"WHY DO YOU WRITE?"
I have this fun daydream about teaching a writing class and what I'll say to my students on the first day. I'll rant and rave against "writing for yourself" and try to scare away anyone who doesn't really want to learn to write. If this sounds mean, consider it a dangerous warning sign about your own reasons for writing. And ease up--these are imaginary students. Give me real ones and my inner softy will probably take over.
Nah. Screw the softie. I'm ranting.
I'd lay it out for them like this. Anyone in this classroom who professes to write only for themselves a liar. Think about it: if you're writing for yourself...
- Why would you fix grammar errors? You know what you meant, so who cares if someone else doesn't?
- Why would you edit a passage that is vague and confusing? You know what you meant.
- And why would you make that boring character more interesting? You like him just the way he is.
The for-yourself writer has is playing poker but suddenly folds and says, "I don't really want to play this silly game with its silly rules and I certainly don't want a straight flush. I just want you to give me all of the cards so I can play solitaire. I'll be playing the version where I can put any card on any other kind I want, so there."
You can't argue with that.
The thing is, I suppose someone can write just for themselves. Maybe they find it therapeutic. Maybe they enjoy the creative process and don't need an audience. Even with this, I'm skeptical because writing is a form of communication, and by definition communication involves others. I can't help but to think that such people write for an imaginary audience. But maybe that's all they want and all they need. I'm willing to believe that such people exist.
The question is, why would such a person come to my writing class? Let me rephrase that. BY THE HOLY TWISTED HAIRS ON THE GREAT BALLS OF ZEUS, WHY WOULD SUCH A PERSON COME TO MY WRITING CLASS?
The reason they'd come is simple, and I already told it to you. They're liars, either in the form of blind self-deception or an irritating hunger for compliments. If they truly wrote for themselves, they'd stay at home. Since they showed up, they either don't realize that they want an audience, or they want an audience that will declare their utter brilliance from the get-go without having to accept instruction from anyone.
End of rant.
The thing is, my rant has a purpose beyond getting imaginary people to leave my imaginary class. What I really want is to help them (aka you) think about why they want to write and what they hope to accomplish with their writing.
Which of these goals appeal to you?
- I want to give my readers a thrill-ride.
- I want to stimulate my readers intellectually.
- I want to make my readers laugh.
- I want to help my readers escape ordinary life.
- I want to give my readers insight into ordinary life.
- I want to urge my readers toward a specific worldview or moral stance.
- I want my readers to question their current worldview.
- I want to reinforce my readers' current worldview.
- I want to move my readers emotionally.
- I want my readers to feel a connection with my characters.
- I want my readers to feel a connection with me.
- I want to impress my readers with my cleverness.
- I want my readers to quote lines of amazing language from my works.
- I want to shock or offend my readers.
- I want to surprise or delight me readers.
- I want to make my readers feel better about life or themselves.
- I want my readers to have an educational experience.
- I want my readers to reach their own conclusions.
- I want my readers to reach my conclusions.
A few comments at this point: none of these are tongue-in-cheek. I intend all of these to be valid reasons to write. For example, "I want my readers to reach my conclusions" might sound like a wisecrack coming after the one preceding it, but anyone with a "message" or a specific moral or social purpose in their writing wants you to come to their conclusions. That's okay with me. (This only becomes distasteful in my book when it's heavy-handed or shallow.) I hope more than one of the above appealed to you, but I hope that not all of them did. I hope you thought that one goal suited one of your story ideas and another goal suited a different one.
But what I want most of all is for you to focus in on a few specific goals. I've found that many aspiring writers never concretely think about what they want a given story to accomplish. You can't do everything. It's more than okay if you just want to entertain. In fact, maybe you really just want to entertain, but you've been led to believe by those around you that your story must have a deeper meaning--themes and symbolism and emotional impact. And maybe you do want these things. But if you don't, you'll improve your story by permitting yourself to focus on a specific goal or two instead of trying to please everyone.
It's time for me to moderate my rant. So far, I deliberately left out a category of goals involving--wait for it--writing for yourself, all of which I think are valid. Like these:
- I want to write because I want to get published and have friends and family see my books in a bookstore.
- I want to write to make money.
- I want to write because I enjoy the writing process (or at least one specific part of the writing process!)
- I want to write for the satisfaction of having written something after I write it.
- I write because I find it cathartic.
- I write because it helps me work through personal issues or past experiences.
- I write as a means of self-exploration.
- I write for the intellectual challenge.
These are also not meant tongue-in-cheek, but before you go thinking I won't kick you out of my class after all, I do have two warnings. One, if your reasons for writing come only from this list, especially the latter half, see my rant. Two, if you want to write only for fame or fortune, I think you should find another way to get there, or better yet quit being such a greedy narcissist.
Ding ding. Class is over.
You won't believe what I have planned for tomorrow...
BOTTOM LINE: Figure out your purpose(s) in writing a given story and focus your energies on accomplishing those specific goals. You'll produce a better story than you would if you had no goals, or too many.
NEXT: Anything I tell you will end up being a lie, so I shouldn't bother. But there will be more.