Like every other kid that goes through school, I, too, learned to write at a young age. Unlike most kids in school, I became enamored with writing as an art and as a means to creating something bigger and more beautiful than the crudely drawn comic strips that had become my ideal form of expression. I’ve been in a passionate love affair ever since.
But the truth is, I write more words than I ever publish, and I’ve thrown away more words than I’ll ever know. It’s both heartbreaking and satisfying at the same time, because each revision, while at times can seem painful, moves me closer to my goal of artistic mastery.
Ultimately, my aim is to be the best writer I can be, in my own voice, on my own topics, on my own terms. Nothing is more satisfying than the agency that comes from owning the whole creative affair.
I write because I feel compelled to write, to tell stories, to find new ways to communicate with the world through the written word, through narrative. I write because I want to help others. I write because I can, because I am human, because, like Whitman so eloquently put it, “the powerful play goes on, and [I] may contribute a verse.”
But mostly because I love the process of writing, of bringing things to life on a page, on a screen, in people’s minds. I love the moment it lands, the moment you can see the change in their eyes, that glassiness as they well up, the smirks, the guffaws, the exhalation, exclamation. That’s when you know you have them.
Throughout the years, I have formulated my own definition of writing. I’ve tended to break this into little vignettes about the most important aspects of the work. This list is by no means comprehensive but they are attempts to elucidate, especially in those darkest hours when the work feels so big, why I do the things I do. I hope you’ll find something valuable here that you can add to your own list.
What writing is
Writing is an art. It’s created by an artist. Not the kind of artist that paints or sculpts, though painters and sculptors are engaged in a similar creative process. But an everyday artist.
We all start out as artists, freely creating our worlds around us, but we quickly abandon art for responsibility as we grow older. We become mired in our day-to-day existences, and we forget that what humans are wired to do is to create meaning, even though our minds are constantly engaged in the work of making meaning. That’s all making art is: the creation of meaning. So if we focus on creating something beautiful that didn’t previously exist in the world, then we’re doing the work of the artist, the work of art.
Writing is challenging. The translation of ideas in your head to provocative and beautiful words on paper (as it were) is one of the most challenging acts you can engage yourself in. This is the reason that the writer is called to do the work that they do, but by no means is it easy. It is our Everest.
Granted, there are a few people in this world who are blessed with the seemingly inhuman ability to channel near perfect prose in a single sitting, and if you are one of those people, congratulations. But for the rest of us, writing well is real work. But that should not be your reason for avoiding it.
Like any skill, if you’re focused on getting better and you put in the reps, it becomes easier, and it will eventually open itself to you, flowing like a magnificent river. And it doesn’t matter if you’re writing for an audience of thousands or an audience of one. You should endeavor to create beautiful work on your terms. Because that’s the thing with beauty, as the old worn out saying goes, it’s in the “eye of the beholder.” The artist (that’s you!) gets the opportunity to create meaning where none existed. And in that way, you can share the beautiful treasures that exist within you.
Writing is rewarding. When you’ve gone through the pain of birthing an idea on the page and you can see the tangible results of what you’ve done, you realize one of the greatest rewards of writing. I have to throw back to HD Thoreau on this, who wrote that, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Many people want to write, but they never do. They want to do so many things in their lives, but they never do. Just writing is a great enough reward. And once you begin putting pen to paper and telling your stories, your creativity awakens, and you begin to see what’s possible in other parts of your life. Whether or not you want to be a well-known novelist doesn’t really matter. Writing is its own reward.
Writing is love. That’s the only way you can continue doing it over and over again — to love what you do. It’s like golf in this way.
I’m never really sure why I continue to golf. For some reason, I think it’s fun. Now there is something to being out in nature taking a long walk along a beautiful green golf course. But it’s incredibly frustrating when I continue to duff shot after shot.
But then it happens.
One shot. That’s all it takes — one good shot, and, suddenly, I’ve forgotten the the hundred strokes it took to get to that one shot, and I love the game. Still not sure why, because it’s one good shot of 150, but it’s enough to produce positive energy.
This is similar to how I feel about my writing. Sometimes it can be incredibly challenging to get at it day-to-day. There can be innumerable obstacles between you and the mere act of sitting down to do the work, much less getting the work on paper.
But then it happens. One good sentence, and I’m into flow.
