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Reminding Myself Why I Write

In last week's blog post, I wrote about rediscovering my mission as a writer. That post elicited a thought-provoking response from an online writer friend, and I've found myself mulling the issue he broached ever since.

My friend was obviously discouraged with the absence of results from his writing. He had written a book about his spiritual journey, but few copies of it had sold. (I bought one of them, and it proved a blessing for me.) He writes a regular weekly blog, just as I do, but he lamented having few followers and even fewer "likes" or comments. No wonder he was discouraged.

I know exactly how he feels. I've been there. In fact, I spend much of my time there. But when I take time to think seriously about the issue, I often find myself reminding the writer in me of why I write, and that reality tends to adjust my attitude and set me back on track, doing what I've been called to do--regardless of the results.

When my first book, Confederate Cabinet Departments and Secretaries, was published, I took a complimentary copy to one of my favorite college professors who had encouraged me to pursue the study of that topic and, indirectly, to publish my findings. Dr. Abrams had himself published two books on historical topics. In his office that day, I think he was trying to be kind and gentle, preparing me to face reality in publishing a work of history, when he told me not to expect great sales. Perhaps 300 copies if I was lucky, he said. That's not what I expected, but I quickly learned that he knew what he was talking about.

Although I was overwhelmed when more than 75 major universities across the world, including not only American libraries at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, the National Defense Library, the Marine Corps, and others, but also major international universities, including those in Switzerland, Germany, Malaysia, Australia, and other countries purchased copies, But individual sales languished. Every once in a while, a copy will sell, but overall Dr. Abrams was just about right in his estimate of sales. It was enough to discourage even a seasoned writer.

In thinking about this topic, however, my mind first recalled a quotation I'd read by an author and teacher from the previous generation, Jesse Stuart. If you've followed this blog for long, you know that Stuart is one of my favorite authors because, like him, I was a teacher before I became a writer. In fact, it was while teaching that I "found myself" as a writer. Try as I might, I could locate neither the source nor the precise wording of the quotation, but here's the gist of it: Stuart said that he had to write, and he would write even if no one ever read his works--because he was a writer, and that's what writers do!

But I also recalled reading somewhere a number of essays titled "Why I Write," the most prominent one being by George Orwell, acclaimed author of Animal Farm and 1984. He listed four of his motivations: "sheer egoism," "aesthetic enthusiasm," "historical impulse," and "political purpose."

Joan Didion wrote a similar essay in which she admitted, "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means."

Naomi Pham, a writer with whom I have no familiarity at all, gave eight reasons why she writes:

  1. It brings joy.

  2. It's a way of expressing yourself.

  3. It helps you discover who you are.

  4. It is a learning process.

  5. It can help others.

  6. It teaches you humility.

  7. It slows you down because it's a process that can't be rushed, so it clarifies your thinking.

  8. It teaches you to be truthful.

But Chris Lema (with whom I'm also unfamiliar), writing at, explained why he writes even if no one reads his work. He says it brings "clarity for me," the writer; it brings "clarity for you," the reader; and it is an investment in something that has "a prolonged and delayed payoff."

Lema's last point really made me think. Writing, he explained, is an investment in the near term from which the writer might not gain any discernable immediate results for quite some time, if ever. It is much like teaching, in that the instructor devotes his time, energy, talents, and finances to helping students who will undoubtedly benefit in some way from his efforts but will seldom return to thank the teacher or demonstrate how his instruction has helped them succeed in life.

All of these writers' experiences underscore the fact that there's more to writing than readership. Regardless how much publishers emphasize them, sales numbers or the number of "likes," followers, or reader comments can't be the motivation for the serious writer. There must be something more; otherwise, what's the point in continuing to write?

And then you run across the rare person who has realized just what that prime motivating factor is--and must be. I think it is exemplified in the lives and works of two musicians, Bach and Handel. They dedicated their composing efforts to "soli Deo gloria"--"to God alone be the glory." A contemporary artist with whom I have a lot in common (we're both natives of East Tennessee, we both graduated from and ultimately worked for the same university, and we both gravitate toward the same subject matter, he in visual arts and I in verbal art) is John Roberts, who signs his work "to the glory of God." Originals of his work hang on my living room wall as a reminder of not only his amazing talent but, more importantly, his motivation.

As a writer, my motivation must transcend anything around or within me; it must come from a divine source. My job is to write as He directs me. I must leave the results in His hands. He will bring the results that He wants my work to produce. As the great Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson famously said, "Duty is mine; consequences are God's."

This is a truth of which I must continually remind myself. I had to do so as a teacher, for after I had done my best to teach my students, they left my classroom and were beyond my influence or direction. I had no control over what they made of themselves. As a writer, I do the best my knowledge and ability permit--writing, editing, revising, marketing, etc.--and then I must leave the results in God's hands. That is, and must always be, my motivation.

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