Why Do You Write?


Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass opened my eyes to another world. I am not done with his book but that hardly matters. He asked the question that has been bothering me the most. Why do you write?

Why do I write? I haven’t the foggiest idea. Jumbles of pictures about people and locations and gripping emotional trauma creep into my mind, and I just want to spit it all out. I get excited. I think other people will be excited too. I like to hang out with myself making things, so stories creep to the top of my list of things to make and . . . I just write them. Yet I struggle. I can’t figure out why I am doing it.

It hit me the other day, “Wow! Jesus used stories!” Master storyteller. I learn something new every day from his stories. But I am not Jesus, and I am not one of the multitude of writers God spoke through to write the Bible. I am just a person, living life, trying to figure it out, crying when my heart breaks, jumping when I am excited, planning on graduating from college . . . you know, the daily routine. Why should I write?

If I were to die tomorrow without having written a single piece of world-class bit of literature, I doubt the world would notice, or even that it would be a worse-off place because I didn’t get my story written. Or if I were to live until  I was eighty-five, having written several amazing novels, would it really change the course of history that much? Would my work have any significance at all? I kind of doubt it.

Words are alive. They breathe. They move, and they beat out a rhythm we all end up accepting or rejecting, following or turning away from. In that sense, I know once my words were written and sent out, they would change something, but would it really be worth it to invest so much of my time?

I read these books because I want to learn and because I want to write. Is reading them worth it? It takes a lot of my time, and I wonder, should I be out, living life instead? I am not sure yet. Just like I am not sure why I write.

Which is a problem. If I don’t really care about my writing . . . or don’t know why I write, how can I expect my readers to care?




The Artist’s Way

I wish I could be disciplined enough to write one post a day instead of churning three or four posts out in one day and then ignoring my wordpress for two weeks. I think if I was a reader I would be confused. My brother-in-law gets confused easily. He likes to follow along on my writing, which is really cool to me, but whenever I write posts all at once, he thinks he has fallen behind. So in advance, Daniel, I do apologize. This is merely the third post I will be writing today. Perhaps it will be the last, though. You might catch up quickly!

The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron, doesn’t remind me of the previous books I’ve read. Before I couldn’t stop writing about the book I was reading, whether it was “Fifty Tools” or “On Writing.” Now, though, I am in a little bit of trouble. I am on page 177, and I think I have found only one or two things to comment on.

First, it amazes me how with each writing book, specifically this one, there is an element of spiritualism. Almost each book I have read so far uses a Bible verse as an illustration, and even in this book, Cameron builds her entire premise on “spiritual electricity.” Somehow writers seem to understand two things: 1) the Bible is well written, and 2) writing is not done alone. Writers need Someone bigger–God–to be part of the writing process.

Secondly, The Artist’s Way is more than a writing book. It covers a new part of the creative journey. Instead of offering technical tips to writing better, Cameron says, “Come, go on a journey with me, a journey of recovery.”

Do you like to create but you are afraid to? Do you take time to have fun in a day, treat yourself well, dream big, and actually live the life you would you like to? Julia Cameron walks college students through this book every semester, but she wrote this book specifically with independent students in mind. Laid out in a twelve-week format, there is a brief chapter to read at the beginning of the week and a set of tasks to do throughout the week.

The tasks are not hard; they are actually quite easy, and I think I would enjoy doing a lot of them: “list twenty things you enjoy doing; describe five traits you like in yourself as a child; list five people you wish you had met who are dead,” etc.

They are simple, yet they make a point. How well do you know yourself? Are you living as God created you–free and completely alive–or are you churning through life, addicted to “what gets you by” or numbs you out so you can’t feel, so you don’t have to deal with the black hole you are wallowing in? Are you living life?

The Artist’s Way is about living a journey, about growing, about dreaming, and Cameron has laid out all the steps; I would encourage anyone to read through her book. If life is monotonous and gloomy, think of The Artist’s Way as a helping hand to see sunshine. Try some of the tasks. I started writing “Morning Pages” (write three pages of random everything each morning), and although I don’t end up writing every morning, I love to write them when I do. They give me a voice, and they pin my ideas down on paper.

Yet I would offer one warning. Don’t expect this book to bring about full recovery from discouragement, frustration, co-dependency, or depression. It won’t come. These expectations are too high for a single book written by human hands. We are all only people. God has to be involved.

