What’s the Point of Purposeless Writing?

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

An unfinished work by the writer’s father

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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