:
When I first saw the movie Contact, I was deeply envious of Jodie Foster’s character, the dedicated and driven astronomer, Dr. Ellie Arroway. Her single-minded pursuit of the truth about extraterrestrial life impressed the hell out of me. She was on a mission, a quest. She wasn’t going to let anything stand in her way. She believed in something, and that belief shaped every detail of who she was and how she lived her life. Because she was sure about what she was doing, she was able to throw herself into the work without reservations or doubts. Her approach was a full-court press that channeled all her energy and effort into achieving a single goal.
I would like to know what that feels like.
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So far, my writing journey has been more pantsed than plotted. I know I love to write, but beyond that I don’t have much of a plan. This year marks the passage of four decades since I penned my first journal entry at the age of seven. Over those forty years, I have continued to practice and study writing. I have read innumerable stories, novels, and craft books. I have published hundreds of blog posts, written dozens of columns, and developed certain “marcom” (marketing and communications) writing skills enough that I now earn my living with words.
This is all good, but it’s not enough.
It’s trite but true that life is short. We only have so much time to create, and we never know when the sands in the hourglass will run out. It might be a little morbid, but I want to use my time wisely. The question is, what does time spent wisely look like … for me? What do I really want to write?
It’s an important question.
Each artist – writer, painter, dancer, etc. – creates because there’s something specific he or she wants to express. Whether we are writing poems or stories or novels, we writers write because have something to say. Sometimes, we know exactly what that something is, but other times we’re just sort of feeling our way in the dark, discovering as we go. While there’s nothing wrong with letting personal and artistic themes emerge organically over time, there is something to be said for honing in on your creative purpose – your “Writing Why” – so that you can craft your work more intentionally around that purpose.
As I’ve written before, clarity of purpose focuses your writing energy and effort:
It illuminates the ultimate reason you’re driven to write a thing and it helps you make critical decisions about what to include and what to leave out. Clarity is like a pair of enchanted glasses that filters out everything extraneous so you can hone in on exactly the things you need to tell your story. When you have clarity about your writing, you know what you want to say and you know how you want to say it. Writer’s Block becomes a thing of the past.
Study any artist’s body of work, and you will find recurring themes and “throughlines” that define and shape the work – certain ideas, beliefs, and questions. Writers often tell the same story over and over under different guises. A painter might paint the same subject hundreds of times – a sunset, a woman, a city. A musician might write song after song about the same experience. A poet might build an entire body of work writing about a single emotion.
In each of these cases, the artist has discovered and is exploring the Why behind the creative urge. Like Dr. Arroway searching the Universe for signs of life, the artist plumbs the depths of experience for meaning and connection.
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I’ve written several posts about why we write, but they have mostly considered the question conceptually rather than tactically, universally rather than personally. I’ve looked at the subject from 30,000 feet up, but I haven’t yet put my feet on the ground so I can start digging in the dirt to unearth my specific reasons for writing. Up to this point, I’ve been content to meander along random paths; but lately I’m feeling a need to articulate my Writing Why in more concrete terms. I want to understand more about where I’m going and what I want to accomplish so that I can narrow down my choices and spend my time wisely.
To that end, I’ve put together an initial list of questions that I hope will help me better understand the reasons I write, and that – ultimately – will make me a better writer by focusing my attention and creativity around a cohesive and meaningful purpose. I realize that this is just a “starter list” and that I will likely need to add to it as I experiment with the process. I also realize that my reason for writing may evolve over time, changing in response to my life experiences. That’s all okay. At least this gives me a place to begin mapping out where I am and where I’m going. I can figure out the rest later.
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Question 1: What do you love?
This is where most people start and end their search for their purpose. They ask themselves, “What’s my passion?” or “What am I passionate about?” Answering this question will never give you a complete understanding of why you write, but it’s as good a place as any to start exploring your motivations. Here are a few sub-questions to help kickstart your brainstorming process:
- What are you most curious about?
- What makes your heart leap with joy?
- What makes you cry?
- What makes you angry?
