Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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November 20, 2023

Question of the Day: WHY Do You Write?

by Johnny B. Truant

You know … this writing thing can be a real pain in the ass. It beats you up and is sometimes a serious downer. I used to be so loud and proud in my early days online that I never really let those home truths settle, but they’re no joke.

When I wrote this post (with a sweary title) back in 2012, it went mega-viral. People read the tone of it and acted like I must eat bullets. When I was co-hosting the Self-Publishing Podcast and the Smarter Artist Summit here in Austin, I used to say things like, “Writers are too sensitive. Plumbers don't get plumber’s block, so why do writers get writer’s block? Just do the work, people!”

I bragged about writing 1.5 million words (the Harry Potter series and a half) per year. People heard me and seemed to decide that I either had it all figured out and/or I was a serious jerk.

Neither was entirely true. Neither was entirely false.

Time and experience change one’s outlook.

Maybe it’s because I’m older now — or maybe all the anger in the world has pushed me to be helpful rather than angry — but these days all the “pain-in-the-ass, beats-you-up, serious-downer” aspects of writing have started to rear their heads for me in ways I couldn’t previously imagine.

I’ve always had bad days, no matter what my big mouth used to say. Some are epic-level bad. If you’re reading this, then I’m sure you can relate. People who say they can’t are just putting up a front, the way I used to.

I’ve been very fortunate in this business. For ten years, writing books has been my only gig, so I haven’t had to punch a clock and fit novels in on the side. I even had one of my book series made into a TV show. But that makes no difference when life rears back and kicks you right in the jimmies. It’s no consolation on the days when things are hard, and trying and failing to write only makes it worse.

A new gig.

I decided to take two coaching clients last month — a little experiment I wasn’t sure I’d like, but that I ended up absolutely loving. I like feeling like I am part of the solution.

When one client apologized for having had a difficult few days and “not getting work done that he’d promised me,” I found myself typing this in reply:

Try to think of your fiction — if worries, emotional stuff, or life in general” is in the way — as a way OUT of the crap rather than more crap to pile atop the other crap. Work on it in a way that makes you feel better, not worse, in whatever that way” ends up being … and it might not be writing words on a page.

There was more to that email, but the above was the most important point. I found myself copying that section into a recurring task so that I, not he, would be forced to read it, and hopefully to believe it.

But giving that advice was only the beginning. The whole “writing is supposed to make us better, not worse” dilemma wouldn’t leave my mind.

So, I wrote this post on my blog (which I hope you hop over and read in its entirety because it’s absolutely a “sister post” to this one).

About that post.

The post above (The Best Reason to Write (or Make Any Art) is For Free) is downright contrarian, and maybe even offensive to the WITS audience. That was not my intention. The point of it is this:

Although writers deserve some recognition and income from what we do, the universe doesn’t owe us those things. Even if the world answers our work with crickets — and even though it really, really sucks when nobody cares — real artists have no choice but to keep creating anyway.

My point was that if writing is an art to you, rather than a business (and zero judgment if it’s the latter), that means you will always write for the love or the deep-down necessity of the writing itself.

What Is Writing Motivation?

But then I asked: WHY do I do what I do? Is my purpose external: so that people will read what I write? Or is it instead internal: to write, period, and for me to take something positive from the process?

I’d ask you the same:

Why do you write?

And if you’re creative in other ways, why do you do those things, too?

The internet isn’t doing us any favors in the comparisonitis department. We’ve all ended up with too many metrics to check … and because we check those metrics compulsively, it feels like we’re failing whenever the numbers don’t change.

Additionally, we see how well other creators are doing thanks to social media, and often infer from their updates that we’re failures by comparison. It’s a case of, “I thought I was happy, but it turns out I’m wrong.”

But again, why do you write?

What are your goals and purposes? What do you actually want to get from telling all your stories? The default answer that most of us end up with is: I want to sell as many books and be as widely read as [insert your favorite big-name author here].

But the more I think on it, the more I realize that’s not true for me. That’s not what I actually want at all.

What do I want?