I read that one good sentence I wrote, that one great paragraph, that whole piece that’s wired together damn near perfect. And I feel energized to keep on going, to learn more, to do more, to push my creative boundaries.
Bill Watterson, the creator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, in a 1990 commencement speech at Kenyon College, said, “To endure five years of rejection to get a job requires either a faith in oneself that borders on delusion, or a love of the work. I loved the work. Drawing comic strips for five years without pay drove home the point that the fun of cartooning wasn’t in the money; it was in the work.“
Develop a love for what you do, and you’ll be okay with wherever you end up. Then take that and infuse it in all that you do. That’s when the real magic begins.
Writing is for everyone. Everybody should write in some form or fashion. You don’t have to write for publication and you don’t have to be the next great thing. A lot of people I know talk about writing that great novel they have spinning around in their head, but they never do it. They picture themselves as a great novelist, bent over their computer keyboard in an apartment somewhere, pouring their heart and soul onto the page so they can see that great novel in print.
But it never gets written. Life goes on and they get busy. They are writers of no words.
The focus is off. Don’t focus on the novel for the ages. Focus on getting the words down on paper and doing everything you need to do to make that happen. Let the words come, and they will take the shape of the story.
Stories are like water. Water takes the shape of the container it’s in. It doesn’t resist, and yet it is capable of breaking rock and moving earth. A story likewise takes shape on the page and is capable of moving masses of humanity. Be like water.
Writing is a craft. I live in the land of craft everything — Portland, Oregon. From velvet Elvis to Pendleton blankets to ciders, beer, whiskey, grilled cheese, you name it, there is probably some craft version of it here. (There’s even an ironic hipster version of it.) It’s amazing to be in a place that has such passion for folks who are cranking out artisanal products for the love of what they do.
It reminds me of something that I so often forget — writing is a craft. In the end, we writers use simple tools to create incredible experiences from our own bare hands. The writer is a conduit for all the great ideas floating around the ether. It’s our job to translate these in such a way that people understand them and see them in new light, or any light for that matter. And that can only be done through careful attention to every detail that we put into our work. Respect the process and endeavor to create something unique in each piece that we produce. It’s this kind of care and attention to detail that people have grown to expect from writers — an interest in every noun, verb, sentence, and paragraph, each bit working in service of the larger piece. We have a duty to delight our audience, even if that audience is just us.
What writing is not
Writing is not easy. I mentioned this above, but it bears repeating here. There are a lot of different obstacles that you face in trying to create quality writing. Everything from your own personal voice to the view of the world to just finding time in your schedule. All of these things can deter you from your writing if you let them.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can solve for these by establishing a healthy creative practice and managing your time in such a way as to prioritize the things that are most important to you. Start your day doing the things that matter. Make your bed, then sit down to write. Then write.
Do not check your phone, walk the dog, or do anything else in the day until you’ve spent at least 15 minutes pouring your heart on the page. Do this every day without stopping, without conscious thought when the mind is fresh and full of new connections from the previous night’s sleep. Harness the first energy of the day.
Do this every day for at least two weeks. You will quickly realize that writing is not so hard as it seemed, and your mind and body will be receptive to the task. Do it often enough and it will become a habit, something impossible to live without.
If you can solve that one, then you can begin exploring how to solve the others. Creative work is like that. You are constantly working with your body and mind to find the right conditions to get the work done, even on those days when you don’t feel up to the task. Because no matter how much I love the process of writing, there are days when I’m not sure about it. But if I don’t do it, I miss it. I’d rather not miss that opportunity to create something magnificent.
Writing is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Very few people will rise to such a level that they can actually make a decent living off writing alone and even fewer will do it in such a short time as to be considered getting rich quick.
Fear not, though, it is possible to build businesses around writing, and there are many successful examples. And as an artist (because writers are artists), you should always be pushing yourself to find new and interesting ways to extend your creativity. This only serves to make your writing stronger, which is better for all of us. Business may be just the way to do that.
Writing is not dying. In fact, if anything, what we’re seeing today is a resurgence of the written word. Despite the fact that our brains do process imagery very fast, writing is still the predominant way to communicate symbolically, and it doesn’t appear that we’ll be returning to hieroglyphs any time soon.
Like technology itself, we’ve seen the explosion of writing in the digital age and it’s taken on many different forms: texts, tweets, IM’s, email, etc. At its core, these are all short forms of writing. In fact, publishing in so many different forms is so commonplace today that we don’t even think about the fact it’s happening at all.
