Do You Want To Write, Or Do You Have To Write?

When it comes to desire, knowing what you want is key to determining how you will get it. And sometimes, figuring out what you don’t want will better help you know what you do want. You may not know until you’re in the middle of it. That’s OK.

My twin brother is an excellent cook. A long time ago I asked him why he didn’t go to school to become a chef, or work in a restaurant. “Because that would have taken the enjoyment out of it for me.”

Another one of my brothers has a knack for buying a used, somewhat beat up car, fixing it up, and reselling it for a profit. When I asked him why he didn’t do this as a profession, he replied pretty much the same way.

It’s an interesting thing that for some the thing they love to do is best enjoyed when there isn’t so much at stake, like drawing a salary from it or depending on it to pay the bills.

Yet in one of my first posts on this blog, I cited one of my favorite quotes from Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream: “If it’s not fun, why do it?” No matter what I did for work, I always tried to make that my criteria. Was it something I wanted to do? Was it fun? I took jobs that paid less because I knew I’d enjoy the environment or the people or the tasks more. And I quit jobs when they stopped being enjoyable.

Of course, the older I got, the harder it was to maintain this criteria. It was especially difficult, for example, to walk away from my last teaching position that came with a yearly salary, health insurance, and retirement benefits (difficult to get those things on a non-tenure track).

But I wanted to do what I loved. I still loved teaching, but I loved writing novels more.

I wrote about a friend for whom writing her first novel had been a lot of fun. It had since felt like work. I grappled with the same thing last year, when the cart came before the horse or, in this case, the contract came before the manuscripts were written, or in the case of Big Skye Littleton, the idea hadn’t even been conceived yet. It wasn’t a good way for me to work, I’d discovered. Writing then became something I had to do rather than something I wanted to do.

And now, when so much is riding on rankings and royalties, I wonder if writing will continue to be something fun, something I enjoy, something I want to do every day. Although I can’t imagine wanting to do anything else. Especially not as a job.

By the way, there is absolutely nothing wrong with writing for fun, or for your friends, or for yourself and no one else. Even if you’re writing novels. Or screenplays. Or short stories. There’s no rule that says you must publish, must find a way to make it your full-time job, must use it to pay the bills.

There’s also nothing wrong with making writing your full-time gig because you do love it so much.

Or walking away if it stops being fun.

I don’t know if I have a resolution or even a conclusion to this topic. Except to say this: When it comes to desire, knowing what you want is key to determining how you will get it. And sometimes, figuring out what you don’t want will better help you know what you do want. You may not know until you’re in the middle of it. That’s OK.

It’s even more OK to change your mind. Give yourself permission not to be a full-time writer, if you decide that’s what you don’t want. Give yourself permission to be a one-novel author (there are many out there). Give yourself permission to be a hobbyist. Or give yourself permission to do it for as long as you love it, as long as you want to, as long as it’s fun.

As for me… well, I’m still having fun with the writing part of this gig. I think I’ll keep it up a little while longer.

Please Note: From now on I will be posting every Wednesday instead of Tuesdays and Thursdays. I hope you’ll continue to follow us!

 

better to know

When You Write, Keep These 5 Things in Mind

Writing is always a series of choices.

There are certain aspects of writing that, like driving a car, have become instinctive. You don’t need to think too much about what words to use when sending a text to a friend (if you even use words at all!), nor do you need to proofread a shopping list. Other kinds of writing, however, may need a great deal of care and consideration: a technical manual for how to build or use a piece of life-saving equipment. A science fiction novel or a murder mystery. A screenplay or television series pilot.

What all these kinds of writing have in common is that, whether consciously or not, the writer is applying the rhetorical situation, and some do it more successfully than others.

Here’s the definition of rhetoric I always supplied my English 101 students (and family members who were perplexed about what I was studying in graduate school):

The art and skill of using language to communicate and/or persuade.

Every rhetorical situation consists of these three elements:

  • Purpose
  • Audience
  • Text

We may talk about them as if they’re separate entities, but in the rhetorical situation they’re inextricably linked, each one playing off the other.

Two more elements determine the effectiveness of the first three:

  • Style
  • Stance

 

rhetorical situation graphic

I like to demonstrate the rhetorical situation by using something ubiquitous: a Facebook status update.

Here’s one I recently posted on my personal Facebook page:

Funny/not funny how when I need to clean, all I want to do is write, and when I need to write, all I want to do is clean.

