When You’re Questioning Why You Write

by Noelle Sterne

December 2015

Especially on dark and blocked days, I question why I write. Like other writers, at such depressive times I come up with a lot of reasons that seem extremely justified. Here are four gloomy statements you may blushingly recognize that I’ve repeated and have often heard from writing colleagues. With these seemingly unyielding pronouncements, though, I offer equally reasonable remedies, persuasions, and arguments that may just save us all.

  • “I have nothing to say.”How many times have I groaned this out! But then, after thinking a little more rationally, I arrive at some statements that disprove that declaration.

The first strategy is to attack head-on. Decide on a block of time to write and,

if you must, just sit there. Do nothing else. After a time of fidgeting, Web surfing, or muffin-stuffing, your “nothing to say” will reverse. Your hand will automatically pick up the pen, your fingers will irrepressibly turn to the keys. Even if you brand what comes forth as inane, stupid, ridiculous, cliché, or copied from your favorite author, keep going.We all have garbage trucks full of such writing. We’ve got to load them up and, later, drive them to the dump.

But in the trash heap, your “nothing to say,” like a tiny flower in the dung, will blossom. It may take shape as a single sentence, then two, then another idea and a second, and then to your delight an astounding metaphor, image, memory, face, phrase. You’ll have the beginnings of a story, poem, novel . . .

When you get beyond that self-judging and limiting de-affirmation, “I have nothing

to say,” you can produce great fruit. That’s why Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” (in The Artist’s Way, pp. 9-18) are so valuable. Even if you start with “I have nothing to say,” and repeat it as many times as you need to (which is good enough for her), soon, just sitting there, you’ll find you indeed have something to say.

Here’s an example a writing colleague generously and bravely shared:

I have nothing to say. I have nothing to say. I have nothing to say. I have nothing to say. I have nothing to say.

Makes me so mad. Why can’t I write? Others do, badly, and get published and with less to say than I do. [Notice he has already contradicted his de-affirmation that he has nothing to say.]

I can hear my father’s voice when I announced, timidly, that I wanted to be a writer. “Ha! How can you make a living? What do you have to say?”

The bastard. How did he know? He had nothing to say – always wanted to be an architect, like Frank Lloyd Wright. The living room coffee table was piled high with books of glossy glorious photos of Wright houses, Philip Johnson landmarks, and I. M. Pei structures soaring to the sky.

But my father married young, probably too young, and had a family too soon to support. So he settled. Became a crafter of prisons and prison-like schools, lockstep cement-block buildings with windows rationed like war-zone food.

Ah—the makings of a memoir.

  • “I’ll never make the grade.”

My aspiring writing friend Grant wrote me recently, “I haven’t taken writing seriously so far, even though I’ve always wanted to do it, mainly because I know I don’t make the grade.”

I replied to Grant, “What grade? There’s no grade. We’re conditioned to believe we must get to a ‘place,’ usually of approval, accolades, awards.” And I reminded him that writers who have “made it” realize the joy is not in the honors but the writing itself. Anne Lamott, no stranger to fame, observes in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life: “[T]he actual act of writing . . . turns out to be the best part.” I admitted to Grant that after I feel the initial ping of pleasure at an acceptance, the more credits I log, the more I realize that the true satisfaction and success live in the work.

So, I told Grant (and myself and you) that our job is to honor our own drive and desire to write, to hold to our vision and work fully and with joy. In more writerly terms, as Hemingway counsels, our job is to “write one true sentence.” And then another and another.

And to continue fearlessly in the face of feeling we don’t matter or are clones of another writer. Julia Cameron on her Facebook page reassures, “There is no one flower that cancels the need for another, just like no one artist that cancels the need for another.”

As both writers and humans, we are more than our chafing to make the grade. What we need to remember is our love for writing and how it feels. The more we concentrate on the doing rather than the getting, the more, ironically, our sly Universe will send the external recognitions we think we crave.

“I’ll never get published.”

