Find Your Why
By Michelle Barker
Imagine this moment: you’re in the middle of writing your first novel and it’s all going well, you’re flying through the pages… until you hit page seventy or so and suddenly you’re stuck and you find yourself having an existential crisis and wondering why in God’s name you ever decided to do this.
Or—you get your first ever developmental edit back from an editor and it’s fifteen single-spaced pages long and nearly all of it involves the things you’ve done wrong in a manuscript that you thought was perfect.
Spoiler alert: both of these things will happen to you, if they haven’t already.
While it might seem a little navel-gaze-y to ask yourself why you write, there will come a time when your entire career might depend on the answer to that question. Either your answer will keep you coming back to your desk, or you will quit and find something easier to do with your time.
So… why do you write?
There are lots of reasons why people might sit down to pen their magnum opus. Some of them are respectable and logical; others might make no sense whatsoever to strangers, but they come from the gut and can be powerful motivators.
Maybe you write because you believe you have something important to say to the world. If so, proceed with caution: if you’re writing to send a message, chances are your novel will come out sounding like a lesson plan rather than a story.
Maybe you write to prove something to the naysayers, whoever they are. But what happens if you don’t get published? When it comes to novel-writing, getting published will take years and there’s a very good chance it won’t happen with your first attempt.
Maybe you’re in it for the money. Look at the high rollers like J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, and Paulo Coelho. They are raking in the big bucks. But they are also the exception. Most writers have to wear more than one hat in order to pay the bills. According to Zippia.com, authors in the United States make an average of $38 per hour. According to Talent.com, it’s closer to $30. Here in Canada, 81% of respondents to a Writers Union poll said the income from their craft was not enough to keep them above the poverty line.
Maybe you’re in it for the bragging rights. You don’t really want to be a writer. You want to have written. You want to be published. Will that keep you warm on those long nights when you’re stuck in the middle of your story looking for a way out of the corner you’ve written yourself into? Only you can tell. It wouldn’t cut it for me. In my opinion, if you don’t love the process, you should probably find something else to do.
But maybe you simply can’t imagine doing anything else. Ah. There’s the magic potion. And interestingly, when you read the answers that famous authors have given to this question, quite often it’s the common denominator: their lives wouldn’t make sense without writing. The world wouldn’t make sense. They wouldn’t be happy. They couldn’t cope. It’s as essential to them as breathing.
Ask yourself: would you write even if you knew you’d never make a dime at it? If someone offered you a million dollars but the catch was that you weren’t allowed to write a single creative word ever again, would you agree?
Can you imagine yourself not writing?
How do you feel after you’ve sat and worked for a couple of hours on your novel? Frustrated? Or satisfied? It’s okay to feel both—the process of writing is rarely a romp, but if you never feel happy after doing it, you might want to examine what you’re writing or ask yourself if a different creative outlet would suit your personality better.
Here are some difficult truths about the writing life:
- We writers spend a lot of time alone. A LOT. If you’re not comfortable with that, I urge you to find another vocation.
- If you’re going to write anything of value, you will have to get feedback and you will have to submit your work to publishers. Feedback is hard. Submitting your work is hard. People will say no to you for a long time before they start saying yes. This profession involves an incredibly long apprenticeship that no one seems to mention. I’m mentioning it.
- Writing a novel looks easy until you try doing it. As readers we only see the finished product. We cannot possibly imagine what goes into that until we face down the blank page ourselves and realize we have to make everything up and we have to do it in a way that no one else has thought of before. No problem, right?
- Not everyone is going to love what you do. If you do find a publisher and your book goes out into the world, some people won’t like it. You will get bad reviews. Prepare yourself.
- You’re not going to feel like writing every day. There will be some days (many days) when you stare at your notebook or laptop and don’t have a single idea what to do next in your novel. Inspiration is a fickle friend. She shows up when she feels like it. You, on the other hand, have to show up every day whether you feel like it or not. If you think that’s easy, try doing it on a sunny day when everyone else is outside. Try doing it when you’re not feeling well, or when a good friend asks you to go for coffee instead. Try doing it when your agent has told you that the novel you spent two years working on is a piece of crap and you have to start again. Those are the times when you’ll be asking yourself, why am I doing this? If you don’t have an answer, you might quit.
Take out a piece of paper—right now. Open a blank document on your laptop if that’s what you prefer. Ask yourself the question: why do you write? Don’t think too much about your answer. Just start writing, see what comes out. You might be surprised.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.