The Workshop #02
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Before you get into the practical you have to delve into the principles of the thing. The how can only be framed in terms of the why. And why you should write, why you should bother, is a foundational question that few would-be writers seem to ask. And those who do ask it rarely delve into that question until a truly satisfactory answer is discovered. Perhaps because there is no neat and easy answer. But it’s a question that I would argue the writer must ask themselves. So let’s do just that, and see what answers come to the surface.
The Material Answer
Q: Why write?
A: Because there’s money to be made.
We can call this ‘The Side Hustle response.’ And it is by no means an invalid one. Like Samuel Johnson- himself one of the all-time great writers- once said: ‘No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.’ It’s straightforward, this answer, it’s honest, and if upon questioning why you are interested in writing the word ‘money’ springs back from your heart then this unmuddies the waters enormously.
All of the ‘rules’ for writing are particular ways of achieving an underlying aim. This is why all rules can eventually be broken, because there is more than one way to skin a cat. Knowing that the aim is money thus dictates the rules that you will be playing with. To make money via words means persuasion is needed, clarity. The best prose is the prose that converts. An artiste might see ‘one weird trick’ type headlines as being corny, deceptive, unaesthetic, but if they work, they work. Right?
The writer-for-money experiments with the tried-and-true until they hit upon something that works. And when they find that thing they milk it for all it is worth. The copywriter finds the product, the market, the positioning, and the pitch and then get to work being as prolific as possible. The money-focused fiction writer finds the genre, the audience, the hook, and the formula and then gets to work being as prolific as possible. Artfulness and craft are always a bonus, but if they stand in the way of churning out the material then time spent on such niceties is ultimately time wasted. It’s like over-engineering parts of a vehicle. If the catalytic converter lasts for way longer than the rest of the engine then in strictly monetary terms you can argue that the part is too good and that a simpler, less durable and thus quicker and cheaper to manufacture one would make more sense to use.
So, if you’re in the writing game for the money alone, then Godspeed. I don’t begrudge that. But if that is your motivation then pursue it more aggressively. I believe in avoiding the middle in all things. Don’t be wish-washy about it. Commit to the cash and study copywriting and marketing intently. Master those crafts.
Commerce can be artful and art can be commercial, but conflating the two when your answer to ‘why write’ points firmly to one side is how mediocrity seeps in, whether it be in terms of the bottom line or in terms of the power of the undiluted artistic expression.
Now, with all of that being said, writers as a rule are not primarily money driven. It seems to be a part of the temperament. It comes with the territory, for whatever reason. It’s certainly that way with me. Now I’m not saying that makes me and people like me superior or more ethical. It is quite possibly the opposite. It may well be a sickness, a malignant manifestation of Johnson’s blockhead syndrome.
All I know is that I am not the only one thus afflicted.
The Utilitarian Answer
Q: Why write?
A: Because writing brings x, y and z benefits to the writer.
So let’s say you’ve ruminated on the question of ‘why write’ and the idea of money has not resonated. You’re not opposed to money but that is not the primary motivator, if you are being honest with yourself.
Then why do it?
Well if you look online or in popular nonfiction books that touch upon the topic, you will usually find variations on what we might call the Utilitarian answer. That is that writing does something for you. Which is to say that writing confers some benefit on the writer whether it be cognitively, psychologically, or practically. You should write according to this line of reasoning, because it is good for you.
And maybe it is. Journalling is a fantastic aid to memory and a way of seeing and correcting the patterns of behaviour that emerge in your life. A journal is like a free and always on call therapist that you can carry in your pocket. And the act of writing, whether privately or in a public online space, does have a way of clarifying your thinking. I often find that I truly don’t know what I think about something until I start to write about it. Thoughts left swirling in the head tend to lead to nothing but more vague and half-formed thoughts, but start to put them on the page and they become something tangible and useful and real.
All well and good.
This Utilitarian, or if you like therapeutic, type of writing is the meta-genre that most online written content conforms too. It is designed to be impressive rather than expressive. Which is to say it is there to create a (pre-determined) impression rather than to be a self-justifying emanation of the soul, which is what much of what we might call capital-A Art is.
Utilitarian writing then has a particular aim in mind- to impress, to please the audience- and so it has particular methods. This style of writing favours clarity, short sentences, comprehensibility, sharability and what we might call stickiness. It uses storytelling as a vehicle to achieve these ends. Sometimes. It can vary in its degree of cynicism, complexity and beauty and thus functions as a middle-ground between the bottom-line driven ‘Money’ writing that we talked about above and the more existential driven writing that we’ll get onto in a minute.
And content like this is fine, if you approach it with your eyes open. I only complain about it because it has now become both the primary form of writing online and confusingly the primary mode in which all writing is itself discussed. And that’s where it becomes a problem. If your answer to why write is to make money or to gain some benefit- whether it be the creation of a network, personal authority, an audience, better ideas, more peace of mind, and so on- Utilitarian content is a fine thing to both create and consume.
But if it’s not, then that stuff will lead you astray. Which is largely why I am both writing this piece today and why I have started this Workshop publication. To help rid my fellow ‘existentialist’ writers of some misconceptions they have no doubt picked up from consuming online content about writing and storytelling.
See, the funny part about teaching, as I am rapidly starting to gather, is that before you can facilitate any kind of learning you have to first walk the student through a sometimes quite prolonged process of unlearning. And if the general nature of online discourse is anything to go by, I see a lot of people who I view as being like younger versions of myself who have seemingly become completely muddled up as a result of Utilitarian content.
The Existential Answer
Q: Why write?
A: Because I have no choice.
The point I’m trying to make with this piece is that lots of beginners and would-be writers make what you might call a category error. They misidentify the domain of writing they are interested in and get themselves tied in knots. Hence why the question of ‘why write’ must be asked. It identifies the domain and thus tells you where to focus your attention. If you want to make money, studying poetic techniques will most likely yield a poor ROI. If you want to build a large online audience efficiently then you have to ‘add value’ in a way that isn’t too idiosyncratic or weird or new. You have to obey the Rules of Engagement, as it were.
But what if you want neither of these things? What if writing is just something you have to do? What if you have actually tried to quit writing before but that for some reason it won’t leave you alone? What if rather than to make money or to build a broad audience what you actually crave is to write a literary masterpiece? Well then my fellow poor wretch, that means you have the artistic temperament and are what we might call an existential writer.
You have the calling, or the curse, depending on how you look at it. The short-attention span, mimetic, dopamine-driven current world of noise and chaos and triviality is not particularly amenable to your dreams. And though that probably gets you down, you still can’t fully stop writing and just give in. If that’s the case, then the only way out- as far as I can tell- to to accept that absurdity and blindly carry on towards mastery of the written word.
Here I stand; I can do no other, as Luther once said.
And if this is the way you feel, then I am here to help, as much as I am able. Seeing as we are all stuck in this same boat, we may as well see if we can’t figure out how to master this writing thing together. I mean, what else are we going to do?
Do you have any writing questions or issues you want me to discuss? Get in touch via the comments or email and I’ll tackle them in future issues of The Workshop.