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?”