Please stop telling me to just “write for myself”

WritingPhotopinI say this in the nicest possible way, in response to something a family member – in a sincere effort to support me – has repeated to me ceaselessly as of late: “…Just do it [i.e. write] for yourself. Anything that may or may not come from it will just be gravy on top.” 

NO. That’s not how it works.

Anybody born with writing embedded in their DNA understands that one of the reasons writers write is because they NEED an audience. That is one of the essential ways they connect to the world and people. It is one of the ways, in short, that they feel heard, and that they feel they have some agency in this world. It is one way they feel they have some tiny bit of power – however microscopic – in a world where most of us, especially those of us who don’t fit the norm, have very little power, if any at all.

Having an audience is as essential as breathing. Writing “just for myself” is not enough. And the fact that some of the few friends I have left in this world – in addition to certain family members (NOT the one referenced above, who has been unrelenting in her support and reading of my writing) – have not even visited this site, commented on it, or read any of my published writing as of late — has played a significant role in a minor depressive episode as of late.

Yes, part of the reason I write is simply for the love of writing, in an attempt to string unique combinations of phonemes together to create a beautiful, lyrical necklace. But it’s also because writing is my primary means of connection with others. I can express my constant angst and struggles much more effectively and coherently through writing than I can verbally. It is very important that my family and my friends understand this.

I could now insert a plethora of quotes from authors expressing a similar sentiments. But for now, I will include just a couple:

From the narrator in Dave Eggers’ What is the What:

“Whatever I do, however I find a way to live, I will tell these stories… because to do anything else would be something less than human. I speak to these people, and I speak to you because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there. I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us. How blessed are we to have each other? I am alive and you are alive and so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, every day until I am taken back to God.”

From Thrity Umrigar, in an interview about one of the things which inspired her to write The Story Hour, a novel intended for an audience:

“…it is in telling different stories about ourselves one central narrative emerges, and once that happens, there is potential then to play with that narrative and change it, and that is how personal transformation can perhaps begin to occur, which, of course, is the ultimate goal of therapy. And I do believe there is something extremely valuable and cathartic about telling each other our life stories.”

From Colum McCann in a NY Times interview: 


There is nothing more substantial to place against the cruelty of the world than language.” 


photo credit: Lívia Cristina via photopin cc

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  1. Marie says:

    I do understand the relief and power that writing gives. It gives me clarity to situations and allows me to feel heard. Thank you for saying it out loud.

  2. Jim anderson says:

    Hi Jeanene,
    I don’t take the time to read as much as I would Iike. Thank you for providing something that I will continue to read and have a chance to interact with you on. You are not just writing for yourself.


  3. Carol Gilmore says:

    I am truly Thankful to be given the opportunity to benefit from your writings. Sharing your talents reminds me that each and everyone on us has something special to give.
    I am looking forward to reading more.

  4. jeri sullivan says:

    The power of words to help know our authentic selves is one more way of expressing the discovery of our feelings and what a discovery that is!!! Thaks for having the courage to share.

  5. Mel Raff says:

    I don’t think it’s possible to write anything more than a nonsense rhyme without an audience at least in mind. I’ve never understood what that advice could even mean. It’s the advice of someone who knows nothing about writing, however well-intentioned that someone might be.

    • Jeanene Harlick says:

      It is so validating how you so completely relate. I love how you put it here. I feel conflicted about my need for an audience at times — I’ve read interviews with authors who’ve talked about just “writing for themselves.” But I wonder if these authors have really experienced deep struggle. I know we all experience adversity in life of some sort — but experiencing the really gut-wrenching, I-want-to-die sort of awfulness — I don’t know how you cannot be writing at least in part for connection with some kind of audience, however small — to help heal… Thanks for your note.

  6. Lauren says:

    I was guided to your website through a friend as I’m going through a rough time right now in life. She is very intuitive and knew that your writing, your thoughts, your feelings and your way of thinking would help me….and it has. Thank you. Keep on writing, please.

    • Jeanene Harlick says:

      Lauren, your comment is priceless to me. Particularly since I just posted something about how meaningless and purposeless my life feels now, particularly in comparison with certain others’. To know that my writing has helped even one person gives at least a little meaning, I hope, to my life. I’m glad you found my Web site and thanks to your friend as well for sending you my way. I hope you keep coming back and if you would be interested in writing something about your struggle for the Web site, I would welcome that well.

  7. Papa Bob says:

    Hi LUV, I am so proud of you, Just keep going with the
    great articles, I know that I will enjoy reading
    again and again. LUV you always, Papa Bob

  8. Char says:

    Thanks for writing for me to read. It’s beautiful. I wonder if it’s the human condition to compare ourselves with others, as you mentioned your life feels meaningless and purposeless compared to others. I feel this too, and someone asked me why I always feel I have to compare my life to others. I don’t think I do it more than anyone else. (think buying trendy clothing or supporting designers who don’t need more of my money or the person’s who thinks I’m doing this comparing, as it is) What I do think I do though is think out loud more than some and when I say things others are afraid to say it makes me seem like I’m unhappy or generally a “Debbie Downer” but it’s really only the truth they don’t want to see. It becomes a painful way to live though, so I tend to shut up and isolate. Again. Which then leads to the depression I possess. It’s really just trying to make sense of the senseless (in my opinion). Thanks for writing and for posting and know you are not alone. You make a difference in the world.

    • Jeanene Harlick says:

      I think you are right on target, Char — how people particularly in Western society are stigmatized in some way or other for merely speaking the truth. Even though deep down everyone knows life is not all roses despite them trying to project that on Facebook and etc.! I hope you don’t “shut up” — please don’t! You’re certainly making a difference as well – me for example being a case in point – by sharing your views. Our exchange of notes today has been very rewarding for me and I’m so happy that you can relate to some of my writing. Thank you for reading it and thank you for sharing your thoughts and keep saying what you want to say no matter despite anyone’s disapproval. I’ve gotten to the point in life where I simply just don’t give a fu– if anyone “disapproves” of what I say — the secret shame and anger we keep to ourselves only ends up devouring us — it was certainly killing me. Having an outlet is helping to stop my internal madness and downward spiral. We simply can’t let the small minority of people in this world who are lucky enough to live fairly adversity-free lives continue to have the primary voice in this world. So many of us think we’re falling short because those our the voices we hear in the media. But the reality of the world is a total contrast. There’s countless communities and countries one can name whose majority of citizens would laugh at some of the things us Westerners lament on about today…. That really struck home to me in the most recent novel I completed, “An Untamed State,” which is set largely in Haiti and so describes some of the poverty there… Anyways I am rambling and digressing but I just want to validate your speaking the truth and above all hope you don’t isolate. I tend to do that myself, too, and it of course only leads to bad things, head-wise…

  9. M.G. says:

    I know this a year old, but i too feel as though its hard to describe to others, especially family the need to write.

    “Write for yourself” used to be genuine and as you say sometimes still is.

    I discovered, in my experience at least that “write for yourself” is only part of the phrase. It should read:

    “don’t get too discouraged if no one reads your book, make sure you write for yourself.”

    While I defintely appreciate the srntiment the phrase is offering, it can cloud the overall goals of us writers.

    The thing that irks me probably the most is other authors suggesting to write everyday and if you dont, you are not really a writer. Thats absurd. I think its good to be focused, but too much focus and for me, forcing myself to write on a day I’m not feeling it on a certain day is more often negative than helpful.

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