So You Think You Can Write

For the longest time, I’ve been aware that my answers to the questions “why do you write” and “who do you write to?” is I write to and for myself. No matter if I am writing to my brother, to a class, a population of people, at the end of the day the most consistent “audience” that always sits amongst the crowd is me. I write to capture intense feelings. I write to justify my thoughts, organize them, understand them. I write because I have the urge to tell stories. I write because of my desire to discover things. (Perhaps that’s why I’ve recently developed a draw towards investigative journalism.)

 

I have wondered if this motivation is shallow. Afterall, some of the greatest writers write to shape society. To show people the things that are wrong, to start a political movement, to be Great. Well, I haven’t strived to be Great. I’ve only strived to be myself and listen to the words arranging themselves inside my head.

 

To read Joan Didion and George Orwell’s purpose for writing was somewhat a breath of fresh air. Didion’s words that stuck with me: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I’m seeing.” Orwell’s words: “All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention.” It appears that I’m not the only selfish writer.

 

I love Orwell’s point about noveling in this long quote. I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of noveling. I have this story that it’s inside my head, needing to get out onto paper. The novel started in a period of my life where I was really lonely.I would distract myself and fill my head with awesome characters and plot twists. Noveling became one of my favorite pastimes.

 

But noveling is hard. I spend hours rearranging words on one-tenth of a page, and there’s thousands of on-tenths of a page needing to be written. In an unpractical manner, I’ve approached my novel writing in the way I’d approach journaling. I would rely on emotional inspiration to write. When I felt great happiness, I’d want to capture that feeling into my novel. When I felt great sadness, I’d want to capture that with my characters as well.

 

That’s not practical, given that they’re a larger plot going on. You’re not supposed to make the characters happy and sad, then happy and sad again without justifying it with something in the story. Or else it would make the characters seem really emotionally unstable…

 

It’s a struggle. A beautiful struggle. Beautiful in the way that I get to look back to page 3, or page 15, or page 76, and think to myself, Wow, I did a pretty dang good job, can’t believe I was capable of writing that. It’s also beautiful in the way that sometimes the stories tell themselves. I discover as I write, write as I discover. These two things are superglued to each other. Because of this, writing is incredibly personal.
Funny enough, you are justifying yourself when you’re justifying the quality of your work to other people. I have usually withheld judgement of my own writing. Of course I am my worst critic when putting pen to paper. But when the product is done, reached the maximum potential I envisioned for it, I no longer have an inkling of a clue whether or not it’s Fantastic or Mediocre. I’ve found myself thinking as an afterthought, moments after winning awards for my writing, “Oh yeah, maybe that was a pretty good piece of writing.” I guess that’s the exciting–and frustrating–part. You never know how good you are until you’re showing your work to an outside audience–taking a risk and subjecting your voice and thoughts to other people’s criticism.

Minna Wybrecht

Minna's a PreMed student at the University of Michigan. She believes in three things. Milk chocolate. Ballroom dancing. To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.

2 thoughts to “So You Think You Can Write”

  1. Minna,

    You make a great point in noting that “you don’t really know how good you are until you subject yourself to an audience for judgement.” I often find that I, too, am my own worst critic. It’s really hard to step back from any piece of work (especially writing), where you’ve so immersed yourself in the creation process that it’s hard to objectively see whether or not it is of quality. The funny thing about the judgement of writing is that, for me, it’s somewhat similar to a judgement of art, but I also think there are structures and rules in place that make it a bit less abstract. With art, such as painting or drawing, it’s almost entirely subjective. There could be a red dot in the middle of a canvas, and it could be hanging on someone’s wall for $900. Not everybody is seeing the same value, but for someone, they saw this piece of work as quality, quality enough to pay a large chunk of cash for it. With writing, I think it is definitely a bit easier to judge what is “good” and what is “bad” writing. If things aren’t coherent or sentence structure doesn’t make sense, it’s usually understood by most to of a lesser quality. However, I still believe, with writing and composition considered both academic and artistic, there is some subjectivity in how one deems a piece “good” or “bad.” This gray area that writing falls into, is for me, what seems to be the most frustrating part in attempting to judge the quality of my own pieces.

  2. Hi Minna,

    You make a lot of really good points in this paper, most of which resonate with me personally as well as rhetorically. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with not striving to be “Great”; hell, I don’t even strive to be mediocre (and much like you, I haven’t the slightest idea where on that spectrum any of my writing falls). It sounds like you, like me, just enjoy the process of writing — no matter how difficult it gets or how disillusioned with your own work it can make you become — and when that’s true, it does not matter why you’re writing, but just that you’re listening to yourself and doing what you love.

    And I must say, although I’ve tried my hand at noveling, I’ve rarely made it past the first paragraph, and so I have to give you mad props for managing that one.

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