"What’s the Point of Writing if the World is on Fire?"

We have so many reasons if we just know where to look.
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Dear Milo,

The more the world is a dumpster fire the more I wonder what’s the point of continuing to write. I want to write and I still like it, but I don’t know if I should bother. I don’t mean this like depression but just the basic question of why. Why should I still write? It doesn’t feel like writing makes a difference if these things are going to happen anyway. But I still want to write. Are we all kidding ourselves? Am I missing something? Why do you still write?


Thoughts and Prayers

Dear Thoughts and Prayers,

First off, well-played pseudonym.

Second, this is a tough one. Not necessarily because it’s impossible to answer, but because it requires a lot of detangling, and what’s hiding in the center can vary per person. 

But regardless, your conundrum is something I’ve thought about a lot since, oh, you know, mid-2016. Many times, I’ve asked myself what the hell’s the point? Publishing is an often (oddly) thankless road. Why do we put ourselves through all this if it seems to not make a lick of difference to the world?

In “On Becoming an American Writer,” an essay in Alexander Chee’s collection HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL, Chee engaged with this question in real time with his students, when he entered his classroom right after the 2016 election:

“What is the point,” one of my most talented students asked after the shortest pause. “What is the point even of writing, if this can happen?”

 I don’t feel you’re missing something, my friend. I feel we could just all do with some reframing.

(Before we move forward, I need to say that, as always, I’m not a therapist, nor am I attempting to act as a therapist. My intention here is to speak from my own experiences, thoughts, research, and/or journey tackling this question. If anybody is dealing with mental health situations, please seek knowledgeable help to the best of your ability.)

For me, this question of futility often seems to hit two patterns: 1) insecurity/uncertainty about one’s place in the world, and 2) disillusionment about the reality of writing. Neither of these is a person’s fault. The publishing industry continues to be a mysterious place and there are many popular misconceptions of author/writing expectation. Likewise, people all of types work through where they fit in the world, and they come to different conclusions at different ages. 

Let’s look at some common reasons people write, legit or otherwise.

To Leave a Legacy/Be Remembered

Let’s start with the heaviest one. I mentioned above the pattern of insecurity about one’s place in the world. This seems to layer with a person grappling with the reality of their own death. And not just their death, but the fear of being forgotten, of their work and/or proof of existence being obliterated. I see this dismay happening most especially in relation to climate change. What’s the point of leaving behind a book if it’s just going to burn up and the entire human race will be wiped out?

It's a fair question, and one I’ve asked myself in the past, but I realized it’s a misdirected one. Or at least, it’s making some jumps. Book > climate change > book gone. But there’s so much between “book” and “book gone.” Even in the worst-case scenario of climate change, there’s time between then and now. So why shouldn’t we do something with it? This isn’t a perfect analogy, but if I knew a loved one had only a month to live, I wouldn’t cast them aside because “investing” in them would be a waste of time. Rather, I’d spend as much time with them as I could, simply for the immediate joy of it, however bittersweet.

To Make a Living/Make Money

I’ve seen many budding writers disillusioned by all the facts coming out about the industry, especially in terms of the amount of books sold and how much money a writer makes (or rather, doesn’t make) off a sale.

To be blunt, making a living off writing hasn’t been a reality for 99.99% of writers for decades. It’s just that these facts are finally coming to light. To save space, I’ll just refer to you a previous post about redefining our notion of success and shifting our expectations as writers. All I’ll say here is that financial goals are so unlikely that it’s best to cast them off entirely. Hopefully the reality changes, but even if it does, it’ll be a slow process of many, many years. But while making a living isn’t on the table, there are many other benefits to writing for both writers and readers.

To Make a Difference

Another disparity I’ve heard plenty is, “Why should I bother writing if books aren’t changing people’s minds?” It indeed seems like people are becoming increasingly hateful, especially toward various marginalized identities. If books are supposed to create empathy, then what the hell’s going on here? Why is society slipping in the other direction?

Here’s the thing: Writing only encourages empathy in folks when 1) they’re reading books specifically intended to encourage empathy, 2) they want to engage with empathy, and 3) they have an actionable plan to nurture said empathy moving forward. To believe otherwise puts way too much pressure on yourself as a writer. You can’t make anybody do anything.

In many ways, the concept that books inherently teach empathy is a misconception that can negatively affect both readers and writers. (I have a ton of thoughts about the expectation and concept of books teaching empathy to readers, especially when the writer is marginalized, but this isn’t the place.) Also, books exist for many reasons. Some are indeed intended to build empathy, but they also serve functions such as pure entertainment purposes, comfort, and simply wanting to feel validated in one’s current beliefs. This is why we have entire industries dedicated to the lucrative publishing and selling of everything from seemingly vapid and formulaic plots to far-right novels. 

That said, you are making a difference with your writing. If we release ourselves from the expectation of empathy, there’s still connection, sense of community, comfort, feeling seen, and a host of other benefits that come with putting a book out into the world.

Writing just tends to make a difference in quieter ways, so it’s easy to overlook those influences. Sometimes, the influences are so quiet that we’ll never really know the influence our writing may have created. But think about all the art—books, movies, TV shows, music, video games—that people clung to during the worst of the pandemic. Art brought society comfort, escapism, companionship, and entertainment when nothing else could. It gave them something to do, something to look forward to, something to fall asleep to, something to help them decompress, and something to think about. That’s a big deal.

