A writer’s motivation is a precious thing.
The themes, emotions, traumas we attempt to tackle, expose or illuminate are what define our work. We build our whole identities around why we write what we write.
But sometimes it’s just a sneeze.
At least that’s what EB White said when asked why he wrote Charlotte’s Web:
“I haven’t told why I wrote the book, but I haven’t told you why I sneeze, either. A book is a sneeze.”
That quote is liberating. And frustrating. Depending on your point of view, it either removes the pretentions of being an artist or confirms them. Like stop pussy footing around. Say why you wrote it, EB. It’s ’cause you love pigs right? You’re a pig man, we get it.
The truth is sometimes we don’t know why we create what we create. Ideas pop into my brain all the time. I have no idea where half of them came from. They just came to me. It’s part of the mystery, fun and anticpation of this job. It keeps my easily-distracted mind on it’s wrinkled grey toes.
And yet, there’s pressure on writers to explain themselves. People want answers. They want to know why you wrote what you wrote. What’s your identity? What are your goals as a writer? What’s your mission statement?
Fine. Sure. But sometimes it really is just a sneeze. A reflex from our brain. An expulsion of air and sweat from our body into our fingers and onto our keyboards that is mysterious. Sometimes the why defies explanation. Sometimes we just wrote it.
Your Audience is Who Really Matters
John Cleese tells this story about the famous Monty Python parrot sketch. After a performance, he was tracked down by a wormy audience member who in all seriousness asked him, “it’s about the Vietnam War, right?”
Which of course is hilarious. Because is it? Probably not. For the Pythons it was a lark, a funny idea, a sneeze. But for this audience member? It really was about the Vietnam War.
And that’s the liberating thing about creating art. Your artistic intention really doesn’t matter. It’s how your audience responds. It’s what they bring to it that truly counts.
In other words, it doesn’t matter if people get what you meant because what you meant doesn’t matter. I mean, if you want to make money and write Star Wars shows for Disney+ it matters. To get that money throne, you need to make sure people get your art.
But those writers and artists didn’t start there. They did their thing first, sneezed their sneezes and listened to their audiences.
It’s liberating to embrace this mentality with my writing. To let go of my expectation, sneeze and let the audience revel (or recoil) in my phlegmy bits.
And in case you’re wondering, yes, this post was about the Vietnam War.