A few weeks ago at a dinner party, I fielded one of my least favorite questions: “What do you do?” In response, I smiled blandly, mentioned my writing, and braced myself for the usual barrage of follow-ups: “How do you support yourself?” “What do you write?” “What inspires you?”
No, my writing doesn’t support me. I support it by teaching and editing. No, I don’t write exclusively one “thing.” I write in many forms then do my best to get published. And no, this conversation isn’t inspiring me. (Other than as fodder for this article…) At this point, the simplest rebuttal would be a business card with my favorite Kafka quote: “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.”
As many of us know, jigsawing words into flawless sentences isn’t a choice—it’s a necessity for our mental health. At the same time, it can be hard to articulate the reason why we write beyond Not Losing It. In fact, when I think back, all the questions about my work, I’ve never been asked why I write.
And this is the one question that would help us writers keep writing. Pause and reflect—why do you write? This question isn’t to scare you away. It’s to give you a reason to keep going. Here are a few different “whys” as well as exercises to help you find yours.
The Easy Whys
I write because I love turning off the internet and entering the world of my mind.
I write so I can spend tranquil mornings in libraries.
Maybe I’m attached to another era, maybe I feel more at home amongst the stacks and desks.
Sometimes I write for the vibes—the pens, the notebooks, and the bookish glasses.
I write because I’m a bibliophile, and I want to craft my own tomes. I write to train my brain to that level of concentration. I write because even journaling helps my daily sanity and makes me feel more like myself.
Exercise: Write down the first whys that come to mind. What motivated you to sit down the last time you wrote?
Your Why For A Specific Project
When I was shopping around my first novel, I got notes back from an editor at a small publishing house. As usual, my eyes raced through the email, desperately assessing the depths of his critique. There were many accurate and fixable suggestions, and then there were a few hard-hitting questions. The most intimidating being—why is this a story that needs to be told?
Frankly, my why for my first book was more of a why not. I wanted to see how far I could go on the winding path to publication and what I’d learn along the way. But these experiments weren’t going to convince an editor to take on my project.
As usual, I turned to my journal where I do my best reflecting. After a page or two, I distilled my rambling into a few succinct sentences about how college-aged women needed to read about finding themselves.
In a way, the editor’s question was about my target audience: Who are you writing this book for, and why do they care?
If you’re only writing books for yourself, it might be hard to start thinking about your readers. And if you’re not concerned with an audience, there are plenty of ways to get your manuscript into book form without a traditional publishing house. That doesn’t mean you don’t need a why.
Having a sense of purpose will help you finish any given project. Taking the example from above, if you’re self-publishing a novel, maybe your why is to be able to have a book you wrote on your shelf. Or to be able to gift your friends and family copies of your work. Your why could simply be to create something you’re proud of.
Holding this in your head (or making a note next to your desk) will help to keep you on track as you take steps toward your final goal.
Exercise: What’s your why for your current project? Think about why you started the project and what your ideal end for it would be. Why are you working to see it completed?
Why You Need to Find Your Why
In short, your why is what keeps you going. No one said writing was easy. And getting published in your desired form (and then read), is a whole other game. So as writers, our why is our higher calling that keeps us going despite the inevitable roadblocks.
In her book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth uses the concept of “why” to build a hierarchy of goals that lead to your ultimate one. For example, one of my goals is to write at the library five days a week. Why? Because I like the library vibes and because I’m more productive. Why do I want to be a productive writer? Because I want to finish my second novel. Why? Because I want to empower women like my protagonist to pursue their artistic dreams. Why? So I can keep writing books and helping people? Why? Because that’s The Dream.
When you reach your The Dream moment, this is what Duckworth calls your “ultimate concern.” This is different from a passion, since you can enjoy something immensely without having a goal to pursue it. Whereas you work toward your ultimate concern in a steady, sustainable way, even if it’s only taking a small step each day.
Duckworth’s research has shown that holding the same ultimate concern (aka your why) for many years is an essential component of grit, which she defines as “passion and perseverance for long-term goals” (my emphasis). As I mentioned before, high-performers even structure their lives by creating low-level goals which support their overarching one.
Anyone who has tackled a novel-sized project knows that these concepts apply during the years of drafting, revisions, and rejection. All of us writers need grit to get our work finished.
Exercise: Keep asking yourself why until you reach your ultimate concern. This is your why that you care so much about, it informs all of your writing, as well as the way you organize your life to make that writing happen.
Back at the Dinner Party
One way to reinforce our goals is to verbalize them. Sharing your aspirations with someone makes them more concrete and adds a layer of accountability. So the next time a dinner guest asks what you do, you could say, “I’m a writer, because I want my work to…”
Even if you don’t see this person again, the more you state and connect to your higher purpose, the easier it will be to keep working and building a structure that supports it. Whatever your why, when the writing gets tough, it will serve as a reminder of your aspirations. And, of course, writing with fancy pens in historical libraries is an added bonus along the way.
Columnist Grace Bialecki will be writing posts throughout the year on ways to establish your writing practice. As an author, editor, and mindfulness meditation teacher-in-training, her approach blends practical advice with techniques to be more present. For more tips on developing a writing habit, check out this free .pdf on her website.
Grace Bialecki is a writer, editor, and literary coach who teaches for The Bridge and Hugo House. Her work has appeared in various publications, including Catapult and Epiphany Magazine, where she was a monthly columnist. Bialecki is the author of the poetry collection, Youth, as well as the novel Purple Gold (ANTIBOOKCLUB).
Alongside her writing, she’s completing her Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification through the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. When she’s working with clients, Bialecki emphasizes finding clarity and authentic voice, alongside techniques to be present while writing. To learn more, visit her website or follow her on TikTok or Twitter.