Maybe, and maybe not. If you keep sending out your pieces, eventually you will get published. Cameron observes that after blocked and unpublished writers commit to the Morning Pages, they start to publish in about two years. I can attest to this – around my two-year point, the magazine section of a local newspaper published an essay that started as a Morning Pages rumination.

The watchwords: persistence, patience, perseverance. Author and writing career coach Christina Katz gives great advice:

“Stop waiting for big success and aim for a series of small successes instead. Many writers are waiting to hit the mother lode, so to speak, of writing success. But success lies in taking aim at targets you are likely to actually hit and then hitting them one after the other. That's how experience is gained in an otherwise complex and mysterious profession.” (March 13, 2008, http://www.writersdigest.com/qp7-migration-books/katz-interview)

  • “No one will read it.”

My friend Grant worried much about this: “The subjects that interest me are a tiny pocket and aren’t popular. So, even if I write, how many would read my stuff anyway?”

After complimenting him on his evocative metaphor of “tiny pocket,” I told him, and say the same to you, “You don’t know at all that no one will read your work. Do you realize how many subjects the Internet carries, from the infuriatingly common to the unnervingly esoteric? As with partners, there’s a match for every topic and approach.”

Your first and only responsibility is to do what feels good – and right – to you. If you have the desire, itch, rash to write, then you are meant to write. And write what you feel you must write.

Remember too a possibly paradoxical truth that contradicts the no-one-will-read-it assumption. Whatever your subject, the more you write true to yourself, the more you will connect with others. Even if you think no one’s interested in what you write about, do it anyway. The more you write, the better you’ll get. The deeper you go inside and the more honest you are in your writing, the more other people will read, and find personal meaning in your words.

In some ways, your job is to write for them. Why are love songs so popular? Because they say what so many people feel and cannot express. Same with writing. How often have you read something and shouted inside, “Yes! That’s just how I feel!”?

Or, “I’m surprised someone else is writing about this. It’s just what I’ve been thinking!”

  • Why the **** Should I Write?

The answer to this question lies in combating those negatives above and responses to other important questions:

  • Do you crave and yearn to write?

  • Do you feel “unfinished” if you don’t?

  • No matter how many orders you sold, bills you paid, accounts you updated, laundry loads you washed and folded, do you feel the day has been wasted?

  • Do you feel you’re betraying yourself when you don’t write?

All the reasons we give ourselves for not writing, or for quitting, that seem so sound are really self-indulgent and self-pitying. Sure, feel one or two for a minute but realize, as spiritual teacher Louise Hay says, it’s “just a thought” (You Can Heal Your Life, p. 5). The thought can be changed any moment you choose – so think an alternate thought that is your truth: “I am meant to write.”

Do you see now, if the desire to write burns in you, even on dismal days, that you must? Your nature cannot be denied. To try to ignore or deny it only harms you, and that denial will eventually manifest as depression, illness, hopelessness, despair.

But fear of such reprisals is not the reason to write. Author and consultant Joan Frank published a wonderful book of essays on writing with a title that unmistakably answers our writing-doubt questions: Because You Have To. My colleague Grant began to see why he has to: “Now I see things with a small difference,” he said to me. “Your words were a message, and through you life is telling me to write.”

Like Grant, past the struggles, self-doubts, and momentary dejections, you’ll know how to handle those dispiriting statements. You’ll know too that your life is telling you to write, and you’ll find yourself sitting there, eventually producing the pieces that knock inside for expression. You’ll bloom and accept yourself as a writer, yield to the joy of creating, and no longer question why you write.

Author, editor, writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Noelle Sterne publishes writing craft, spiritual articles, and essays in print and online. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle assists doctoral candidates wrestling with their dissertations to completion (finally). Based on her practice, her new handbook addresses these students’ largely overlooked but equally important nonacademic difficulties: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015). Excerpts continue to appear in magazines and blogs. In Noelle's first book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), with examples from her academic practice, writing, and life, she helps readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at www.trustyourlifenow.com.

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