The biggest challenge that is posed by this proliferation of writing and writing venues is that the quality of the work isn’t always there. Think about the last time you tried to discern emotion from a text. You had a hard time doing it.
Strive to create quality work, no matter the venue. You are always in control. The goal is to be understood and to share your vision with the world. Writing is everywhere, but we should push ourselves to do it well no matter the medium. Writing will be around for a long time to come, so we owe it to ourselves to continue to grow as writers.
Why everyone should write
Everybody has the capacity for language. Everybody is a born storyteller. Everybody can and should write. If you only have one art in your life, it should be writing, because learning to write well has the potential to improve your life in so many ways.
If you can command the language, you have one of the key prerequisites needed to make change in the world. If you can write well, it means that you understand the language and how to use it. It means that you’re tapping into he childlike qualities of the artist in you, and you’re showing the wold what’s possible. If you write well, you can convince others to join you on your quest for whatever it is that you’re seeking. Most importantly, you can help people.
You can help people because you are developing into a good listener. You can help people, because you can be their voice when they can’t speak for themselves, or worse yet, when no one will listen to them. You can help people by taking apart complicated concepts and repainting them in the simplest of terms. You can contribute a verse to the powerful play.
Here are three big reasons I feel everyone should learn to write well.
It’s fun, goddammit! It’s easy to forget that this should be fun. Yes, it take work, but it should be nourishing-to-the-soul kind of fun, where you feel simultaneously drained from making the effort, but energized for the journey ahead.
Make no mistake about it, fun does not mean easy. There is labor involved. You have to push yourself to your intellectual limits if you want to excel in the same way that a climber looks for the next challenging mountain to climb. It brings a sense of enjoyment to life, a form of catharsis, learning, an play. Done well, it’s all three of these. And it fills you with a sense of child-like enthusiasm for what comes next.
I always have to remind myself that I should be having fun, though. This is not an easy process for me. Even after many years of practice, I find that I have to constantly focus and refine to create great work. Depending on the type of work I’m doing, it’s easy to forget that I’m doing it because it brings me enjoyment.
We must take time to slow down and remind ourselves to enjoy it. Soak it in. When you fall deeply into flow that the world dissolves into nothingness, pause upon your return. Bow in reverence to what’s just occurred. Say a toast to the reward that the creative gods just handed you. It’s okay to celebrate. It’s okey to remind yourself to enjoy the ride.
Writing is freeing. Done with intention, it’s like meditation. You can clear your mind to focus on other challenges. This is the power of a daily writing habit. If you do nothing more, write in a journal every day, whether it’s on paper or in your favorite journaling app. Pour out your thoughts. It’s cathartic, and you find you learn a great deal about yourself and your relationship with the world.
Stuck on a problem? A free writing session in your journal is a great way to work through your ideas. Just sit and write without conscious thought of what you’re writing. The answers are waiting to be discovered, you sometimes have to clear the way for them.
Writing is creative exercise. Write everyday, and you will find more opportunity for creativity in your life. Being creative is the best way to see more opportunities to use creativity in your life. It’s sometimes easy to believe that your life has to be simple and flat, but in reality, people are full of curves and edges. We are unique, and each day is a little bit different than the day before. Once you allow creativity into your life, you’ll find you have more latitude to invent each day that comes to you. Creativity begets creativity. This is true even if you’re not trying to publish or share your words with the world. The act of writing is enough.
It’s rewarding. I know what you’re thinking. “But you just wrote above that writing is not a ‘get-rich-quick scheme’ and now you’re saying it’s rewarding?!”
Of course, I’m talking about rewarding in the sense the act of writing serves a form of catharsis and a vehicle for getting to know yourself better. Even if your work never sees a reader beyond you, the work that you put in will yield results that show up in your life in other ways. The mere act of keeping a journal will help keep you centered and focus on the things that you are passionate about. It’ll help you identify what’s important. It’s unfortunate that we come prewired for our passions, but we often screw it up in the middle when we get out into the world, and we have to spend time trying to get back in touch with what fuels us. Writing can help. And you’ll be better off for it.
Know thyself. That’s the greatest reward possible.
Now go on, my dear friend, for there’s words yet to be written, stories to be told. Be bold, be fearless, be earnest in your creative expression, and you will know the true freedom that can only be found deep in one’s own soul.