2018 was the year I imploded as a writer. It’s taken me months to pull it back together, and writer-me looks very different in the last quarter of 2018 than writer-me did in the first quarter. But as with most things when you hit rock bottom, something stronger and better has risen from the ashes.
This year has caused me to question why I write, and as I have, I’ve been listening to other writers, to the worries they express, the complaints, the fears. And this is what I hear:
I’m not selling any books. I’m not making any lists. I’m not winning any awards. No one will remember me. No one cares about my work. I hate my day job, but I can’t quit because I can’t earn enough writing. I can’t write full time. I have no time to write. I can’t write fast enough. Writing is killing me.
And I’ll be the first to admit that six months ago, I was saying many of those same things. But when you realize at least half the writers you know are saying them you have to ask one question: Why do we write? Because really, if it’s that horrible, why do any of us do it?
How many times have you heard another writer say, “I can’t not write.” We treat it as if it’s like eating or breathing, something required for our very survival, but in order to thrive as writers we need to be more conscious about it. We need to choose the right reasons to write, and when we do that, we free ourselves from the expectations about writing that make us so unhappy.
So why do you write? Most people will say it’s because they love it, but let’s unpack that. I love chocolate, but I’m not going to spend ten hours a day eating it and expect it to both earn me a living and fulfill me emotionally. If you write because you love it, then be prepared to let go of all the expectations that it will earn you awards, or money, or readers. If you’re honestly writing because you love it, then you’ll be happy simply with the act of writing. How many of us can say we’d be happy just writing — no publishing, no asking anyone to read it, no feedback of any sort? Love alone isn’t typically enough of a reason to write.
Maybe you’ll say you write because it’s the best job you can conjure. But when writing is a job you have to be able to earn money doing it. And then you meet up with the reality that most writers will earn very little. Expecting to earn money from something nearly no one else can is a flawed premise and guarantees writing will forever make you miserable. Some people write for a living, and kudos to them, but the rest of us have to understand that’s the exception, not the norm. We have to choose another reason to write or we’ve failed before we even begin.
Do you write because you want the attention? The adulation? The awards? While few of us want to admit it, most writers are driven at least somewhat by the need for notice. We want to be told these words and thoughts we put on the “page” matter. We confuse our self-worth with that of our work. And again, this is a one-way ticket to unhappiness because every time we don’t get the award or the readers or the glowing reviews we feel like we personally are failures, not just our work.
So if all those reasons don’t add up to a successful, happy writing life, what does?
The answer is simple: Choose a reason to write that’s not solely about you, your ego, your needs and wants. Make your writing part of a greater purpose and you’ll be happier as a writer.
Here’s an exercise we all should do: sit down with a piece of paper labeled Reasons I Write. Follow that with these three things: For money, for status, for praise. Then cross them all off the list. Now, start adding new things, things that are bigger than you, things that aren’t selfish, things that further a greater purpose. Maybe it’s to provide others with an escape from their everyday lives, maybe it’s to make them laugh, maybe it’s to engender discussions about important social issues, or to share knowledge you’ve accumulated through unique experiences.
You can have as many or as few of these reasons as you’d like, and over time they may change, but keep that list. Put it somewhere important, and then look at it over and over again. Because the next time you’re miserable that your new book didn’t sell or you didn’t get the award you wanted, or you were rejected by the agent you submitted to, you’re going to pull out that list and you’re going to read it. You’re going to use it to remind yourself of why you really write, and why all the other things don’t actually matter.
If you want to be happy as a writer, you have to be conscious about it and you have to want to write for the right reasons. Stop buying into the age-old myth that being a writer is about earning a living, making a list, and being adored. Start recognizing that the only way any of us can be happy doing anything is if it’s part of a bigger purpose. If you can make that shift, your writing life will improve, and you might discover that your writing does as well.