Tell Me WHY

I have a hard time answering the question “why do you write.” whyThis, I’ve been assured, is a disaster. Being able to articulate your WHY is a key element to “building your platform,” “branding yourself” or “finding a niche.”  People who succeed in the WHY will sell books and those who don’t, won’t.

The WHY, being so important, must be answered before we set pen to paper or slop enchiladas over our keyboards in the middle of the night. However, being that I’m a half-ass backwards kind of person, I started writing long before I knew about the WHY.  I just sat down and words came out.


The God moment

However lately I’ve had a revelation.

Revelations are strange things, aren’t they?  You see the face of Jesus in beer foam and suddenly boom/ bang you know your WHY. I wish I could say this revelation came to me while meditating on the top of the mountain or deep in the forest but it didn’t.  It came to while sitting on my butt, eating peanuts and watching Philomena, which, for those of you who haven’t seen it, is a full box of Kleenex movie about an Irish girl forced to give up her baby by evil nuns. When she goes in search of him many years later those same nuns lie about not knowing his whereabouts and so she turns to a journalist for help.  The journalist takes on the assignment not out of the goodness of his heart.  He intends to turn her story into a “human interest story,” one which will tug at the hearts of readers and reestablish his drowning career.  His WHY is money and fame.

Several times during their search Philomena balks at the idea of her story being publicized. Does she really want to expose things long unseen or forgotten?  Painful things, the revelation of which may alienate family, friends or even God?

Philomena1Would you?  That is often the dilemma facing writers. In telling a story will we incur the censor of family and community, maybe even God?

I’m sure once Philomena’s story did get published (and turned into a movie) it irked the Church to which she’d remained faithful, despite their treatment of her (where is Jesus – lost in the beer foam?). But it also brought to light an abomination and maybe even helped other poor Irish women to find their stolen sons.

So my WHY is a slippery little devil.  Sometimes I write for fun and sometimes it’s a slide down the Iron Maiden.  But if I write with the intent of not stepping on anyone’s toes (even my own), it doesn’t feel genuine.

Here are more articulate writers on the topic of why they write.

  • “Those of us who write do it because there are stories inside us burning to get out. Writing is essential to our well-being.” Judy Blume
  • “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.” Ernest Hemingway
  •  “Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living.” Flaubert
  • “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means.” Joan Didion
  • “If I don’t write to empty my mind, I go mad.” Lord Byron
  • “Writing is the only thing that, when I do it, I don’t feel I should be doing something else.” Gloria Steinem
  • “To me, the greatest pleasure of writing is not what it’s about, but the inner music that words make.” Truman Capote 

Of these esteemed writers I think Lord Byron’s WHY makes the most sense to me.  How about you?

21 thoughts on “Tell Me WHY

  1. This post made me think a lot, Jan. (And also reminded me that I really want to see Philomena, which I’ve heard is great.) Over the past month or so, as I’ve been doing revisions on a novel, I’ve asked myself more than a few times, “Why are you writing this?” It’s a slow, offbeat story, and I honestly don’t know if anyone at all will want to read it. But, as Judy Blume says, we have stories inside us, and writing is important to our well-being. That’s the best I can do at this point. And notice that there was no mention of GOOD stories. Just stories.

    1. The movie is fantastic – I’ve actually seen it twice and gone through two boxes of Kleenex doing so! Keep on with the story and the why will come to you!

  2. I write to spread joy. If I can make someone laugh with my writing then, in my opinion, I have made the world a better place. Their smile radiates, and helps spread the light of joy, replacing frowns or and taking the place of angry outburst, neither of which add anything positive to a world in need of laughter.

  3. This is a beautiful post and made so much better by the measure of humor you’ve thrown in. I’ve struggled a lot with the “why I write” question these past few years. The stories inside me that want to get out the most are real life ones, but I stubbornly keep working on a novel on and off. Given recent events in my life, my therapist assures me I have a best seller on my hands, but then the question of can I or should I reveal these details on the page rears its head. So much to think about, but the more I think about it, I come back that I do write to make sense of my world and for me that meaning is best made via creative nonfiction.

    1. Thank you Jeri. When you’re ready I’m sure you’ll figure out how to tell those stories within you. It may still be uncomfortable but your story may help another person.

  4. I love that movie. Perfect pairing of main characters. Now I have to think about why I write. Maybe to attempt to put a smile on peoples’ faces? It’s fun. Keeps my mind active? Lots of reasons. But I think your quotes say it much better.

    1. You always put a smile on my face! I think that’s a perfectly wonderful why! I try to stay on the light side but sometimes the dark side escapes.

  5. Alexandria comment made me laugh – so true. I never really thought too much about it – I just always had a story in my head. At least until I published my novel and then that process and the marketing squelched the creative flow for awhile!
    I like your quotes and am most like Gloria Steinem (comment) but also Truman Capote – I like to write (and read) to see what “music that words make.”

    1. Yes, marketing can squash the creative flow, that’s for sure. But I hope you can find time to get back to writing!

  6. I appreciate those that write with great honesty, even if it’s painful. I enjoy reading something, and saying, “That’s exactly what I was thinking!” people who go out on a limb to speak the truth, and do so with great tenacity. As a very new “blogger” I went into this without a platform. I just knew I had good things to say, and good stories to tell. I hope that those who read what I write will say “That’s exactly what I was thinking” or “At least she had the courage to say that.”

  7. Thank you for the recap of that movie, which I enjoyed, and forgot to think about, especially in the context of writing, why we write, and the integrity of writers. Love your quotes. Best —

    1. I had a difficult time deciding whether or not to publish this last book for many of the reasons Philomena did so when I saw the movie it rang a bell with me. Odd how that happens sometime.

  8. Philomena had a similar affect on me: a weird mix of anger, sadness, and hope.

    As far as why I write: I find that the words leak out of me like ink from an old ballpoint pen. If I ignore them, they collect on the tip and make a sticky mess when I eventually put pen to paper. And god forbid I attempt to carry them around inside my head for too long. The stain can spread and ruin the story, and when I finally try to use the pen, nothing comes out.

    Maybe I should use a pencil more often. 😉

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