Write What and Why?

In the context of advising a friend about what kinds of books to read, Franz Kafka asserted, “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”

K’s assertion offers us writers plenty to think about, no matter if we agree. Whatever we believe books should be, or can be, we ought to know what we’re aiming for. Clarity about what we hope our books can accomplish may inspire us with direction, help us set boundaries, or give our work what writing teachers refer to as unity.

Some of us may respond to the Kafka quote (see a longer version here): “So what if I write not to awaken anybody with a blow to the head but to commend and strengthen their faith, which is constantly threatened by messages and temptations the world throws at them.”

That’s swell. You have a purpose, and a goal. But I’m betting most of us aren’t yet clear about our purpose for spending countless hours wrestling with ideas, or plots, or characters. So we ought to resolve to get that clarity.

Reading the journals or letters of a writer you admire might deliver some clues about what you are up to. Aside from Kafka’s, Flannery O’Connor’s letters come to mind. Or, since you read the Bible, how about praying for a clue from that most worthy and reliable source. Say you’re a romance novelist aiming to help people lift their spirits and keep hope alive. Then consider this line from the prophet Isaiah. “The Sovereign Lord has given me an instructed tongue to know the word that sustains the weary.”

Aristotle, in his Poetics, noted and described three “unities” he considered crucial to the success of a dramatic work: unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action. I would suggest that more important than any of these is unity of purpose, which derives from the author knowing and applying what on earth he or she hopes to accomplish through all this time and effort.

What I mean to offer here is an admonition to go beyond the sense that you were called to write and ask yourself “So what exactly am I called to write? And, why?”

One Comment

  1. Ken,

    I love this K quote, never heard it before. Hope all is well and that you yourself are remaining hopeful.

    As you know, I was planning to switch from making money in February to getting some of these books going and maybe reignite some of the flames of Common Ground (potentially in SD too). Something about that last trip to CA intangibly inspired such anticipation, even excitement. Alas, things have come up in my industry within Washington that have presented an opportunity for my existing solar company to potentially double its profit this year and then, because of the ending of certain solar incentives, those opportunities will come to a screeching halt 1/1/16. At this point I’m struggling with what direction to go, but have effectively decided that the opportunity is too good to pass up and that I should grab the bull by the horns and wrestle it one more year. I hate what I’m doing (starting a whole new company in my 60’s), but the potential earnings could support me in the efforts I love for years to come.

    Hopefully, I can snatch a bit of time and at least start getting my Prodigal book (which is effectively done) ready to present to a publisher. I have a friend up here that may work with it later in the year as a needed writing project for his course work at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology (the old Mars Hill Graduate School) my wife attended. Sounds like those processes are laced with all kinds of hang-time so it might be good to at least attempt that during and otherwise busy year.

    Secretly, I’m hoping something in the industry or economy falters such plans, but I have a feeling it is going to be business as usual. We’ll see. Anyway, I hope your health is doing well and that potential ‘play-times’ together and future collaborative possibilities await us in the near future, albeit delayed.

    Nevertheless, if you do get up in the area, know you have a place to crash, a warm fire and hopefully some interesting conversation available. Best wishes on your existing projects.


    Greg Gorsuch