I know you’re all dying to hear about my personal needs and desires as a writer (don’t pretend you’re not), so let’s dive into that. In addition to “just wanting to write and make my art,” if I may be so bold as to ask for more, I would very much also like to:

1. Be happy.

This is Numero Uno by far. Setting aside my responsibility to my family, the only thing I care about is to be happy. Don’t try to pull any tricks here, like saying that happiness is secondary to being healthy. It’s not. If I wasn’t healthy, health and happiness would probably decline together, but it’s happiness I’d want back most.

2. Be the best thing in the world to a small group of fans and readers.

Assuming I’m happy, it would be super rad if I could also have a core group of ardent fans. This group will — and maybe should — be small relative to that “whole wide world” thing.

Big fame comes with a spotlight, pressure, and usually some degree of artistic compromise. If I could have a thousand people who absolutely love what I do in its purest form, without compromise OR ten million who kind of like me, I’d choose the thousand with the accompanying relative poverty. Call me crazy.

3. Earn enough from my creative jobs that I don’t need non-creative jobs to make ends meet.

To be clear, I’m saying that I only truly want this much money— enough to make ends meet. It is true that having Taylor Swift style fame can earn you billions, whereas Rob Schneider fame will “only” earn you a good living. I wouldn’t turn my nose up at riches, but they’re far from essential.

4. Have people.

Ouch on this one. I’ve recently come face-to-face with the fact that I have an extraordinarily small community these days. It used to be much bigger. I guess that’s one reason I’m glad I’m guest posting here — because maybe youre my people. That would be awesome.

5. Be constantly inspired.

That last one feels tricky, but it’s not. “Being constantly inspired” is akin to having real-life magic, and magic makes everything better across the board.

It’s one thing to create, but another thing entirely to live inside an aura of creation, where everything inspires you.  Maybe you won’t be able to ride broomsticks or use spells that don’t really make much sense once you think about them (like Alohomora), but it’s magic just the same.

As for me, the magic of inspiration is enough. That’s why I started my Art of Noticing podcast (on Apple PodcastsSpotify, and others), which keeps me in that “aura of creation” pretty much all the time. 

The other goals the world tries to force on me? Nah. I’ll make my own magic, thanks. 

Why do YOU write? What are you real goals, once you get comparisonitis and other people’s expectations out of the way?

* * * * * *

About Johnny

Johnny B. Truant is the bestselling author of Fat Vampire, adapted by SyFy as Reginald the Vampire starring Spider-Man's Jacob Batalon. His site at JohnnyBTruant.com publishes his 10-minute Art of Noticing podcast and the accompanying “Noticings” post series, both for writers and other artists.

Johnny's other books include Pretty Killer, Pattern Black, Invasion, The Beam, Dead City, and over 100 other titles across many genres. Originally from Ohio, Johnny and his family now live in Austin, Texas, where he’s finally surrounded by creative types as weird as he is.

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23 comments on “Question of the Day: WHY Do You Write?”

  1. I agree with all you say, especially the bit about fans and not wanting to make millions.
    I write because I enjoy it. I have stories in my head. I think I always have. I used to tell them to myself, then I started writing them down. And it feels good.
    I also paint and draw.
    These things are for myself, mainly. I sold two paintings once and had a commission. Very minor, though. A picture of a soft toy that was special to her.
    Recognition of that kind feels good, but it's not why I create.

  2. The past couple of years I've "tackled" (been confronted by might be more accurate) this question of why I write, too. When I started out, I loved story, loved reading fiction, and wanted to create my own fiction because of that love. As time went on, the idea of earning a living, and recognition and awards, entered the picture, and with them, comparisonitis.

    I did a deep dive into self-publishing eight years ago, soaking up everything I could on the topic--listening to the Self-publishing podcast, the Marketing SFF podcast, and many others, reading books on the topic, attending panels etc. The goal became to make enough money to live on, and I became focused on sales ranks, markets etc, worrying about not writing fast enough, "knowing" that I needed to write more. Two books a year was all I could manage then, with a day job and other responsibilities.

