Recently, I came across this much-seen talk by Simon Sinek, where he describes a model for inspiring action and change. Essentially, Sinek suggests that for a person to inspire others, they need to not start with what they do that is worthy of following, or focus too much on how they do things, but instead discuss why they do what they do. His point being:
‘It’s not what you do, it’s why you do it.’
I was presenting this talk to a class, with the aims of discussing how language can persuade and motivate and change a person’s perception, but in exploring the concepts of Sinek’s talk, something else occurred to me that I thought would be quite useful to writing.
The thing is, in an earlier class I had been revisiting another much-seen and shared talk from Neil Gaiman, his ‘Make Good Art’ keynote address in 2012 to the University of the Arts. What occurred to me was a connecting thought between Sinek and Gaiman’s ideas. Particularly, it stemmed from a moment in Gaiman’s address where he describes his rather unplanned approach to a career in writing:
‘I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work.’
And with these two moments in mind, these two statements about creating and producing ideas, realisation loomed, like I was one of the apes in the opening sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Essentially, I have fallen into a trap of writing the wrong way, focusing too much on writing because I should be writing, rather than writing because it gets to the heart of why I want to write in the first place.
I think this is an easy, even necessary trap for anyone wanting to write for a living. A writer sits down, say, and wants to write a book. They plan and plot and furiously take notes, hoarding them into some disorganised structure that can allow the writing to take place. And so it does: words are written, pages even. Chapters form, and then are discarded. Opinions are included, and discounted, taken from a small selection of people that we either allow to read our writing in its primordial stage, or discuss the ideas with when they are still forming. Eventually, a draft emerges.
The focus is on the writing, on the production. Write and write and write, because otherwise the story isn’t written. The philosophy here is: if one writes a lot, one is a writer. We become focused on what we do, and forget why we do it.
Given the solitary and unstructured nature of writing as a profession, one of the pieces of advice often given is to treat it like a job. Have set hours and disciplines, and view it as a work pursuit, rather than a spare-time hobby. This clearly is a good thing for productivity. The danger here though is if we treat writing as work, it can start to feel like work and not writing. We lose sense of why we’re doing this, of why we chose to write this story, and why the story exists in our imaginations in the first place.
To counter this, I’ve tried to set up a handful of reminders, or questions, using Sinek’s suggestion for starting with the why, and taking Gaiman’s model of not letting writing turn into work.
Why are you writing this story?
Why are you the one to write this story?
Why is this story worth reading?
There could be more, but these seem central to me. They get to the core of the writing process. All other kinds of choices can be made, but if you lose sense of the belief you have in your story, about why it exists and why you’re writing it, the story can run aground.
Obviously, lots of words need to be written and, in order for that to happen, decisions about time and workload need to be considered. And there will be periods of time where the words will just be words, and the story will become drudgery because we all need to get black on white and churn the chapters out. And that’s fine, that’s acceptable. But only if we know where it’s coming from, and where it’s going to. Why we’re writing our story.
The story is what we’re doing. It’s the product we are selling.
We need to know how to achieve that, which requires sacrifice and time and effort.
But ultimately, neither the what nor the how matter if we don’t have a clear idea of why we are writing to begin with. Why this story is worth reading. It’s the difference between writing a story because you feel that’s what people will read, or writing a story and communicating through it a sense of why this story matters to you, and therefore will matter to them.
To finish, Gaiman mentioned a time when Stephen King gave him some advice about his career, which he now realises he ignored and regrets doing so.
‘This is really great. You should enjoy it.’
And not just because I can’t pass up referencing something King said, but enjoying our own work is a necessary thing, for any profession. Any job will become tedious and detrimental if we just get caught up in what we do day after day and forget the reasons behind it. If we believe in our story, if we believe in why we do it, then it will be enjoyable.
And the stories that work, the ones that I enjoy reading, seem to come from the same place.