The kitchen is a disaster. Which means some kick-ass blog posts are gonna happen.

 

So let’s examine the five elements by conducting a rhetorical analysis.

  1. Purpose

When we talk about purpose, we’re asking is my call to write, my reason for writing? What do I want to achieve by writing this?

  • In the case of my status update, any/all of these defined my purpose:
  • To communicate something ordinary in an extraordinary way.
  • To express a truth.
  • To express disinterest in cleaning.
  • To communicate that disinterest in a humorous way.
  • To inform readers.
  • To make readers laugh.

 

Some of these were conscious, others less so. I definitely wanted to make my readers laugh. And writers especially know that when writing becomes difficult, the temptation to do something else becomes very strong. I also made an observation by noting that the temptation/distraction stimulus works in reverse.

I wasn’t consciously thinking about informing my readers, “Hey, I need to clean my house,” but Facebook is typically the vehicle for posting the mundane. Was this information, they absolutely needed to know? No. And thus, because of that, I had to find a way to make it appealing, and so I made it funny. (Or tried to.)

 

2. Audience

I am quite conscious of audience when I’m posting on Facebook. I think many are, and that’s what figures into what they will and will not post. My Facebook audience on my profile page consists mostly of family and good friends. It also consists of former students, and people I have yet to meet in person—namely, fellow authors and friends of other friends.

As a wordsmith myself, how do I want to reach these readers/viewers? For one thing, I want to convey humor and wit. I also, at times, want to convey the courage of my convictions. Sometimes I share snippets of dialogue between my husband and me. And sometimes I just want to share photos of my cat or my meals, like most people.

And, of course, I want them to read my books. Thus, rather than say, “Buy my book!” I’d much rather embody the qualities of my books in my status updates. Storytelling. Dialogue. Humor. Relationships. Love.

Do I do this every time? No. Sometimes I’m just being me, speaking directly to the people I most care about. However, no matter what I post I am aware, at all times, that my message has a reader.

 

3. Text

When I say “text,” I mean the medium or genre that houses the writing—a text, tweet, status update, email, open letter, blog post, essay, term paper, dissertation, short story, screenplay, novel—all of these qualify as a “genre.”

Facebook status updates can sometimes run the length of a blog post or an article, or it could be as brief as a text or a tweet. In the case of the above example, I didn’t need to write something lengthy. It’s Facebook, after all. Not a novel. And my subject was mundane. Brevity was best.

 

4. Style

I’ve taken and taught classes devoted entirely to writing style. When I’m talking style, I’m talking word choice. How am I going to put the words together in a way that not only communicates my message, but also identifies and represents me as the writer? What words to I use to establish credibility, to stir readers’ emotions, to persuade them to see my point of view or take action? If I want to make readers laugh, then what words do I use? How do I write in a way that readers know the status update is from me, Elisa, before they even see my name attached?

The word “kick-ass” (is it one word?) is a giveaway, for one thing. The colloquial “gonna” is another; its intention is to make the reader not only read the words but hear my New York accent, my voice. And the use of “antithesis”—putting opposites together: when I need to clean, all I want to do is write, and when I need to write, all I want to do is clean.

 

5. Stance

Stance refers to attitude or viewpoint in approach. If I were taking a position on a political issue, then my stance would be impassioned, but not angry. A desire to embrace readers as co-thinkers rather than shout them down or belittle them for having a different position. If I’m writing a comedic novel, then my character might be sarcastic or dry in his or her delivery.

When I’m writing novels, I don’t think consciously about stance; rather, I think the characters, story, and characteristics of the novel’s genre (mystery, chick lit, etc.) all play a role in determining stance.

In the case of my status update, my stance was to simply take a humorous approach rather than outright complain about how much I was dreading cleaning my kitchen.

 

Good writing is the result of good choices. Bad writing is the result of bad choices.

Good writing is also a well executed rhetorical situation. And the good news: regardless of what level you’re at in terms of craft—beginner or seasoned—you engage in rhetorical situation, and you can make it work if you take the time to make those choices. And if you are a beginner, remember what driving a car was like: at first, you need to think of everything at once. But the more you do it, and the better you get, the more those decisions and actions become second nature.

 

I did clean my kitchen, by the way. And my next status update?

Cleaning is a love letter to your home.

