Writing Without Purpose

writing without purpose is like playing frisbee with your dog

Writing does not need to be about productivity, results, recognition, or word counts. But are you ready to try writing without purpose?

It has been a long while since I’ve been able to get away and take time off for myself. I’m sure most of you can relate. Between commitments and COVID, homebound was pretty much the rule of the day for two years-plus. Which is why, when the opportunity presented itself, I committed in advance to booking a long weekend in Santa Fe to attend a writing retreat last week.

“Commit” came up twice in that paragraph. That’s telling.

While this is not a testimonial for the specific retreat I attended (though it would be warranted), it is an invitation to nurture your soul and your writing by giving yourself permission to indulge and immerse yourself in your writing.

Book a group writing retreat. Lock yourself in a cabin by a lake with a fire and lots of coffee and tequila. Find the most comfortable chair in your house and give yourself the gift of focused time to write and reflect. Put down the phone and computer and email and social media and laundry and explore your words. It’ll do you good.

Maybe you’ll even lose your purpose

That, for me at least, was one of the takeaways from my five days away, and as I write it, I can hear that it sounds counterintuitive. It’s not what everyone needs, it may even be the opposite of what you need. But before you write if off, let’s explore what it means.

I am a writer. I can say that now. I am an editor. I am a host of other things that keep me tethered to a computer or a task — not necessarily of my choosing — that needs to get done. Just about everything I do has a purpose, is a step toward completing a goal. For all the writing I do, my highest word counts these days may well be the daily to-do lists I craft to keep me on track with what needs to be accomplished.

That might be the polar opposite of what writing without purpose is. Which is fine. There’s a place for it.

What is “writing without purpose?”

Well, it ain’t this. There’s already a byline at the top of this page. I know this is going to appear on the BookBaby Blog. This is destined to be published and hopefully read by hundreds — thousands — of people, so it had better deliver something.

It had better read like I have a clue. It had better have some sort of payoff. It had better attract attention and drive people to the BookBaby website. Will it convert any sales?

By the way, that’s not how I assess the value of a post when considering it for the blog. I really do try to curate and deliver content that has intrinsic value to our readership. But “intrinsic value” is not what we talk about in the monthly meetings about traffic and trends.

My golf game

I love playing golf. But just like it took me a long while to identify myself as a writer, I don’t identify myself as a “golfer,” even though I’ve been playing semi-regularly (at least once a month when it’s warm enough) for the past 20 years. But I didn’t enjoy the game nearly as much when I was taking it seriously.

It’s pretty ridiculous. I’m a decent athlete, but not some sort of prodigy or wunderkind. I didn’t even start playing golf until my 30s. But for the first few years, as my game improved and I started to understand some of the nuances of the sport, I had delusions that I was going to be good at this. Hell, who knew where the ceiling was?

Then came the day I launched a three-iron over a tree line into a parking lot because of a lousy drive. Fortunately, no BMWs or innocent bystanders were hurt (I don’t typically play BMW sorts of courses, anyway). But something washed over me. Not just the shame and ridiculousness of doing something so irrational. It was the realization that if I am going to spend my time and money on this activity, I had better damned well enjoy it because the PGA is not in my future.

That was a watershed moment for me, and from that shot on, I’ve enjoyed the sport more. I still get frustrated, I’m still in pursuit of the “perfect round” — whatever that means — but I’m really just out there to enjoy the day and revel in the fact that I’m engaging in an activity that is without purpose, beyond spending time with friends and pretending it doesn’t matter who comes out with the low score of the day.

Dance like no one’s watching

I am not one for platitudes and motivational posters, but since I’m writing with a purpose this morning, I’ll allow myself to indulge since it does illustrate a point. Of course, I’m not talking about dancing. I’m telling you — I’m telling myself — to write like no one’s reading.

5 Steps GuideWriting does not need to be about productivity and results. It should not be about recognition and word counts. It doesn’t have to advance a theory or prove you are an expert in anything. It can be those things, and needs to be, sometimes. But just because you’re putting pen to paper (really, you should try that sometimes), doesn’t mean this has to mean something. It doesn’t have to be good. In fact, allow yourself the luxury of writing things that exist beyond judgment.