God is the one who brings healing. Jesus Christ came, died and rose again, offering us freedom, peace and true life. He is holding out life, abundant life, to each of us. All we have to do is accept it, asking Him to save us. We can’t do it on our own, no matter how many well-written books we read or how many growth-processes we have worked through. Jesus Christ, as the true Healer, worked many miracles among the people in Israel, and He’s still in the miracle-business today. Ask Him to help you. He will.

So, do find a copy of Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and have fun discovering more about yourself. Work through pain and hurts, delight in watching song birds and sunrises again. Write. Paint. Draw. Go horse back riding, scuba diving that trip to Australia you always wanted to make. Delight in being who God created you to be.

Cameron’s book can help; I know it would have helped me over the past three years as I’ve been growing and climbing my own seven-story mountain. Her book helped me today: “Oh, so other people go through stuff like this too!”

It would have been nice reading through The Artist’s Way earlier in my life as God rebuilt this broken reed and helped me learn how to dance again.

“One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” -Andre Gide

Elements of Style

I posted on facebook the other day, “Having breakfast with Strunk & White,” and some people thought my breakfast was a very fine wine while others insisted, “Your style is great. Why are you reading about it?”

Apparently, not everyone has taken an English composition class, tried to understand poetry, had a father who collected books galore, or  searched for top punctuation books online. Apparently, not everyone has heard of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.

The illustration version is beautiful; yes, I must be an English major to say a punctuation book is beautiful, but Maira Kalman did a great job. The pictures spice up the black and white pages, and in a creative way, they explain some of the rules. They make me laugh. They are colorful, out there, a little Picasso thrown in beside the Hemingway and Whitman. Art at its finest.

The rules are to the point. Some of them are obvious. Don’t make two independent clauses one sentence with just a comma in the middle. Everyone should know this. It’s like a run on sentence with a little bump in the middle, not enough to stop the train of thought and tell it, “There’s a new thought coming up.” Some of them, for me, were new or at least a little rusty. “Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.” Um. Okay. If I should.

More than a punctuation handbook, Strunk and White define style, a much stickier part of writing. Anyone can say, “Don’t cut a sentence in two.” That is common sense. What doesn’t make sense is, “When can I break the rules?” When can I, as the author, throw something out there, something uncommon, something unheard of, something that no one has used before?

Strunk and White say, “Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind?”

It’s next to impossible, isn’t it? Yet S & W attempt it. Or they offer hints and ideas of what good style looks like. I think style is half-learned, half-given, and half-fought for, yet their thoughts are very helpful, and I plan to keep them in mind.

Also, this book will join my library shelves someday–illustrations and all–and I plan on referring to it during my own career and recommending it to any careers watching my shaky footsteps. 🙂

British Author Tells Grammar’s Story

It was a very cute little book, one that I actually found myself falling in love with as I turned each page. Humorous, witty, and very insightful, Lynne Truss doesn’t leave any question unanswered when it comes to grammar; but she does lay it out in an amazingly clear, beautiful style. Eats, Shoots and Leaves becomes a story of grammar, and if you argue, “That’s not possible!”,  let me tell you, it actually is! 🙂

Besides the fact that she is from Britain and so the punctuation and spelling are slightly different from ours (which she mentions and clarifies), her humor and scope of vocabulary is astonishing. Sometimes I feel like I am reading a well-written ten-year-old’s term paper; it’s not that it is simple–it is that it is fresh, new, exciting, and not at all boring.

I thought periods were frightfully dull, but after reading her book, I am learning about the dance punctuation plays with words so a reader can hear the rise and fall of energy and emotion as well as the writer. The length of pauses bring life into a simple paragraph of writing: one for a comma; two for a semi-colon; three for a colon; four for a period–and yet, I may be getting her descriptions completely mixed up because I am just remembering and writing about the book; I’m not copying word for word what she said; I am throwing out here what my memory learned.

Like about the uses and brilliance behind semi-colons and colons! I had no idea! Did you? No idea at all. Now I stick them liberally in all my writings: and I am afraid I have no idea how to use them anymore! 🙂

It’s great fun! Reading a grammar book and coming away with more inaccuracies than before . . .  I am afraid Truss would be horrified. Her seventh sense (the one that finds advertisements misspelled and billboards unpunctuated) would probably explode in shock. She meant her book to be a guide; I made it into a liberator.

