June 23, 2020
By Barbara Linn Probst
Writing a book is hard. So is getting published, and so is achieving success as a writer. If that’s true, then why do we do it—especially now, when life is so overwhelming, distressing, and frightening? Why undertake an activity whose outcome is so uncertain—at a time when uncertainty is everywhere?
Yet we write. I do, and probably you do too.
You may have asked yourself this question, and others may have asked you: “Why do you do this hard thing? What drives you to pick up your pen or open your laptop?”
Our reasons can be complex, difficult to articulate, and uncomfortably personal, making us feel vulnerable and exposed. Yet it’s a question worth asking—especially now, when many of us are struggling to find the energy and motivation to keep going. We read editorials about how important books are right now and how stories have always been a source of comfort and healing and hope. That’s absolutely true—for readers. For writers, it’s more complex. We want to speak, but are unsure if it’s proper to speak about things that have nothing to do, explicitly, with the issues that people are struggling with right now. Does my voice matter? Is it worth hearing?
I struggled with so many aspects of this question, so I asked other writers: “Why do you write? And why are you writing this particular book?”
Their responses, together with my own reflections, point to three primary reasons that I’m calling artistry, identity, and legacy. They’re not mutually exclusive, of course. People can write for more than one reason, or for different reasons at different times. As one person noted: “Sometimes it’s to reach out for connection with others, and sometimes it’s for my eyes only.”
Artistry: the act of writing
Writing is both art and craft. Like painting, sculpture, or musical composition, writing allows us to create something new; like singing, playing an instrument, or acting, it allows us to express our creativity through a vehicle that someone else has provided. Language, rather than colors or sounds, is our tool.
Writing is art because it can evoke emotions and meanings that go beyond the surface of the words themselves. It’s also craft because it requires skills that have to be learned and practiced. While one can argue that some forms of writing, such as experimental poetry, are art precisely because they reject all conventions, conventions and skills are not the same thing, and I think it’s fair to say that good writing requires the development of skill, in one form or another.
As with all forms of artistic expression, people write because they have something they want to convey—a vision, a passion, a need to give voice, that they can’t quite account for and can’t quite control. One person wrote: “It’s a compulsion, brought on by these characters 'knocking on my imagination's door' screaming to be let out!” Writing is an outlet, a release, an itch that simply must be scratched. The story or characters won’t take no for an answer.
For some, it’s not so much a particular story clamoring to be written as it is the more generic opportunity for self-expression and exploration, “because it's such a thrill to compose and play and weave and see what happens.”
There’s a blend of the personal and the impersonal in the artistic process—the joy of the creative experience (a personal pleasure), and the sense of being a channel or vessel through which a story makes itself known (being “called,” in service of the story).
In short, people write for the meaning they derive from the act of writing.
Identity: the state of being a writer
Being a writer is an identity: it’s who I am (or want to be) and where I belong. “Writing stories is all I've ever wanted to do,” and “It’s just who I am.” As one person put it: “it just feels like my identity. I know, I know, you're not supposed to BE your work, but I'm not sure how to separate it.”
Others wrote about the experience of community, of finding one’s tribe. “I have met ‘my people’ in the writing community. A joyful side-effect of writing a book!”
Being a member of a community—claiming a place, asserting one’s right to the identity that accompanies membership—can, for some, evoke insecurity as well as connection. Do I have the right to call myself a writer? Am I good enough, as good as the others? Writers, regardless of what they’ve published or accomplished, sometimes speak of what’s called imposter syndrome—feeling unworthy and afraid of revealing one’s inauthenticity. It’s tricky because there’s no objective criterion for calling oneself a writer, no license or test, the way there is for calling oneself a doctor.
For some people, the identity of writer only belongs to those who’ve published. Unpublished writers are apprentices, members-in-waiting, hoping for legitimacy and entrance to the community. This is tricky too. Without a clear and common definition, I may think of myself as a “writer,” though my friends and family don’t. Or it can go the other way, as others urge me to claim an identity that I don’t feel I’ve earned.
It’s interesting to note that there are times when the focus on publication actually detracts from the sense of identity as a writer. One person confessed that, after achieving the longed-for goal of publication, “it took me years to come back to the joy of rediscovering the sacred place of writing.”
In short, people write because it’s a way to embrace an identity.
Legacy: the gift of having written
We write for ourselves, because we must, and we write for others. Although there can be a deep fulfillment in the experience of putting ideas and images into words—an experience that’s complete in itself—most writers do want their work to be read. Writing is restorative, healing, profoundly satisfying. But it’s relational too.
Through writing, we hope to touch others, and to continue to touch them after we’re gone. Whether it’s egoism or simply part of being human, we want to make a difference, to be remembered. Our writing is part of our legacy, stamped with our name.
There can be an impersonal aspect to this, as well—the wish to make sure that the story itself isn’t lost, especially if it’s a story about an individual or group that might not be able to tell it themselves. We can be the one to bear witness or bring a forgotten era to life.
In short, people write because it’s a way to leave something behind.
Artistry, identity, legacy, or a combination of all three?
Whether writing is an item on a late-in-life bucket list, an unfulfilled longing from childhood, or something that’s always been part of our lives—we feel its summons. We need to get the stories out of our heads and onto the page, to reach others and be read. As one person put it, the urgency to write “sometimes scares me and at other times gives me wings.”
Personally, I feel the need to write more strongly than ever.
BARBARA LINN PROBST is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, living on an historic dirt road in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) is the powerful story of a woman’s search for wholeness, framed around the art and life of iconic painter Georgia O’Keeffe. QUEEN OF THE OWLS was a 2020 medalist for the Independent Publisher Awards and has been short-listed for the $2500 Eric Hoffer Grand Prize. It has been featured in Parade Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Pop Sugar, and Working Mother.
Barbara’s second novel, THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES, will be published in April 2021.
Barbara has a PhD in clinical social work, blogs for several award-winning sites for writers, and is a serious amateur pianist.
To learn more about Barbara and her work, please see www.barbaralinnprobst.com/
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