Finding the What Via the Why

Many years ago, I wrote the title story of my first collection, The Least You Need to Know. I remember when the narrative reached a point of resolution, and I sat there knowing something was still missing. I realized I didn’t know why my narrator was telling this particular story. That’s when I heard him say, “But that’s not the story I need to tell.” Okay, I thought, what is the story he needs to tell, a story so urgent he can’t help but speak. To answer that question, I had to recall a particularly shameful moment from my teenage years, a moment that still haunts me.

We spend a good deal of time facing the question of what to write, but we rarely consider why we write. The latter may be the more important question because its answer often taps into the heart of any individual piece, which is a way of saying the intention of the piece gets more fully realized. We become more aware of the nuances of characters and their situations. We more vividly portray the worlds we’re putting on the page. We have a better appreciation of image, metaphor, irony, surprise, and truth. If we know why we’re writing, we know more intimately what we’re writing.

The answer to why you write can change, of course, depending on each piece. To help you consider some possibilities, allow me to make some suggestions from my own inventory.

I sometimes write from guilt. Who doesn’t have regrets? Writing gives us the chance to dramatize the moments when we were less than we should have been. If we’re writing fiction, we can do so without explicitly confessing our shortcomings and sins. Do I confess, either directly or indirectly, in order to seek forgiveness, to hope for redemption, to better understand my motivations? Whatever the answers, the consideration of the questions gives me a more nuanced appreciation of my characters and their actions.

Shame is slightly different from guilt. The latter needs an awareness of wrongdoing. The former, though, adds the element of humiliation. Again, who doesn’t have moments of embarrassment that come from acts of poor judgment? If I put characters into a shaming sequence of events, I look at them through the lens of the humiliation I felt. In other words, I transfer my own complicated emotions to my characters. As a result, I feel what they feel more deeply, and I end up creating more complex characters.

What about curiosity? We sometimes forget that even as we’re writing, we’re also reading. What better way of increasing our investment with a particular piece than by making ourselves wonder what’s going to happen next? If we can remember times in our lives when we were on tenterhooks, we can better create the tension on the page. We can make better use of pacing, complications, and surprises. Likewise, if we can recall the emotions we felt, we can better portray our characters in similar anxiety.

So why do you write? To celebrate, to consider revenge (be careful that this one doesn’t cloud your vision while portraying characters and situations), to mourn, to love, to seek justice, to . . . you fill in the blank. Find out why you’re writing and you’ll better know what you’re writing. Knowing where we are in the work we’re doing will show us the many facets of what we’re trying to put on the page.


  1. Karen Shoemaker on July 12, 2021 at 8:02 am

    Another great post, Lee. Thank you for writing it. It has me thinking about why I write – again (that’s a question that seems unendingly fascinating to me). I, too, constantly mine my past for ways to understand the present. I think it helps me grow as a person in general. When I do it while writing fiction the whole process takes me deeper because of the addition of having to consider fully other points of view. I learn to see my feelings/actions from the outside and I learn a little something about compassion – for myself and others. I have a lot more to learn, but the process of writing helps me learn it.

    • Lee Martin on July 13, 2021 at 11:11 am

      Karen, thank you so much for sharing these thoughts. I’m particularly glad that you point out how writing forces us to look at people and the larger world from different perspectives that contribute not only to the depth of our writing but to our personal development as well.

  2. Sally Stiles on July 12, 2021 at 9:36 am

    Absolutely true. Thank you for writing this. Through writing, we ponder, we remember, we look deeper. And, if we are persistent, we discover.

    • Lee Martin on July 13, 2021 at 11:09 am

      Yes, Sally! It’s all about the persistence and the discovery. Thanks so much for sharing these thoughts.

  3. Christy White on July 12, 2021 at 1:00 pm

    Thank you. This came at just the right time.

    • Lee Martin on July 13, 2021 at 11:08 am

      I’m glad it was helpful, Christy. Keep doing the good work!

Leave a Comment