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Why do you write what you write?


Lately, I’ve been asking why questions of myself. 

It's funny, one of the first rules of counseling is “don’t ask why questions.” This is because the word why can make people feel interrogated. Defensive. Judged. And I understand this. I really do. Questions like why do you write what you write can be more sensitively reworded as let's explore the motivations behind your writing choices. But it seems odd to worry about being sensitive, when the person I’m asking questions of is me.

I’m a baby author. Actually I’m not even that. I’m prenatal still. That is, I’ve sold a book, which is awesome, but it won’t be out for a while now, which is an experience not unlike having a growing creature squirm and kick inside of you, knowing you’re the only who can feel it. But as literary gestation marches on, I know that I want to grow as a writer. And I also want to understand who I am as an author. What is my purpose? My point of view? My philosophy? I guess I believe that if I understand this about myself, then I can do whatever it is that I do, better.

But how to figure this all out? Well, first off, I started by making a list of common themes across stories I’ve written. This was actually a RTW prompt from last year, so I referred to my post from then and added to it. Next, I looked specifically at different character arcs to try and understand how it is that I think people come to change (unsurprisingly, one thing that stood out was self-knowledge). Finally, I worked to define my own values and belief system, and I also attempted to deconstruct where those values come from (family of origin, friends, education, media, physical environment, personal experiences with privilege and oppression, spiritual influences, historical events during my childhood, and so on).

Now my goal is to synthesize all of these concepts into one singular vision so that I can complete the sentence:

I write what I write because__________________.

This process is still a work in progress for me, but I’d love to hear from you. How do you understand the reasons behind why you write the things you do? Are there common themes/philosophies/values that show up again and again in your work? Do you think this type of writerly introspection is valuable? 



Stephanie Kuehn

Stephanie is the William C. Morris award-winning author of Charm & Strange, Complicit, Delicate Monsters, and The Smaller Evil.

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29 comments:

  1. I know it sounds knee-jerk, but I write what I write because it's my passion. I LOVE my world and my characters. I can't not write it.

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    1. I think that sounds amazing! Passion to connect with individual characters and places is a great motivator. Happy writing!

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  2. A lot of what I write stems from asking what if questions, but that only puts me on the surface of the story. When I start to dig deeper I always find roots from my morals and beliefs in addition to life lessons I've learned intertwined into what I write. It seems to just come out of me subconsciously and I often don't realize until it's staring me right in the face.

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    1. Plus I've found that if I stopped writing, I'd lose a piece of myself.

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    2. Thanks, Jamie. Yes, I've found the same thing: that those values are always there whether intentional or not. And sometimes writing brings clarity to what those values are.

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  3. As a staunch advocate of both why questions and pregnancy metaphors for writing, I really love this post. Just the other day I started writing a horror story after many, many months of whining about my inability to write. Tension, anxiety, and absolute fear from the unknown stopped preventing me from writing when I channeled it into writing.

    Sometimes, I write because I'm an otherwise basket case.

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    1. So glad that you are writing again. There's so much to be said for the positive mental benefits of engaging in the creative process, so thank you for sharing that. And yay for why questions and pregnancy metaphors. I like them too. :)

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  4. I write what I write because I like to explore certain dilemmas that I deal with in my real life through the experiences of my characters. I love to delve deep into their inner worlds and figure out what makes them tick to figure out what makes me and others tick.

    I write to understand whatever baffles or just intrigues me, and to find out why they baffle or intrigue me.

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    1. Ah, I love this. The idea of working out the mysteries of the world through writing makes so much sense. Thank you!

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  5. I write what I write because the characters and story nag at me long enough. I usually try to talk myself out of a story for a while before I write it down. I know I should keep a note book, but my mind works for me. I just keep thinking about it and thinking about it until I'm dreaming scenes and spending my time in the car and the shower imagining it, and eventually I give in. Whatever I don't remember when I sit down at the computer, I figure wasn't memorable, so why keep it.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your process! I think it's wonderful how you've learned to trust your own instincts and how you have faith that you write is what you need to write. Brilliant!

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    2. William, I do the exact same thing. I tend to think out all my scenes and novels and characters in my head before I ever write anything down. Long car rides are the best environments for novel planning! I'm glad I'm not the only one who does this. =)

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  6. I write because it helps me make sense of the world around me.

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  7. I write because I'm compelled to by the stories in my head that are (hopefully) entertaining, thought provoking, moving and too good to be kept to myself. If a story of mine connects an audience, great or small, and they get something out of my writing, then I'm happy.

