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What’s the Point of Purposeless Writing?

I didn’t always know why I was writing. Now I do — kinda. That’s enough.

When I was a (younger) aspiring writer, I worried that writing was a self-indulgent exercise. In a sense, perhaps, it was: I wanted to write in order to prove myself, win praise, and be accepted, and thus, I assumed art-making — my number one and only ambition — was itself corrupted by this desire.

I remember long conversations with my high school girlfriend where she explained her ambition: to be a social worker, to help people live decent, empowered lives. Even then, in my head, I compared myself to her and felt myself coming up short.

What did I want? To sit around and daydream? And then to write those dreams down?

More than anything, what I longed for was a route to complete self-expression. I didn’t know why, and I had no idea what for, but I felt something and I wanted to spend my life discovering ways to express what I felt.

I didn’t think about why I wanted to express it, it was just an urge — pure and simple. Creating art, writing, was a way to act on that urge. To exhume what I felt inside.

* * *

I wrote because I had BIG feelings, and I wanted to get them OUT.

I had sadness that I wanted to put on the page. I had confusion I needed to parse. I had a heavy heart which I felt the urge to articulate, and longing which demanded to take the form of specifically articulated phrases.

But when I did get to the business of crafting these feelings into words, the results were often (usually) underwhelming.

“This is well written,” one friend told me when I shared a pile of stories with her that I’d spent half a decade crafting. “But it reads kind of like a journal. A really well-written journal.”

After picking myself up from a puddle of self-pity, I asked: What was missing?

What was missing was the point.

And the point, was purpose.

* * *

It’s noble and beautiful to express yourself in art, in writing, in words. It feels good, it’s therapeutically healthy; it’s a powerful way to clear your head, calm yourself, and sort through difficulties. But personal writing (journaling, diaries, pro-con lists, blogs) isn’t always art.

Art is connective; it reaches out. It seeks to do something external in the world.

Eventually, I had to reckon not just with the urge to write, but with what lurked — often silently — beneath that urge.

I developed and began to work through these questions:

  • What effect did I want my work to have on the world?
  • What did I hope readers would feel, think, and take away from my work?
  • Who did I want readers to become because of, and after interacting with, my work?
  • What impact did I hope to have on the world through art?

The process of asking these questions helped me dig deep: past the raw desire to spill feeling onto the page, past the potentially solipsistic urge to be seen, noticed, heard. Past the instinctual and automatic and into new terrain.

I didn’t write the answers down, I just asked and asked and asked.

Eventually, I found myself coming out the other end, along with something new: an understanding of intention, of direction — of purpose.

Now when writing feels painful, because the process is difficult, or the subject matter is uncomfortable, or overly personal, or even traumatic, or when my prose itself is just bad — I ask myself those questions again, and I remind myself why I’m writing.

For a second.

Then I ignore the answers and get back to work.

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