She wrote it to catch people who punctuated inaccurately; I may become her top villain.

Yet I won’t trade my beginning struggle with correct punctuation and go back and unread Truss’s book. It may have given me confusion, but first, and overall, it gave me the world.

Opening a new expanse for me into the heart of Punctuation Capitol (no pun intended 🙂 ), I have been intimately introduced to every punctuation mark out there (I think every one, anyway), and I am delighted to have met them. I will be using them all frequently, whether correctly or incorrectly, from this point out.

Instead of enemies, Eats, Shoots and Leaves taught me that punctuation is and are friends.

Don’t Forget the Name of the Dog

I don’t think I realized what I would learn when I opened Clark’s pages.

I was reading to check his book off my list. For no other reason. Yet I discovered nonfiction humor–I found an encourager, and a way to really make this type of life happen.

Annie Dillard introduced me to the writing life, but I believe it is Clark who has really handed me, as his favorite analogy goes, the toolbox. I have so many ideas now, waffling through my brain and demanding my attention and focus.

Because of them I guess I will have to stop this post and go onto something else, something hands-on, something like writing with my feet, something like drafting, dropping gold coins, climbing up and down the ladder of abstraction. So much to do . . .

Which, I guess, is my question really. What is to be done? What door shall I open to start down the pathway of what needs to be done? Will I set back in my plastic chair, watching Barnabas swim round and round his bowl (yes, I bought a fish), and just think about what I learned. Or will I actually set out my toolbox and use them, practicing and practicing, until they are rusty? Until I have to buy new ones? Until  Clark’s 50 tools become part of my writing life too? What direction will I go? What direction will you go?

I must end with Roy Peter Clark’s words themselves. They are too good to pass up.

“Own these writing tools. They now belong to you. Keep them sharp. Share them with others. Add your own. Take pride in your craft. Join a nation of writers. And never forget to get the name of the dog” (245).

Tool 50 ~ Own the tools of your craft.

“Build a writing workbench to store your tools.”

This tool is Clark’s last, and it’s where he explains the magic behind magical writing. Clark says, “I thought great writing was the work of magicians. . . This was magic, the work of wizards–people different than you and me” (241).

But then, the teacher, Donald Murray, taught him back in 1983 about a workbench–the workbench. There is a method to the madness.

1. Idea — be curious. Find the stories happening in reality around me.

Explore — Be a modern-day explorer and see what’s out there.

2. Collect — I love doing this, and I think it is the reason I like being around people. They are so comical! Their quips of humor, bits of conversation, things they will say or won’t say, the cars they drive . . . so humorous! So “collect words, images, details, facts, quotes, dialogue, documents, scenes, expert testimony, eyewitness accounts, statistics, the brand of the beer, the color and make of the sports car, and, of course, the name of the dog” (242). I must learn to write beyond my fingers. I must learn to write with my feet.

3. Focus — “What is your essay about? No, what is it really about” (242)?

Select the best stuff — So I did all the research. Now I must only put in the facts that are necessary.

Recognize an order — A sonnet or epic? What form am I going to use?

4. Draft — Use whatever is my method to write. Some people draft and revise at the same time (mostly me!) while others draft and then revise. Either way, draft.

5. Clarify — Spend hours changing “the” to “a.” Get the words right so others can see them too.

For the hands-on writers like me, grab a huge piece of paper and “draw a diagram of your writing process. Use words, arrows, images, anything that helps open a window to your mind and method” (244). Organize this writing toolbox like a box of paint tools or car tools. Label them, lay them out, categorize your thinking.

Clark explains, “So in my focus box, I keep a set of questions the reader may ask about in the story. In my order box, I have story shapes such as the chronological narrative and the gold coins. In my  revision box, I keep my tools for cutting away useless words” (244).

So for you toolbox, why not start with Roy Peter Clark’s 50 tools?

Tool 49 ~ Learn from your critics.

Can I say that this tool has so much more to do with life than just writing?

It’s about interacting with people.

“Tolerate even unreasonable criticism.”

Instead of one side winning and the other side losing the debate, let’s have a conversation. Clark calls conversation–“give and take” (236).

Don’t defend your work. You know there are rough edges yet. Be open to discuss them.