Pull out a journal, pick a prompt, and write. Let the words flow. Don’t worry about structure. Maybe it comes out in some form of lyrical poetry. Maybe it’s one unpunctuated string of words in stream-of-conscious reverie. Maybe it conforms to all the standards of writing as we know them. It doesn’t matter.

Exercise your writing muscles

Express a thought, build your writing muscles. Write a letter that will never get sent. Tell your sister exactly why she pissed you off. Try to remember every detail of your dream from last night. Write an ode to that cute hostess in the diner. Describe the ray of sun that is reflecting off the mirror in your living room. Read a poem and respond to it. Write a scene of dialogue for imaginary characters, or people you know, or between Jean-Luc Picard and Robin Hood.

Write for the experience of writing and let your mind and your words roam free. There’s plenty of time for everything else, including the writing you need to do, the writing that has a purpose.

Because maybe you need to do this to rediscover the joy of writing with a purpose. Allow more freedom. Establish your voice without trying to. If you’re trying, you’re constraining yourself, and that’s not freedom.

Work in progress

By the way, I’m just getting around to this myself. And that’s already a revelation. I don’t need to know everything and pretend I have all the answers — or any answers. I can still be a writer, and I can still impart advice and guidance to other writers.

After writing a book, I hit a wall. Now there are expectations. The next book needs to be better than the last. Needs to advance my writing. Needs to prove there’s more than one book in me. Needs to… needs to.

That’s bullshit.

I know that intellectually, but tell that to my fingers.

Maybe this is obvious after all. Writing without purpose is like playing frisbee with your dog. It’s fun, and it’s good for both of you. Still, sometimes the simple things need to be reiterated because we forget. We let expectations and crashing computers get the better of us. So thanks for working through this with me. I hope you find purpose in no purpose.

Or something like that.

For the record, I attended the Land of Enchantment writing retreat, after connecting with Janna Lopez through this blog. Ours was a three-day intensive, attended by four writers in very different places in our writing journeys. I can safely say we all got an immense boost from the experience — we were talking about a reunion before the weekend was over and are starting an accountability group to keep us on track with our goals. I suppose there’s an inherent contradiction in being “accountable” for shedding my purpose in writing, but I’m happy to live in these distinctions. Not every question needs an answer. Just ask David Lynch.

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23 COMMENTS

  1. Do you know the poem ” The song of the Ungirt Runners” ?
    We know not whom we trust
    Nor whitherward we fare
    But we run because we must
    Through the big wide air.

  2. I collect random words or sentence fragments and every day during my 30 minute lunch break, I splice them together in random fashion, throw in a few conversation fragments, office safety instructions and sometimes toss a T-rex or LSD vampire or spider alien – or worse, a woman spurned, and with no story intention OR judgement see what I can arrange. Simply for fun. Astronaut in prison with vampires breaking in. Datura gardens, heroin kayaker, or even less the believable, -the company fire drill, the lady in the carmine skirt was giving me the ‘look’
    Hit the delete button after a next review. Sometimes every 3 months, my lunch time puzzle, ends with something I can use. But the bottom line, just having word story fun. Like this drivel I just typed.

  3. I wrote “The Mystery of the Missing Teddy Bear” when I was eight. It, along with what amounts to a book of poetry and five half finished fiction and non-fiction books, were never published. In “retirement,” I write a monthly column for a local newspaper and edit for an online tutorial company. My point? Published or not, these pieces of my psyche made it out of their birth places, and I am the better for it. I revisit them years later and begin to understand bits of my “self.” Unlocking our thoughts, feelings and ideas will liberate us, published or not.

  4. I recently finished a project writing one-hundred 535-word daily entries to a journal. The No.1 rule I set for myself was I could not premeditate or plan ahead what I wanted to write. I approached the project similar to how people meet for casual conversation. After a minute or two on weather and sports, they talk themselves into a topic. When I sat down and put my pen on the notepad, I had no idea what to write. After a sentence or two, I wrote myself into a viable topic, which carried me through to the finish. I amazed myself. It was an exercise in creative discipline, and my writing and clarity of thought are better for it.

    • I might be getting the author wrong in this, but I think it was Ray Bradbury who said he’d start the day writing whatever words came to his head and then he’d start advocating or arguing against certain words and after two hours, he had written a story. Thanks for your comment. Why 535 words a day? Seems an oddly specific number.

