The Deep Level Why
I am a book coach, and no matter where they are in the writing process — beginning, middle or ready to pitch — the very first thing I ask every client is to tell me why they are writing the book they are writing.
I don’t want to know the surface-level why, which typically has to do with external measures of success such as money or fame or being on Oprah, or with the content of the book (which is the plot in fiction or the argument in nonfiction.) I want to know the deep level why.
(And yes, hat tip to Simon Sinek, author of Start With Why, absolutely. His book is one every writer should read. Including fiction writers.)
These are the questions a writer must ask themselves: Why do you care enough to write this book? Why are you motivated to spend so much time to capture your readers’ attention? Why are you choosing to spend your energy on this over all the other ways you could choose to spend your energy? Why does it matter to you?
The reason I ask is because that deep level why will inform every single page of your book. You may never state it, but your reader will feel it. Excellent writing has integrity to it — an alignment of the writer’s purpose and her words. It has a generosity of spirit, which comes from knowing your purpose. When you read books like that, you can feel the writer giving her whole self, and what you feel is that you have been seen, heard and known — and you feel incredibly grateful.
Try this at home; the next time you read a book that you just love, that you feel speaks to you, and seems to get inside your head, stop for a moment and consider what you would say if you could speak to the writer. Odds are very good it would begin with, “Thank you for writing this book.”
If the writer holds back — if you don’t say what you truly believe, or you don’t share the rawness of what you feel, or you don’t do the work of actually knowing any of that before you write — your work will be at risk of being flat and soulless. I sometimes use the word stingy to describe work like that. It’s a little harsh but it’s accurate: it feels like the writer is being stingy, like they haven’t really shown up.
A Case Study
I am coaching a writer whom I shall call Tobias. He is a staff reporter at one of the nation’s largest newspapers. In his day job, Tobias has to provide evidence and proof for every single word he writes. He has to strive to keep his opinion out of the mix. After all, when we read a news story, we are not looking for passion or a sense of the writer’s motivation or deep level why. The functioning of our society depends on this kind of fact-based journalism and we should all be grateful for the men and women who do it and those who fund it.
When Tobias came to me about a book idea, he wanted to do something different. He had fire in his belly. He had a first-row seat to a story he thought was deep, dramatic, and emblematic of our times. He had spoken to many of the players in this tale, and felt a great affinity for them and their plight. He felt called to tell their story in order to show their humanity.
That is a deep level why.
Tobias set about doing a massive amount of research, talking to hundreds of players in this story, leaving no stone unturned. It was an amazing thing to behold. And then he began to write scenes — and all of that fire he felt for the story was missing from them. The pages were gorgeously written, beautifully wrought, factually correct, filled with information, but ultimately flat. He had reverted to just giving the facts. 300 pages of writing like that would read like a textbook — or worse.
Readers of narrative want the fire, which comes from the why. So Tobias went back to his pages to work at bringing in the deep level why — the deep point he wanted to share about this slice of America.
The “why” is why writing is so hard
Doing that hard work of understanding your deep level why, and taking the time to put it onto the page in a way readers can connect with, is what is hard about writing a book. Sitting at the keyboard is not that hard. Pounding out 55,000 words is not that hard.
Writing with your whole self, however, makes you feel incredibly exposed. There is an exhilaration and also a terror — and I think that mix of things is what draws many people to book writing. We want that thrill and we want that fear. We know that’s where truth lies.
In my work, I have the honor or helping people get to these moments, and get through them. I have often wished I could capture the moment when a writer who is struggling to find their why finally gets it. It’s often a true “Eureka!” moment — a moment of total joy — followed by a gut punch.
It happened on this podcast
For 35 episodes now, I have been coaching two writers in the podcast MomWrites. They are both moms of young kids writing their first novels, and we work through their stories, as well as how to do this hard work with kids underfoot. Abby and Melanie are in it and I am past it — mom to two grown girls.
In this episode, Abby Lamb Mathews goes as deep as you can go. She had been struggling with her middle grade novel, trying to figure out what this protagonist really wants, what she’s really doing in this story, why we should care. Abby wasn’t getting it and wasn’t getting it — and then on this episode, out of the blue, she got it.
And we were right there to witness it.
It’s not pretty. There are tears — the gulping, sobbing kind. There is grief and mourning — the serious kind, for a beloved friend who died.
And Melanie and I sit there trying to help Abby through it, both as a person and as a storyteller. She finally comes to see why she is drawn to tell the tale she has been writing. She connects her grief to this story of this middle grade girl that wasn’t going quite right.
It’s an incredible gift to hear what it sounds like — that moment of a writer glimpsing the deep level why.
Whether or not you are a mom or a dad, if you are committed to writing stories that matter, this is the one episode of MomWrites you should listen to.
Click HERE for Episode 34: It Always Goes Dark