    Now I understand, after all this time, what matters, and it starts with fulfillment from the writing itself, the one thing I can truly control. I have enough confidence who I am as a writer to not compare myself to others (and enough wisdom to recognize the futility of comparison as well). Having that small group of devoted readers is also my goal, and to earn enough to be in the black, have some extra "scratch," is another goal. I'm with you too on being part of a writing community, and I'm fortunate that I am. Being "constantly inspired" loops back to being fulfilled in my writing.

    So, why do I write? Because I love story, because I want to bring my stories to life, because I enjoy the process of "pretending" on the page, putting emotion into the writing, creating a story that another person will enjoy reading.

    Thanks so much, Johnny, for being here today. Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. I agree about conferences and panels big-time. When you're in an environment like that, it hardly matters what people SAY because their actions and attention -- and everything all around you -- says otherwise. I think this is an inward-focusing feat as much as anything on the outside, in the end.

  3. Stories saved me. The ones I read as a young person showed me different ways to live, to think, to love. They filled my head with ideas, dreams, and wonder.

    Why do I write? I write to complete the stories in my head. But it's more than that. Writing makes me happy. It sounds weird, but it "completes" me. Without writing I am a different person, a person I don't like as much as I like the writing me. Would I like fans and money? Absolutely. But I haven't had a lot of either of those and I'm still writing. I always will.

    1. Interesting point, Lynette. It's taken me this long to realize that if I "take a day off" too often (in quotes because it feels like a good thing -- like a vacation -- at the time), I get restless. It's made me realize that even when the writing is hard, giving up and not doing it always feels worse.

    2. I hear you, Lynette! And can say "same" for most of this. I am convinced that I am smarter, calmer, wittier, and prettier when I am writing regularly. It's the only time my brain feels like it gets to rev all the way up into that 5th gear.

  4. Legacy.

    Chronic illness (ME/CFS - sort of like what is hitting the long covid people) took research physics from me 34 years ago - and I'm an extremely slow writer - but I have found that I CAN still do one of the things I wanted to do in life: the first two volumes of my mainstream trilogy took 15 and 7 years respectively, but they're out there, and the third is going to join them as soon as I can manage it.

    What I would write has changed (the plan was to write mysteries in retirement while doing all the fun things in the commercials with fit older people), but the writing has turned out to be a powerful way to still make a statement.

    Marketing has been slow, too - because I can either write or market (or read - the reading has suffered, too), but some of the reviews are what tell me I'm not wasting the tiny daily allotment of energy.

  5. Why do I write? That's easy. Because no one else writes what I want to read and I love creating those alternate worlds that I can't live in.

    By the way, you're very handsome. Can I use you for a book cover model one day?

  6. Thanks for this post, Johnny!!! I love it. Today is one of those days where I look around and I find myself saying, "I'm happy." Still recovering from COVID and all that it took from me, but moving in the right direction. Amusing when being able to get up and walk around the room feels like a huge win. I'm even at my desk today.

    I'm probably lost all hope of NANO this year, but the rest of life is making me very happy!

    And that's fundamental to me for why I write. I want to be able to enjoy the work that I do. I'd like to make a living at it, but if I'm living and I'm happy, I'll call that a win.

  7. I agree with your observations. I write because I have feelings about things that I want to share. It used to be, thousands of years ago when people depended on each other for survival, we lived in intimate interdependent groups. Our wellbeing depended on the wellbeing of our “sisters and brothers.” We took care of them as if they were us. Emotionally, we could hardly tell the difference. All feelings were shared by body language, but not intentionally. It's just how things were.
    Our modern dependency on money for survival has eliminated interdependent relationships, thus severing the emotional connections through which we once implicitly knew each other’s spirits. Now, the only way we have to share feelings is through words. Words cannot restore the emotional connections required for unconditional love, but they are better than nothing. So, hurrah to all writers.

  8. I write through inspiration of all sorts, but I write in the hopes that recognition will solidify my legacy (I’m not getting any younger).
    I too agree, I want just enough to make the ends meet (Social Security will not cut it).
    Thank you for sharing and maybe you will accept me into your circle.

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