  5. Very interesting perspective. As a new writer, I feel pressure to work hard, re-think goals, keep writing, keep reading other authors’ works, keep editing, look for more classes, go to this, go to that, and so on. I’m going to keep this writing without purpose idea in mind from now on. Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Becky. Hopefully you find it liberating. Taking the pressure off yourself is one sure way to make writing more fun, if nothing else.

  6. This was inspiring…probably more than ANY blog I’ve read about writing. It also felt like friends talking over coffee.

    I’m writing a book. It began with a dream that haunted? taunted? me until I started putting the ideas on paper…28 years ago.

    The first drafts were hand written. Then Windows 95 arrived. LOL!

    The story and I hope the characters have evolved and changed as my perspective and experiences have.

    Will I ever share it with the world? It has become a part of me; maybe it is me. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to let it free.

    BUT IT SURE HAS BEEN FUN WRITING IT

  7. An excellent article that really hit home. I have given myself permission to not write for a while. In other words I am fasting from writing. I’ve been frustrated and stumped when trying to write three stories I know need to be published. So instead of giving up completely (I even had several other authors read them and advise) I decided to NOT FINISH them – YET. My publisher has been patient fortunately. I decided I, too, need to be patient. I guess there is a point to this response, or maybe as Janna Lopez mentions it’s useless drivel! I don’t care. It’s so good to not have the pressure of writing to publish.

    Blessings to all,
    Bonnie

    • In fairness to my friend, Janna, she was responding to another comment that called this piece drivel. It’s been gratifying to get so many comments (and emails and LinkedIn outreach) from a post I wasn’t sure would make sense to anyone. It has reaffirmed this revelation that sometimes we do need to step away and allow ourselves room to think, explore, and create. Thanks for commenting, Bonnie.

  8. Writing for fun is where a lot of book ideas can begin. And putting down what you think without any judgment or care can be interesting to read a few months later.

    • It’s so true. And I’m finding that writing in response to something (a book, a poem, a picture) is another way of allowing yourself the freedom to explore words and ideas without having to “create something” from scratch.

  9. The “Writing without purpose” message was the most compelling advice I’ve ever read. I know I must get my manuscript to BookBaby as soon as possible. That said, I am struggling with making myself finish reassembling the 400-page manuscript after a haphazard edit by a well-meaning retired english teacher. Now it is difficult to recognize where to start. ‘Writing without purpose” will help me relocate my initial purpose, finish a book that will become an epic feature film. Thank you.

    Richard Grant (richada8@cox.net)
    7643 E. Northland Dr. Scottsdale, AZ 85251

  10. It irritates me to have to read useless drivel before the blogger gets to the point of the blog.
    For some reason, many bloggers use this form of introduction
    I just keep thing
    When will you get to the point?

    • Pamela, were you referring to the author of THIS post, or blog posts in general? Apologies if your comment’s received in the wrong context; without trying to come across as judgemental, and for your sake, I’ll get to the point: That’s sharp judgement to call someone’s work, someone’s words, “useless drivel.” As a writer, and intuitive book coach who works hard to pull writers out of their fear, out of their doubt, sometimes it only takes one unkind declaration to push a writer back into a silenced shell. Have you ever gotten the words “useless drivel” as feedback for your writing? It’s funny–the author of this post describes an epiphany, or awakening to writing as a process, a point of having no point, and what that can bring to the writing relationship. What you glean as “the point” would differ entirely to another who may read the same words. I’m not trying to dismiss your opinion or thoughts, just trying to offer another perspective that perhaps might open new doors of thought. Here are questions I rhetorically pose to consider or not: Were you formally trained in writing? What do you imagine “the point” of blogs serve? Aren’t many blogs inherently used for exploration and expression; to sort out ideas, experiences, and feelings? the very definition of blog, BTW, is “a regularly updated website or web page, typically one run by an individual or small group, that is written in an informal or conversational style.” Just my 2 cents, in the spirit of word and idea exchange.

      • Well said.
        I often do as Andre Calihanna suggests. I begin each morning with pen in hand and write no less than one page. I write whatever comes to mind. At times these journal entries have structure and make a point; other times, they are nonsense. Still, I write. Later, I tackle my current writing project and attempt to complete whatever my goal is that day.

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