- Are there topics that you return to again and again in your writing?
- What do you collect?
- What are your favorite things/memories/dreams?
- Which are your favorite stories and books? (Bonus Question: Can you articulate WHY they are your favorites?)
Question 2: Who do you love?
We are often told to write for ourselves; don’t worry about anyone else, just write for you. While there is some merit to this advice (we should write from the heart and not be swayed by popular culture or the influences of our family and friends), if you write to be read you are writing to connect with other people. More specifically, you write to connect with a certain type of person. Marketers sometimes refer to an author’s “audience” or “tribe.” Whoever your people are, it’s important that you know who they are and what moves you to want to connect with them. Think about the following questions to help you get a clearer picture of just who you hope will read your writing.
- Who do I love to spend my time with?
- Who are your idols? Why are they your idols?
- If you had to imagine your audience as one person, who would that person be? Who do you picture reading your work?
- What attributes best describe your ideal reader? (Think about demographic attributes like age, gender, lifestyle, etc.; but also think about their personalities, philosophies, interests, and beliefs.)
- Which people are not your people? (Sometimes it’s very helpful to find your “yes” by clearly defining your “no.”)
Question 3: What do you want to say?
This can be a tricky question. On the surface, it seems simple; but I can almost guarantee that once you start digging in, you’ll find it’s much more complex than you imagined. The best way to tackle this question is to keep asking it over and over, and each time you answer it ask yourself why you gave that answer. Be that annoying five year-old who never stops asking, “But, why?” Our off-the-cuff answers to this question are usually fluff. They are what we think we should say or a rehashing of what we’ve heard someone else say. That’s not it. Dig deeper. Ask again. Come at the question from different angles:
- What do I wish I could teach the world?
- What do I want to illuminate for people?
- What do I see that others seem to be missing?
- What questions do I want to ask?
- Who or what needs a voice in this world?
- What misconception or wrong assumption do I wish I could right?
- What do I believe?
Question 4: What do you want to do?
If you are writing for an audience, you want to elicit a certain response. You want to touch their hearts or minds in some way. More to the point, you want to make them FEEL something. So – what is it that you want them to feel? Think about Maya Angelou’s words, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” How many stories or books have you read that stay with you more as a feeling than a memory of actual characters or events? The way a piece of writing makes us feel is its essence. So …
- How do you want to make people feel?
- How do you want to change their perspective?
- How do you want to change how they feel about themselves, life, their dreams?
Question 5: What do you want your writing life to look like?
Finally, reel yourself in from the conceptual and philosophical explorations and spend some time thinking about the Real World aspects of your writing life. What kind of writer do you want to be? What kind of writing do you want to do? Visualize your ideal writing life: What time do you get up in the morning? Where and when do you write? How do you publish? Do you travel? Do you work solo, or collaborate with other writers? Are you autonomous or do you work for hire? What does your perfect writing life feel like? The questions are endless here, but let’s start with a few basics:
- Do you want to be a storyteller or a Writer – commercial or literary?
- Do you want to be a generalist or a specialist?
- How much money do you want to make? (Be specific.)
- Are you in it for fame?
- Who do you want to impress?
- Do you just want to be heard?
- How do you define happiness?
- How do you define freedom?
- What does your ideal day look like?
- What do you really need? (vs. what you assume you need)
- When do you feel fulfilled artistically? Emotionally? Spiritually?
This is a long list of questions, I know. But, aren’t they fascinating? Don’t they make you wonder about how you might answer them and what those answers might tell you about yourself and your drive to write? It’s a process to uncover your Writing Why, but it’s a process that’s well worth the effort. The return on your investment of time and toil is a stronger sense of what makes you unique, what inspires you, and what you really want to offer the world – what you really want to write.
I’d love to hear your thoughts about this question of your Writing Why and the process of trying to discover it. Please drop a note in the comments if there’s a story or idea you’d like to share. And, if you’d like to also share a few quick opinions, here’s a brief poll:
Thanks & happy writing to you!
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.