Finding Your Why as a Writer
Why are you a writer? It’s an interesting question. I’ve been asked why I don’t write “grown up” books, but then I began writing them and the question switched to why I don’t write a specific sort of book. But rarely am I asked why I’m a writer. Still, it’s a good question to look at and really understand because your why as a writer is often a strong predictor of how much success you’ll have in this field.
Knowing why we write can also be sustaining through the difficult journey to publication. The longer it takes to reach “success” in writing, the more we tend to question why we stick with it. And many writers have to deal with family members who are less than supportive of the journey when it doesn’t pay off monetarily. To stand up against these sorts of pressures, it’s good to know your why as a writer—not why people write, but why you specifically write.
Motivated by Money?
One value in knowing your why as a writer is because it can help when writing gets hard or writer’s block raises its ugly head. If your reason for writing is solely because you hope to make money at it, it can be much harder to keep writing during these difficult times. The truth is writing isn’t one of the easier ways to make a living, and I say that despite the fact that I make a living at it. You can make a living writing. It’s possible. But it takes a long time to work up to a steady income, and there are a great many obstacles in the way.
If you’re writing solely to make money, you must always think about the relationship between writing and money. For instance, it’s much easier to make a living at writing if you do it based on gigs. That means you go out, find people who need someone to write for them, and then you write specifically what they want. This requires considerable flexibility in what you’re willing to write.
For instance, if you only want to write picture books, it will be better if money isn’t your motivation. If you see yourself strictly as a fiction writer, you need to be ready for a long road to income. But if you like writing nonfiction and are interested in a wide variety of topics, then writing strictly for money is more viable.
Without that kind of flexibility, you need to be ready to work on your writing for a while, sometimes a long while, before you see any money from your work. In fact, you’re likely to spend more money learning to write well enough to be published. Investing in improvement can reap considerable rewards, but it won’t pay to expect them too quickly. Because of that, other motivations will really help you keep writing until success comes.
Motivated by Nostalgia?
Many people get into writing, and specifically children’s writing, out of nostalgia. They remember the books they loved as a child, and they have a head full of memories of raising their own children so why not turn them into books? Certainly, a pinch of this can be part of solid writing motivation, but if you’re writing strictly to tell family stories or to tell the sort of stories you remember as a child, you’re likely to have some trouble when it comes to publication.
Writing has moved on from the books we read as children, no matter how long ago you were a child. Since I’m in my sixties, the books I loved as a kid are considerably different from what is being published today. There are still stories of families, and love, and adventure, but the mode of storytelling has changed. Smart writers read books from today to make our writing feel fresh and new, unlike a rehashing of tales told long ago.
Since stories of families continue to be hugely popular, many writers pull on stories from their families for inspiration. But the key is to be inspired by it, not to create a record of it. Stories and real life aren’t the same.
Unless your real life story is extraordinary due to a certain setting or circumstance, real life family stories tend to be of interest only to those living in them, thus retelling them can be hard to sell. But the emotions and experiences in our memories can inspire stories that aren’t exactly what happened but have a feeling of truth because they were inspired by real life. Those can sell. So, if your why as a writer is nostalgia, be sure only a pinch of that nostalgia makes its way into your writing.
Motivated by Annoyance?
Some writers are motivated by a core belief that there is something wrong with children and teens, and they hope to fix them. I’ve seen stories designed to get girls to choose modest clothes. I’ve seen stories designed to shame children out of spending time online. I’ve seen stories about being nicer to your mom or doing more chores. These stories have one thing in common: they weren’t published, and they probably won’t be.
Writing isn’t a sort of cudgel to be used to knock some sense into young readers. It’s not that there isn’t some history of published stories as a means to lecture readers. Early stories for children leaned heavily on moralizing and scolding. Naughty children were grabbed by monsters or other horrific endings, and good children were rewarded. The lessons were heavy-handed and often harsh.
That doesn’t mean stories today don’t help shape character. Hey, stories for adults can do that too. But it’s best done by giving the reader something to think about so they can come to their own conclusions, making change an organic thing for each reader. This is why so many submission guidelines will specifically say the publisher isn’t looking for heavy-handed lessons or moralizing.
The real difference between stories that work and those that don’t is respect, and that comes from how the author feels about children. It’s very hard for a writer who thinks children are broken and need fixing to write stories that make readers think without telling them what to think. Writers who respect children will know they’re often smarter and more interested in personal growth than we give them credit for. And this knowledge will often help writers have a greater chance of success.
Motivated by Stories to Tell?
Personally, I fell into writing because I have spent my whole life telling stories. I told myself stories when I was a child, which resulted in frequent scolding for daydreaming. I told my peers stories throughout school because it was a way to connect and amuse. And now I tell stories for fun and profit.
I love stories. I love thinking about how they are put together. I love pondering words and phrases. I love stealing bits from the people I meet and the conversations I overhear. All these things are part of why I write. I do it because it is so much a part of who I am. And I’d do it even if I never sold another story (though I might do much of it in my head instead of typing it out).
I have other bits and pieces of motivation. I love the thought of my stories reaching people I’ll never meet. I like the thought of my books outlasting me. And I’m grateful that I have these skills I can use to pay my bills. In other words, my reasons for writing are more of a list, or perhaps a tangled ball of string, rather than a single thing.
So, what is your why as a writer? What motivations can you lean on when times are tough? Think about the why behind your writing this week, and next week, we’ll look at where you might direct that motivation for the most successful writing for you.
Related Links for Finding Your Why as a Writer
With over 100 books in publication, Jan Fields writes both chapter books for children and mystery novels for adults. She’s also known for a variety of experiences teaching writing, from one session SCBWI events to lengthier Highlights Foundation workshops to these blog posts for the Institute of Children’s Literature. As a former ICL instructor, Jan enjoys equipping writers for success in whatever way she can.