 

Activity/Discussion: Conduct a rhetorical analysis on the follow-up status update. What was the reader’s purpose? As a reader, how do you respond or react to it? How does the stance differ from its previous status update? Share your thoughts about it in the comments!

What is The Writer’s Habit?

Covey’s definition of a habit jumped out at me: the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire. Moreover, “In order to make something a habit, we need all three.”

In essence, that’s what I was communicating; that to be a writer, one needed knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do it, or craft), and desire (wanting to do it), and that each feeds off the other.

Knowledge, Skill, and Desire

It took me at least seven years to finish my book The Writer’s Habit. I knew I wanted to write a book predominantly for aspiring novelists using a rhetorical approach rather than a literary one. (That is, focusing on elements like audience, purpose, genre, stance, and style rather than plot, theme, symbolism, climax, and exposition.) That’s not to say one is better than the other. But, given my training in rhetoric and composition, it made more sense for me to approach novel writing from that perspective.

What I struggled with, however, was how to put the information together in a way that neither felt too textbook-y nor too I’m-trying-to-be-OnWriting.

It wasn’t until this year, as I was finally finishing the book, that I found the angle, the way to tie everything together. I had unearthed my copy of Stephen Covey’s renowned The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and read the first pages as a refresher. Covey’s definition of a habit jumped out at me: the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire. Moreover, “In order to make something a habit, we need all three.”

In essence, that’s what I was communicating; that to be a writer, one needed knowledge (what to do), skill (how to do it, or craft), and desire (wanting to do it), and that each feeds off the other.

And so, I organizing the book accordingly.

Knowledge (what to do)

In this section, I give a basic overview of the definition of rhetoric, its origins, and how to apply the rhetorical situation. I also discuss into writing for audience (and when to ignore them), writing what you know (and its sometimes misunderstood meaning), and the assertion that “writers write.”

 

Skill (how to do it)

Here is where theory meets practice. The most comprehensive section of the book, I introduce the craft of storytelling in which I feature these key components: narration and description, intention and obstacle, story structure, character development, dialogue, and setting. Many of this blog’s future posts will highlight lessons or features of each.

Additionally, I discuss the writing process, including drafting, organization and arrangement, stylistics, revision, and editing.

As with music and sports, the more you practice, the better you get.

Desire (wanting to do it)

The more I speak to aspiring writers, the more I believe that desire is what holds many of them back. And it’s not necessarily that they don’t want to do it, it’s that they’re afraid to do it. They’re afraid of not having the time, not being good enough, or old enough, or young enough, or rich enough, or smart enough, and so on. They fear failure. They fear success. They’re unwilling to persist. They’re unwilling to learn. They’re unwilling to commit. I say that not as a judgment, but as the reaction to that fear. I’ve been there, if not in the creative or the writing aspect, then certainly in the commitment as an entrepreneur.

This section of the book also touches on the business of being a published writer. I’ve learned even more since publishing The Writer’s Habit, and I look forward to sharing what I’ve learned.

Desire is the aspect of The Writer’s Habit that I tend to be most passionate about (although I definitely geek out when talking craft, process, and heck even just simple rhetorical situation stuff). And you’ll see why when I begin unveiling the online courses.

Overall, I aim not to teach writers to write, but to develop and master the intersection of knowledge, skill, and desire so that writing becomes a habit, regardless of the scope. And what I love is that its lessons are quite versatile.

Moreover, I don’t want to only share my successes, but also my mistakes. Like anyone else, I’ve made them, and I’ve come to see them as necessary stepping stones on the path toward actualizing my goals as a writer and an author.

 

The bottom line: I want The Writer’s Habit—and this companion blog—to convey the joy that is inherent in my writing as well as my process. Joy doesn’t necessarily mean the happy-feel-goods. Writing—especially as a job and a profession, can be arduous or laborious at times. In fact, sometimes it can be downright tedious and discouraging. But I can think of no better gig than one that allows me to use my imagination, connect with readers and other writers, and navigate through this life journey with humor, depth, and wordsmithing. I’m a lucky woman.

 

 Activity/Discussion: Do you see writing as a habit? How do you combine knowledge, skill, and desire? Do you think you need more practice or development in one of those components? Please respond in the comments!

Have you seen my author website? I invite you to visit and sign up for my author mailing list. You can also sign up here for The Writer’s Habit mailing list!

the writers habit cover