How often have you looked at the words on your computer screen – or worse, just the cursor on your empty computer screen – and thought, “Why am I writing?” How often have you despaired as a plot fell apart, a character refused to cooperate with you, or the emotion leaked from a scene, and thought, “Why am I writing?”
The question often comes from a place of frustration, fatigue, or fatalism. But it’s an important question to ask in the calm moments, that peaceful lull between projects, the blissful space at the end of a day filled with good pages.
Why am I writing?
Allow me to suggest that any practical answer to this question is dangerous, principally because this is not a practical pursuit. A friend who just joined the Writers Guild told me her membership card came with a letter that explained it is harder to become a member of the WGA than to become a professional baseball player in the MLB.
I don’t share this to be discouraging, but to be frank. Writing is arduous; writing in Hollywood is grueling. If we only measure it all in terms of material success, that way lies madness. Or, at least, sadness. It’s important to remember, both at the peaks where you’re selling scripts and in the valleys where you’re cataloging rejections, Why am I writing?
Are you writing to entertain? To inspire? Are you writing because you have secrets to expose, wrongs to right, or mysteries to solve? No matter what kind of story you’re telling, it has to be fueled by a fire in you – the conviction that this story has to be told, must be shared.
Don’t write for your checkbook. Don’t dash something off quickly so it will sell quickly; nothing sells that quickly. Don’t write like someone who has been successful rather than writing like only you can write. When you put economics above craft, you’re doing yourself and your script a disservice. Renaissance painters learned by copying the masters, but their paintings were never as highly valued.
Don’t write from your head. Yes, film and television can move and teach and convict. But viewers expect artistry, a balance of nuance and spectacle. The audience wants conflict, yearning, and triumph. Your work can – and should – carry a message, but it should be so intertwined with your protagonist’s journey that your story plays as parable, not lecture.
Write from your heart. Craftsmanship comes in time, as does opportunity. Passion has to be there from the very beginning. When you put your own passion and your true voice on the page, we can feel it. Your passion elevates your writing. It’s an intangible but crucial ingredient. As someone who spends a lot of time reading other people’s work, I can sense when a writer has lost sight of that. Characters can only go through the motions when that’s all the writer is doing. “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,” as Robert Frost said.
Write from the deep burning conviction that you have a story that only you can tell in this particular way – this riveting, memorable, thrilling, and personal way. Write because this idea won’t let you rest until it is realized. Write because you are a writer with a gift to offer an eager, waiting world.
Sheryl J. Anderson is a television writer/producer and has written half-hour, hour, and movies (such as Parker Lewis Can't Lose, Charmed, and The Town that Came A'Courtin'). She has sold pilots to SyFy, Lifetime, and NBC, and created and served as showrunner of UPtv's first original scripted series, Ties that Bind. Most recently, she has been the showrunner for Netflix's upcoming Sweet Magnolias. She has recently written movies for UPtv and Hallmark. She is an adjunct faculty member in the Screenwriting MFA at Pepperdine University and lectures regularly at Azusa Pacifica University. Sheryl is also the author of the Molly Forrester Mysteries, a series now available from Ignition Books.