Why I Write? (Hint: Not Because I “Must”) – a guest post from Jennifer Grant

[Today’s guest post is from Jennifer Grant, a wonderful writer and an outstanding encourager, who brings both to bear in this piece on writing. How can you not enjoy reading someone who can put the Rolling Stones, Star Trek and a dog named Shiloh all into one article? ]


Not Because I Must

Some writers talk about their chosen profession as though it’s better described as a compulsion:

“I write because I must,” they sigh.

My dog Shiloh seems to understand his habit of chasing squirrels in the same way; when he sees one nosing around the yard, he must try to catch it.

A Star Trek devotee might explain the need to attend a convention by saying he must (boldly) go.

Chided for drenched wet socks and shoes, children may defend their choice to jump in rain puddles by saying they “just had to.”

But the writer who “must” write is expressing something qualitatively different than the dog, the Trekkie, or the puddle-jumping child. In short, the “I must write” writer seems to be wearily obeying an internal directive and lacks the panting, the giggles, and the joy.

Writers, including myself, are arguably happier (or at least less uneasy) when we are regularly practicing our craft. Some of us – again, myself included – routinely confess that we can’t begin to understand something until we write about it.

But the idea that we must write? I don’t think it’s true. If we stopped, would the sun still rise? Would human hearts, including our own, continue to reoxygenate blood? Would Adam Levine continue to insist that he has the moves, like, well you-know?

(Um, yep. On all three counts.)

If It’s Not that I “Must,” Why Do I Keep Writing?

Here are three reasons I write, in order of most to least mundane:

1.      I write because I can do it from home. (Or, “It fits with my other vocation: parenting.”)

2.      I write because I like my colleagues. (Or, “Writers are soulful folks to know.”)

3.      I write because it’s how I make sense of life. (Or, “I can only figure stuff out when I write about it.”)

Reason 1: I can do it from home

Whether my desk has been tucked away in an English department or in a cubicle in a high rise, working in the same office space day after day knocks me off-balance.

After a week or two in a new place, I start imagining that I’m a laboratory rat in a maze. I can almost sense a research scientist recording my journeys down the hall to the copy machine and back, marking a chart with careful, orange dotted lines.

As I push back my chair to fill my coffee mug, I can almost hear a voice narrating, “Today the subject made a detour from the usual route, took four additional steps, and placed something in the third drawer of the filing cabinet. Only time will tell if this is a new pattern for her.”

Besides avoiding the “lab rat” syndrome, working from home affords me the opportunity to check in with my kids after school when the events of their days are fresh in their minds. I like knowing what was the most stomach-turning thing that happened at the lunch table that day, hearing what they’re working on in art class, and more. As my eldest approaches college, I’m aware that this “four kids at home” time is short and I want to be present for it.

I also like breaking up my workday by stirring whatever is going in the crockpot or nuzzling my dog.

It’s a privilege to work from home; I know it.

Reason 2: I like my writing colleagues

Writers, or at least the ones I am fortunate to know, are generous, sharp-witted folks who gather around an idea and appreciate the perspectives of people very different from themselves. They see the meaning in things, are quick to listen and slow to judge, and appreciate the importance (given their exposure to “haters” in the comments sections, rejection letters, and confounding editors) of being gentle with their friends. In short, they are people with open hearts. (They also tend to have superb senses of humor.)

My writing friends and I, year by year, take ourselves less seriously and our work more seriously. We maintain – most days, anyway – loose grasps on our adolescent desires for wealth, fame, and for everyone to like us.

My writer friends make me feel seen. They understand that as much as I long to work alone, being a writer can feel exceptionally lonely sometimes. They understand that a pre-existing condition of being a writer often is to have a slightly (ahem) over-sensitive nature. In other words, they give me a pass when I’m weepy and have lost all perspective, and they tenderly pull – or yank – me back on track.

Reason 3: It’s how I best make sense of life

I write because it is how I navigate my life. Until I wrote columns and a book about my daughter’s adoption, I didn’t take the time to understand why I felt like I had post-partum depression after she came home. Until I wrote about these tangly issues, I’d felt silenced by one-dimensional arguments that demonized all adoption. Writing Love You More was freeing, and it made me a better “adoptive” parent.

