(The What, the Why, and the How of Good Writing)
A few days ago I posted a poem entitled “outdoor backstroke” on my blog “From Under the Pages.” For some reason, my blog readership the following two days shot up to almost 300 percent the previous weekly average. I got a “spike in stats” notice from WordPress: my hourly views had reached 50 times the previous average. I kept getting those lovely little orange “like” stars and “follower” symbols on my dashboard. I drank it up. “People really like my writing!” I told myself. It really felt good.
I derived an unexpected feeling of gratification, even pleasure, from this sudden surge of approval. It compelled me to check my dashboard every few minutes to see who else was following, and how many more likes I had gotten. And in the midst of it, I noticed how dependent I seemed to be getting on those little orange stars and plus signs. They signaled approbation, encouragement, even… love? They satisfied some inner desire, some overlooked need, some obscured, ravenous, approval-mongering id.
I even felt the temptation to try to replicate my newfound success by giving my readers more of what they liked–just so I could get more cascading stars and plus signs.
Then I stopped to ask myself how I was going to reproduce that kind of reader approval.
At about the same moment came another question: what. What had I done to attract so much appreciation?
And finally, I asked myself why—a double why. #1: Why did I write the poem in the first place? (a metacognitive question). And #2: Why was I so eager for people to like and follow my posts? (a self-analytical question).
After careful reflection, I answered the how, the what, and the why all at the same time:
Why: I write because some things are worth expressing, for the sheer sake of expression: to relive and share an experience; to translate into words a feeling, a moment, an idea. What: People respond to writing that expresses an experience truly, as the writer perceived it. If I am fully in the moment when I write, and I am as honest as I can be to the action and the feelings, people instantly recognize this sincerity and it resonates with them. They see themselves in the situation, they experience it, and they learn something from it. So that answers the what, and it also answers the how: In order to continue to interest people in her writing, a writer must always be utterly honest. Ernest Hemingway said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.” In other words, only say what you know to be absolutely true and genuine to you. Don’t pretend, and don’t write for other people. Write for yourself.
Remembering to always write what is important and true to me, will keep me on track, I think. I don’t need to worry about pleasing others with my writing. But if my writing pleases people, then I’m very happy about that, too. Which takes us back to the second why: Don’t we all have a need for appreciation and recognition?