And explain yourself. Clark explains how one reader didn’t like his short chapters in his “Three Little Words.” Yet that is the reason others liked it so much. He wanted to keep it short and sweet. He wanted to capture the battle between life and death in as few words as possible. He wanted readers to understand it is like to experience and die through AIDS. So he explained his purpose to the critic. Maybe the critic never understood, but at least Clark had explained his thought pattern.

Also, and personally this is the one that gets me the most, a lot of critiques are just a matter of taste, and “there can be no arguing about matters of taste” (237).

I love Clark’s run through. “I think Moby Dick is too long. You think abstract art is too abstract. My chili is too spicy. You reach for the Tabasco” (237).


So just explain. And if they don’t get it, they don’t get it. At least maybe you helped them understand just a little. And probably, you learned something in the process. 🙂

Tool 45 ~ Break long projects into parts.

“Then assemble the pieces into something whole.”

I’ve been doing this almost all morning. The semester is over (only one more final to go), my roommate is moving on, and my room looks like a cyclone visited and stayed a little bit too long. So I’ve been tackling the mess one piece at a time. Or I’ve been attempting to. Yesterday I just sat and looked at everything. There was and is so much to do.

Today I organized all my semester-long papers. Bing. One thing done. It’s a start, right?

I can’t imagine writing a book. It seems so long, so many chapters.

Clark talks about how most doctoral students never finish their work because they don’t discipline themselves to finish their dissertation. There is too much writing involved.

When Clark is in a group  of writers, he asks the question, “How many of you have run a marathon and if not, could you?” Twenty-six miles. No way. Then he asks, ” ‘ What if I gave you fifty-two days to do it, so you only had to run a half mile a day?'” I think even I could run half a mile a day.

Clark mentions a book from his nightstand, and I loved his choice, The Lord Is My Shepherd, by Harold Kushner. It’s amazing to me how both Clark and Zinsser pull the Word of God into their writing examples. But think about it. The Bible has how many pages? How many books? How many chapters? Verses? And they were each written one word at a time.

So “admit it. You want to write something bigger than you’ve ever written before, but you can’t get your arms around the project. The length and breath of it intimidates you. Cut up the monster. In a daybook or journal, break it up into its smallest parts: chapters, sections, episodes, vignettes. Without referring to any notes or research materials, write one of these small units. See what happens” (221).

There is Clark’s advice. Why not let’s try it?

Tool 42 ~ Do your homework well in advance.

“Prepare yourself for the expected–and unexpected.”

I think I must be a writer. “Good writers . . .  (and then like three sentences that don’t say anything I want to talk about) . . . fill a reservoir of knowledge they can drain at a moment’s notice” (205). That is me. I work at Bonner Community Service, and when the wrinkled hand reaches out to clutch mine, I look at it, and I see the story. Or like my last nonfiction piece where I talked about the little boy trailing his hand along the cement wall. I saw him. A few weeks ago in the Elementary Childcare Center. And I remembered him, like a camera taking a picture. He is still in my mind today.

When my sister, Rebekah, and I were kids, we had the top beds of two bunk beds butted up against one another, so we’d spend the evenings telling each other stories about this really cool mansion with staircase, a sewing room, and a pink room. We’d plan out every little detail. I can still see it. And that is what writers do, Clark says. Virginia Woolf says that “to prepare to write fiction, women would need some money and a ‘room of one’s own’ ” (205), but Dorothea Brande and Ford Madox Ford say something along the lines of, “Dream about it.” Can you see the room exactly? The color of the carpet? The mouse-hole behind the chifforobe? The pin Grandma dropped when doing up the quilt? Can you see it?

So think like a journalist–do your research ahead of time, before you even need it or know you need it, so you can write the killer article.

Do enough research to answer these three questions (taken directly from Clark):

1. What’s the point?

2. Why is this story being told?

3. What does it say about life, about the world, about the times we live in?

And there were no interesting ideas in the “Workshop” section, so I am not including any of them. Just go dream. 🙂

Tool 27 ~ Reveal traits of character

This may be point-blank obvious to writers . . . or even most writers.

“Show character-istics through scenes, details, and dialogue.”

Do you know how many descriptors are abstract phloof? For instance, here is a sentence: she was compassionate.

Hmmm . . . that’s great. I am glad she was compassionate. What does that mean? What does it look like? Clark uses this example about a compassionate girl who gave her coat to a homeless girl and pleaded for the life of the tiger who gnawed her arm off. Now that’s compassion, and not just in black and white letters.

Show the abstractions.