Likewise, until I wrote MOMumental, I wasn’t sure why certain parenting practices felt critical to me or why family was so gnawingly important to me. But as I wrote (and wrote and wrote), things became clearer. I gained insight into what drives me, what are my wounds, and what makes my heart fill with joy.

And, speaking of joy, that too is another reason why the “I must write!” writers rub me the wrong way. For me, being a writer is a privilege. Finding just the right way to articulate something – always after editing my work many, many times – is deeply satisfying. On occasion, I read a sentence (or paragraph) I’ve written and re-written and say, “Ooh. Yes. That’s good. That’s exactly what I meant.”

That brings me joy.

Although – like all the real writers I know – I routinely get disheartened and second-guess my calling and think everyone is secretly conspiring to discourage me, the actual thing of it – the writing – helps me better understand the world and my place in it and let go of damaging messages and the people who convey them.

I feel blessed to spend my days with my itchy, unfinished thoughts, highest hopes, and memories and, like a character in a fairy tale who can only do magic when no one else is around, try to spin them into gold.

Jennifer Grant is the author of two books: Love You More: The Divine Surprise of Adopting My Daughter and MOMumental: Adventures in the Messy Art of Raising a Family. She is currently at work on Disquiet Time: A Devotional for Ordinary Skeptics and 12: A Daybook for Women. Find her online at jennifergrant.com or on Twitter @jennifercgrant.

My dog Shiloh, gleeful as ever. (Maybe he just chased a squirrel.)

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27 Responses to Why I Write? (Hint: Not Because I “Must”) – a guest post from Jennifer Grant

  1. Aimee Byrd says:

    Beatiful ending. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this, Jennifer. I wholeheartedly agree! My unfinished thoughts are itchy–great word. And getting to know other writers has been such a reward.

  2. Thanks Aimee! It was a meaningful exercise – Thanks Tim for asking me to do it. Highly recommend that all writers take time to mull (in writing, of course) this question every so often.

  3. Tim says:

    Jennifer, thanks so much for writing this. You’ve opened new insights for me on what it means to write and be a writer, and frankly I can see that I have a long ways to go still. But one thing I know and completely agree with is your conclusion that writing is a privilege. In fact, I see it as a gift from God and an opportunity to minister to teh people he’s put in my life.

    Oh, and about that narrator observing you in that lab rat phase? I couldn’t help but hear John Cleese’s voice reading the lines.

  4. Jen, beautiful as always. “My writer friends make me feel seen. They understand that as much as I long to work alone, being a writer can feel exceptionally lonely sometimes.” Yes. Glad to count you among my writer friends!

  5. Haha – Tim! Yes on John Cleese narrating that!

    And Keri – right back at you.

  6. Jeannie says:

    What you’ve said here makes so much sense to me. I agree with your point about the “I must write” cliche. I don’t see my writing as a compulsion in that way; so it’s tempting to think, well, if I don’t have that compulsion maybe I’m not a “real” writer. But happiness from practicing my craft? THAT makes perfect sense.

  7. Yes, I’m with you Jeannie. I can go months not writing but just reading, thinking, and catching up on paperwork and laundry. The world doesn’t stop spinning. But practicing my craft does bring me joy – and make me a better writer. And lying fallow sometimes has its benefits.

  8. simpsonamy says:

    Wonderfully written and so true! I relate to everything you said, and I also count this life a tremendous privilege.

  9. monax says:

    I was blessed—most wonderfully—in reading this. Thank you.

    Especially the confession that we “can’t begin to understand something until we write about it.”

    “And, speaking of joy. . .” Jennifer Grant writes, “Finding just the right way to articulate something—always after editing my work many, many times—is deeply satisfying. On occasion, I read a sentence (or paragraph) I’ve written and re-written and say, “Ooh. Yes. That’s good. That’s exactly what I meant.”

