Why Bother?

A letter to a discouraged young writer

A broken pencil.
Photo: Eric/CC BY-ND

This week, a friend wrote to ask if I had any words of encouragement for a 14-year-old writer who had grown discouraged, convinced that writing would neither improve her life, nor this tormented and fraught world. Here is what I wrote to her, with a few edits.


XXXXXX asked me to send you a brief note of encouragement. I understand where you’re coming from. Writing can be incredibly demoralizing, in part because it is incredibly elevating. Working out your anxieties, hopes and fears on paper through the lives of imaginary people can be an absolute tonic, and when the world is all in chaos, that tonic can be balm indeed. But at the same time, writing can feel inconsequential, especially when you’re just starting out, because it is intangible, just a bunch of made-up rubbish that has no power on its own to materialize those aspirations or mitigate the things that give rise to fears.

Worse, when you start writing you will quickly discover that very few people even care that you’re doing it — the proud relatives in your life are glad you’re writing but not very interested in specific works, and the friends who are entertained by your work are only interested in consuming so much of it.

But there is a member of your audience whose pride and fascination endures — you. Writing for the sake of writing is writing for your own sake, for the sake of plumbing your own deepest-buried thoughts and surfacing them, committing them (terrifyingly) to the page, there, in the light, where they can be read and confronted and admired or jettisoned. The undeniability of the words that you write is a powerful way to find out who you are and get better at being you.

You also get better at being a writer. If you show up every day, ass in seat, fingers on keys, you will become a better writer. You will write sentences that sing. You’ll write imaginary characters who, inconsequential though they may be, will bring you (and then others) to tears or convulsive laughter. You will perform a magic trick, master the cognitive illusion of making the figments of your imagination seem real, even to you. It’s a wonder. All mastery is intrinsically satisfying, but writing is a mastery that’s got its own special joys.

And then, finally, you will make a difference. The stories may be inconsequential, but the way they make other people feel is not. You have doubtless already had your life transformed by the stories you’ve read. Stories are an “intuition pump,” a way to mentally rehearse the difficult times ahead, and the stories we read prepare us for crisis, tell us what we expect of ourselves and others. The world is in crisis and there are more crises ahead of us, and no one knows if we’ll rise to the occasion or turn on each other. That depends, in large part, on what we think we should do. And that comes from the stories that shape us.

Writing, like all art, is the process of taking an irreducible, numinous complex emotion that you are feeling and projecting it into someone else’s mind, by means of an aesthetic illusion. The painter makes you think that daubs of pigment are a space and figures; the musician makes you think that rhythmic sound-vibrations possess intrinsic meanings, and the writer makes you believe that the definitionally meaningless lives of imaginary people matter — matter so much that we should use them to train our own moral sensibilities and ethical reflexes. It’s a powerful tool for shaping the world, albeit not an easy one to learn to use or wield with any precision.

But on the way, you will discover who you are, and choose who you are. You will learn about language, and master language. You will practice radical empathy, and learn to be a more empathic person. It’s worth sticking with, even when it’s hard.