Why write?

By Martin Vogel

What’s the point of writing? Amid the torrent of tweets, snaps and status updates, the verbiage of fake news and the dreck of junk mail, why would we need more words in the world? And yet we do. We constantly need to write the world afresh. For all that some authors, such as Jane Austin, endure, mostly the great writing names of an age fade away. Who now reads Graham Greene or Kingsley Amis? Even Martin Amis? The Neapolitan Novels are today’s Dance to the Music of Time.

Writing is an act of engagement with our world in the here and now. Note, this is so even of historical fiction or sci fi: it normally reflects contemporary concerns. How could it not do since it is shaped much more by the filters and perceptions of the age and culture in which it is formed not that which it is about? But writing need not necessarily be a public act. Writing as engagement with the world is an act we can all get in on.

I often encourage leaders I work with to develop a writing practice. When we begin a leadership programme, we provide a jotter for each participant and get them writing in it as a matter of habit. We encourage them to jot down reflections as they learn with us and then to take the practice into their daily lives. There are different approaches one can take – from the thirty-second review after any meeting to finding time at the end of the day or week to bring to mind what has happened and what the learning is.

Journalling in this way is a means to turn experience into insight. It builds a discipline of noticing how one is being and what one makes of things, and so gets us out of autopilot mode.

Some people are keen followers of the morning pages approach advocated by Julia Cameron. This entails writing three or four pages first thing in the morning, before one is fully awake and censorious consciousness kicks in. The idea is to write freely without much care for form. It’s a way of downloading without judgment the random stuff that it’s in your head and so clearing the decks for more productive or creative work.

I write all the time but not in this way. I write reflections on meetings I’ve had, work I’ve undertaken and lots about books and articles that I read. It’s a way of making connections, teasing out new possibilities, synthesising and understanding all that’s influencing and shaping who I am as a coach. I write into existence my self-concept as a practitioner.

But I find there can be a flabbiness to writing for myself. It can feel lazy and messy. It can be hard to make sense of what’s rattling around inside my head and so I don’t always bother. It’s too easy simply to settle for the first draft. This is where writing for publication comes in.

It’s often assumed that writing for an audience is an ego-driven thing: that we write to make a name for ourselves. This may be true enough. But there’s another, and perhaps more important, dimension: it’s only when we write for an audience that we really get to know ourselves. Writing for publication is both a joy and a burden. The fact that it is destined for the public domain exacts a rigour that is less pressing in writing for oneself. The commitment of exposing my writing to scrutiny means I’d better mean it. And also make it worthwhile. The thinking becomes more expansive. The task becomes honing different fragments into a cohesive theme and thereby discovering what I think and how my disparate thoughts link together. There’s also something about taking one’s place in the world, finding one’s voice.

Journalling is a staging post to this, playing with different voices; publishing is committing. The joy comes when the thing is done. There’s a catharsis to it all and a sense of surprise when my ramblings resonate with someone. Who’d have guessed that this piece, drafted by a swimming pool in Andalucia, would become the most consistently read on this site. I like to be eclectic in what can make the starting point for a post. But my aim is to find a link back in each one to our overarching topics of leading, organisations and coaching.

Sometimes, I can go for weeks without publishing and then break silence with a long-gestated think piece. Other times, such as now, I give myself the challenge of daily writing and then open to the discovery of what emerges.

Writing is literally a way of making sense of our lives. This is also true metaphorically. We don’t know who we are until we’ve committed ourselves to print.

Hat tip: John Hill.

Image courtesy Aaron Burden on Unsplash.

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