    This satisfying labor of re-writing and editing reminds me of what Elie Wiesel said: Writing is not like painting where you add. It is not what you put on the canvas that the readers see. Writing is more like a sculpture where you remove, you eliminate in order to make the work visible. Even those pages you remove somehow remain.

    Writers are artists working in the foundational medium of reality. They are the true arbiters of reality. And words are magic, if you know the right ones and how to arrange them.

    I really like how this ended:

    “I feel blessed to spend my days with my itchy, unfinished thoughts, highest hopes, and memories and, like a character in a fairy tale who can only do magic when no one else is around, try to spin them into gold.”

    loved this!

    Personally, when no one else is around and I’m afforded time to write, these are precious moments that involve nothing of the loneliness I sometimes feel when I’m with people. For as I open myself up to write in the privacy of my sanctuary—a great cloud of witnesses reveal themselves to me, and it is they who who give me voice. . . and even understanding.

    My mother once asked me, she said, “David, what is it that make you feel most loved.”

    After thinking about it for a time I got back to her, “Mom, I feel most loved, by being understood.”

    And that’s why I write—for the love of it! And for understanding.

  10. Pingback: Thoughts on Writing | Finding Divine Inspiration

  11. David – thank you for writing (writing this comment, and writing!). Your comment regarding the “great cloud of witnesses” is quite moving to me, and – like you – I believe I feel most loved when I am understood. (And feel most hurt/unloved when I feel misunderstood.) Thank you for your thoughtful response. All best in your work!

  12. Lesley says:

    Just book marked this on delicious so I can re-read it in the weeks, months and years to come. Sometimes it’s nice to have a reminder of why I write. Thanks, Jennifer!

  13. Thank you Lesley! I’m glad it spoke to you!

  14. “We can’t begin to understand something until we write about it” rings true to me. Life makes so much more sense once I’ve put ‘it’ onto paper (and by the way I do get more satisfaction from the pen and paper than the keyboard and screen). I suppose the ‘I must write’ is a bit relevant to me as my experience is that the LORD led me to write – and in that regard I must, in obedience to Him, write. While I expect He suggested it because it would bring joy and clarity for me, the fact that He told me to do it is sometimes the motivation to carry on… when discouragement might otherwise convince me to ‘abandon’ it. Whether we write as a directive, a compulsion or a pleasure, it is a craft that journals our personal growth as artist and human being, and that is a blessing, whatever the thought or emotion behind it.
    Thanks so much for your contribution to my thought processes, Jennifer.

    • Thank you Sarah! I understand what you mean, including the physical act of writing with pen on paper. Something about moving my hand along a piece of paper is good for me, scratching away.

  15. I love this! I think so often it is easy to think we have to do a lot of things in life. But it is all a choice. And it sounds like your choice fits with the rest of your life. You are not choosing to write and let life revolve around that. I am in much agreement with you and why I write for myself. Thanks for so eloquently speaking the words for me!

  16. Your post was so encouraging to me! I have always dreamed of being a writer of sorts, but have been discouraged by authors (whom I greatly admire) making statements like the ones you mention – in fact, it has made me think at times that I simply don’t have what it takes, since I don’t have that “need” to write. I wholeheartedly relate to your third reason for writing. I think best on paper – I can untangle my thoughts and emotions there. Thank you for giving me hope!!

    • Tim says:

      Go for it, Kate. All it takes to be a writer is to put words on paper (or a screen or whatever). Say what you want to say, and I bet there will be someone who wants to read what you write!

  17. Pingback: When to Adopt? Getting Answers from Jennifer Grant | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

  18. Tim – just rediscovered this from last May. I had so much fun writing this one too. You do inspire great posts with the questions you ask!

  19. Laruspress says:

    Thank you Jennifer – and Tim for re-posting. I write b/c I love the process and b/c I make sense from my frustration when I write.

  20. Pingback: Considering Adoption? Asking questions and Getting Answers from Jennifer Grant | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

  21. Pingback: The Ins and Outs of Adoption – from one who knows | Tim's Blog – Just One Train Wreck After Another

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