Start with Why

Book Cover - Sense of an Ending

Julian Barnes wins Man Booker Prize for Sense of an Ending

So I hear that congratulations are in order. Julian Barnes finally won his Man Booker for his latest novel, Sense of an Ending. It was released in the United States on October 11, so I haven’t had the chance to read it yet.

But having read his corpus and written an encyclopedia article on The Lemon Table, I can say of his work that what was a preoccupation with the meaning of life has now become an obsession with the certainty of death. And if we were to ask Barnes why he writes, he would perhaps reply, to reconcile ourselves to our fate. A noble purpose, I’m sure.

Of course, the £50,000 prize helps.

But what about the government worker summarizing September’s accomplishments at the behest of her supervisor? Or the corporate professional crafting yet another email in response to a colleague? Or the copywriter drafting a brochure for a new client? What reason do they have to sit at their keypads and press their brains into service?

And what daunting service it is!

The act of writing, no matter the simplicity of the message, no matter the depth of content, no matter the banality of subject matter, requires no less than a complete investment of ourselves. If we bring anything less than that, it will certainly show – in muddied language, stale clichés, corporate lingo, and all too often in the careless error.

But mostly, it reveals itself in the toll it takes on us. How much stress do we place upon ourselves during the writing process? Herein surely lays the origin of the cigarette. Oh for the wraiths of nicotine and obscurity to shroud our insecurity, uncertainty, and (dare I say it) apathy! How often as we write do we clench our jaw, tighten our shoulders and abdomens, search the internet or our email for that one perfect phrase we know we saw just a few days previous, or detect within our bodies a sudden immediate need for liquids – coming, or going?

No wonder we procrastinate. Why would anyone voluntarily press their necks into such a painful yoke?

Why indeed?John Milton author of Areopagitica

Many a man lives a burned to the earth; but a good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life. ~ John Milton. Areopagitica.~

I will freely admit that I have lived a less than perfect life. I have even at times been a burden, particularly to those whom I hold most dear. And I owe a debt.

There’s only one way that I can repay what I owe. And that is to use to my God-given talent together with my intelligence and insight to write words that are worth reading, articles that enlighten others, and hopefully books that will be a storehouse of knowledge and inspiration for years to come.

Milton’s quote, from a speech he gave to British Parliament demanding the right for the freedom of the press, is written in calligraphy on parchment paper and framed right beside my desk. And when the chips are down, and the writing becomes mundane, and I don’t feel like sitting at my desk to get the job done, I look at it and remember why I’m here.

There’s a reason you chose the job you did. There’s a reason you continue to get out of bed everyday. (And if there’s not, you need to seriously reexamine your priorities, my friend.) And when you feel your jaw begin to clench, and your shoulders start to tighten, return to that.

Unlike the other tasks you do at your job, writing can’t be automatic. You’re not ticking off a box and saying that September’s summary is done. You’re not writing an email to your client. You’re not even producing a brochure. You’re fulfilling your why. Only then will the product be any good.

More importantly, only then will you be content – even happy – while you write. Can you imagine? Being in the zone while writing an email. Wouldn’t that be nice?

I mentally tip my hat to the day you find your why and start writing to it.


  1. Luckily for me, I have always been “in the zone” when writing. It comes naturally to me to work with words, whether editing, rewriting, or constructing those original passages that fill a need, even if that need is only self-expression.

  2. “You’re not ticking off a box and saying that September’s summary is done.” Thank you! Love your choice of words this whole article, but that particular one is print-out-for-my-wall-worthy. Wishing you relaxed jaws and loose shoulders always!

  3. You hit the nail on the head! Lately, I’ve been trying to be more intentional about why I write. It can’t be for the money, because we rarely make much. I don’t even remember making a conscious career choice to be a writer. It’s more like it chose me. Identifying the service in my life’s work gives it more meaning, and makes it a little less agonizing. Thanks for the inspiration!

  4. ‘The act of writing, no matter the simplicity ….of subject matter, requires no less than a complete investment of ourselves.’
    That is a totally original thought to me.
    To apply this to email writing will change my world.
    Certainly it will slow me down and increase my error checking before clicking ‘send’.
    However, if quality is to overcome speed, something has to give. I foresee the ‘delete’ button being used more liberally on incoming mail.
    Changes are afoot!

    • Julia, I’m grateful to hear your reaction. I know that this is a blog, and that you are writing email, but I stand behind this sentence. And I truly believe if we treat every act of communication as a commune-ion, a sort of meditation in which we transcend time and space to touch our reader, we could achieve a utopian state in which miscommunications become so rare that we all move together in the harmony that humanity is meant to create. As Andrew Loog Oldham says, “be careful of the careless word.” (Back to email now – thank you for the moment of visionary bliss!)

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