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    1. What a great insight. I think the connection with others part is so important. It's always so interesting to me how such a solitary task (writing) can really be a relational process in the way it allows one to communicate things that can't communicated any other way. Happy writing!

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  8. I write because my characters become real to me the more I think about them and so it's nearly impossible not to. I feel as though I'm creating life and allowing my characters to grow whenever I type a sentence. To be honest, their influence on me is so powerful that they hinder my ability to function in public. Especially at work! I daydream until I'm rummaging about in search of a pen and paper to write bits of their story down.

    Long story short: my characters have a voice and a story that I desperately want to convey. And if the public can fall in love with their struggles and triumphs the way I did, I'll be overjoyed. : )

    Lovely post, by the way! I haven't had the courage to comment on YA Highway until now, so thank you!

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    1. Oh, thank you, Alexia. I'm really happy that you commented! I love that daydreaming feeling too, when you're mind is so firmly embedded in another world. And I love that so many people commenting on this post all feel the same type of compulsion to get their stories down. It's nice to know these processes are shared by others! :)

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  9. I write to create. I love the feeling of creating a world that does not exist. It may be a world that could exist or one that expands the boundaries of possibility. Either way, I create it and it is mine.

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    1. Yes, that makes so much sense to me--finding joy in the act of creation and being able to lay claim to a world, a vision, as all yours. That's such a powerful experience. Thank you.

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  10. I write for the same reason the Inklers write. I love my genre (sci fi/ fantasy/ war novel) but I dislike most of the fiction that comes out of it. YA sci fi tends to be too idealistic or flat, and adult sci fi tends to have a lot of sex and other adult themes that I don't care for. Aside from that, I'm just a hard person to please as far as plot goes.

    But above all else, I write for myself. I write because I have a deep seated NEED to write. It's akin to breathing. If I don't write, I'll die. Even if I never publish (which I do want to, trust me) I can say "I wrote a novel." Actually, several novels. And I can revisit that world whenever I want.

    Also, I've been working with these characters for ten years of my life. They are as close to me as any of my real life family members. It'd be a shame to let them go.

    I guess, in simple terms, I write because I want to. I really don't have a reason beyond that.

    I feel like I want to write my own blog post about this... =)

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    1. Please let us know if you do write a blog post, Rachel! That deep need to write seems to be a common theme, but maybe there's also something to that urge to create what you aren't finding in your genre. Very interesting!

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    2. http://zyearthdefender.blogspot.com/2012/08/camp-nanowrimo-day-13-why-did-you-start.html

      Blog post achieved! It ended up going a direction I didn't expect. Why do we START writing? What compels us to pick up the pen for the first time anyways?

      That's almost as interesting as why we keep writing. =)

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    3. Oh, great post, Rachel! Thanks for sharing that. I love to read about how people first got into writing.

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  11. I'm constantly wondering why someone believes so strongly about an issue, when there are others who believe quite the opposite. For example, how can a person believe with all their hearts that they would never survive an abusive, alcoholic parent or spouse, but when they find themselves in that exact situation they surprise themselves and come out stronger. I think my characters are this way. My current main character is strong in co many ways, but when faced with her greatest fear, readers and I don't know if she can rise above until the story is complete.

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    1. Thanks, Heather. I love the way you phrased this. I can definitely relate to that feeling of learning new things and finding new meaning from characters...writing can help make sense of the chaos around us sometimes.

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  12. I write historical because that's what I grew up reading (both historical fiction and books written in bygone eras), because history was always my favorite/best subject, because my degree is in history, because most of my hobbies and interests revolve around history and historical things (antique cars, silent film, coins, old books, vinyl records). Though I sometimes do soft sci-fi, and some of my stories encroach into more contemporary times as their storylines progress, history is my first and greatest reading and writing love.

    I've literally grown up with the majority of my characters, and I love how natural it feels to write about them after so many years together, how fulfilling it feels to have seen my original generation into grandparenthood and great-grandparenthood, to pass the torch to characters who are finally my age-mates, who came of age at the same time I did. Even if historicals aren't so popular anymore in YA, and if long family/town historical sagas seem to be a harder sell in the adult market than they were a few decades ago, it's what comes naturally to me.

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    1. Carrie-Anne, while I don't write historical fiction, I completely understand what you mean by growing up with your characters and watching them create new generations. I feel like I'm as close to my made up characters as I am to some of my own friends. =D

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    2. Ahh, growing up with your characters. I love that image. Your characters must really be like family now and that fulfilling passing-the-torch experience from one generation to the next sounds so rich. Thanks Carrie-Anne and happy writing!

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Item Reviewed: Why do you write what you write? Rating: 5 Reviewed By: stephanie kuehn