Show me the Why

Two Saturdays ago, I had the pleasure of joining a group of old friends and new at the Midwest Writing Center for a workshop called “Don’t Write For Free, Write for Profit!” led by journalist, ghostwriter, and publishing expert John Peragine. (He also knows quite a bit about wine.)

This was the second workshop I’ve taken from John P. Writer. I admit that in the workshop last fall, I was more or less still testing the waters about being a professional writer (as opposed to a literary writer, which is how I was trained and how I’ve been thinking for the past dozen years or so).  But this time, things stuck. For one thing, he made us work; we had to come up with a pitch that we could send to a magazine about an article we wanted to write. For another thing, I finally started to comprehend the difference in what a professional writer offers and what a literary writer does.

What we want to offer, as any kind of writers, is value. We want our work to be valuable; we want it to mean something to our reader. I’ve learned this from trying to build my website femmeliterate, a site meant to promote feminism, literature, and women in/and/of books. But the difference in value between the literary and the professional writer (as I’m calling them) is the why.

The why for the literary writer is everything and nothing. Why should you pick up my collection,  LESSON IN MANNERS, or in fact read any of my stories or essays? Well, why not? Literature is a getaway, an escape, a place we learn about ourselves and how to live in the world; it gives us insight into the human experience, it puts us in another person’s shoes, it transports us to a different world and then delivers us back to our own world, changed but whole. Etc. etc. etc.

Near the end of our workshop, when I shared the pitch I crafted, hoping simultaneously to impress my colleagues (I’m vain, yes) and to get useful advice, John asked the one question I hadn’t been asking myself about any of the writing projects boiling over in my brain. Why? Why should this magazine take your article? What is it going to do for their readers?

Why, indeed? Good question. Why should anything I write be out there in the world at all?

I tossed out an answer to explain why people should read the article I was pitching, but it was vague and on the order of the literary why: “enrich readers’ lives knowing about” blah blah blah. John let my answer slide so we could hear from other people, but he knew it wasn’t a proper answer, and so did I.

What value do I offer as a writer? Where’s the why?

It’s bound up with the more general question—”why do I write at all? for any reason?”—and my answer to that is, so far, a childish one: I write to tell the stories in my head. That’s as far as I thought that one through for many years, and it was enough to get me through graduate school and a satisfying career as a creative writing teacher.

But having and marketing and selling an actual book (rather than just racking up academic publications on the CV) has pressed me to consider why I want people to buy and read it. (Because I want them to enjoy it? I made this, so why not share? Because royalties will buy me two mochas?) But now this move from a literary writer to a literary/professional one is pressing me to think more in-depth about what my writing delivers in specific.

What do I want to teach? What do I want to share? What do I want to bring to my readers’ lives or experience that wasn’t there before?

Why should we try to publish this thing we created? Because we hope our communication has value to someone else. But what kind of value should that be, and how should it deliver?

If you’ve got your own thoughts on this topic, I’d love to hear your why. Join me at my upcoming workshop, Creating Other Worlds, held on Saturday, April 8 from 2 – 4 p.m. at the Midwest Writing Center in at the Rock Island Public Library. Or drop me a line here at the website or on my author Facebook page. Let’s come up with a definitive answer, once and for all, on what our writing contributes to the world. Then we can turn our thoughts and energy to actually writing.

Show me the Why

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