To Improve Your Mental (and Physical) Health

We spend so much time worrying about the impact of our writing on other people, we often forget to acknowledge the impact it has on ourselves, and how it’s just as—if not more—valid than outsider impact. I’ve worked with so many writers who said they’d started their first piece as a way of working something out in their heads: a way of being, a dream of a better life, a difficulty they were coming to terms with, their emotional state in general. Plenty of queer and trans writers have come out to themselves through their own writing. Just by talking with hundreds of other writers, students or otherwise, it’s clear to me the practice of writing has significant impact before it ever reaches an outside audience.

In YOUR BRAIN ON ART: HOW THE ARTS TRANSFORM US, authors Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross discuss the effects of poetry and poetic language on the brain, based on studies starting in 2015:

Rhyme and rhythm have been shown to intensify emotions at a neurochemical level as poetry activates brain areas such as the posterior cingulate cortex and medial temporal lobes, which have been linked to the default mode network and introspection. Reading poetry can also help us to relax and gain perspective on ourselves. In an Exeter study on poetry, the researchers saw on imaging studies from an MRI that reading poems ignited the region in the brain associated with being in a restful state. Our brains process poetry differently from prose. When we read through the verses, it can create a state that neuroscientists refer to as "pre-chill," where we ride a gentle crescendo of calm emotion. Which is to say, reading a few poems when restless or unable to sleep can help relax you and give you more perspective and insight.
Writing, or reading, poetry also helps the brain to create new narratives and to stop replaying the same worrying thought patterns over and again, activating neuroplasticity processes in the brain. Poetry and other forms of narrative have been shown to make us more self-reflective. 

But it’s not just poetry that has benefits for writers. Regarding the act of creative writing itself:

[James] Pennebaker has now spent more than thirty years studying how committing our thoughts and feelings to paper can improve mental and physical health. His work has shown how writing can help those who feel alone to give a name to their feelings, connect to their needs, and process traumatic events. Dozens of studies by Pennebaker have also found that expressive writing can reduce blood pressure, lower stress-hormone levels, lessen pain, improve immune function, and alleviate depression while also heightening self-awareness, improving relationships, and increasing our ability to cope with challenges.

And lastly:

Today, the arts are being used in at least six distinct ways to heal the body: as preventative medicine; as symptom relief for everyday health issues; as a treatment or intervention for illness, developmental issues, and accidents; as psychological support; as a tool for successfully living with chronic issues; and at the end of life to provide solace and meaning. 

This is all just a sampling. And to be clear, I’m not advocating for people to stop taking their meds or anything. Rather, I’m just pointing out that creative writing has physical and mental benefits that could provide (additional) assistance.

We could spend weeks reading up on the health benefits of writing, but really it all comes down to this: Writing good.

To Learn More About Yourself

As Alice Walker said, “If art doesn't make us better, then what on earth is it for?” As I mentioned earlier, writing is known to help folks come out to themselves, process events, and provide a sense of control in the act of creating something. To quote again from YOUR BRAIN ON ART: 

One of our favorite writers, the late Kurt Vonnegut, famously gave advice to a high school class when they asked him to define a successful life. His counsel, written to them in a letter, was this: “Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow.” 
Vonnegut liked to say that a person got an enormous reward from these activities: “You will have created something.”
Creating something is at the core of learning. Generating new synaptic connections in the brain is, quite literally, how we create knowledge. Learning is what our brains and bodies are doing all the time.

Because You Want To

Fan fiction, anyone? If we wanted to get a better idea of why we write, I feel fanfic writers are a great place to look. They’re not getting money, they’re not usually getting fame. Hell, half the time they’re writing under usernames and pseudonyms. Nobody knows who they are. And yet they keep writing.

It’s human nature. Humans create. Whether it’s a novel, a documentary, a song, or a new string of code, we are imaginative and inventive creatures. Paradoxically, it’s one of the reasons that the arts were first targeted by predatory capitalism; because they knew that, no matter how much they exploited artists, there would always be more artists to exploit. Humans can’t not create.

We sometimes get so wrapped up in the point of creating that we forget that the point of creating is to not have a point. We do it because it’s in our nature.

Because It’s Powerful

I could load you up with more studies, but it comes down to this: If nothing else, writing is powerful because of how much people try to silence it. Have you ever noticed one of the first things fascist entities do is silence the press, regulate media, and otherwise ban art that doesn’t work with their personal ideology? This is because the act of providing outside concepts is dangerous to them. If people are subject to a wealth of ideas and concepts and ways of being, then they’ll have choices. And if they have choices, there’s a good chance they won’t choose the fascist thing. As you’ve probably heard may times now regarding the book bans in the United States: It’s never about the book bans themselves. It’s about the first step in regulating and/or erasing specific communities and ways of being.

But just as it can keep bad people from doing bad things, writing can help good people find good things. As mentioned above, there’s power in words as they help people build and find community, themselves, or a new way of looking at things. And why wouldn’t we want to put more of that out into the word if and when we have the means to do so?

To quote Alexander Chee from his aforementioned essay: 

Hannah Arendt has a definition of freedom as being the freedom to imagine that which you cannot yet imagine. The freedom to imagine that as yet unimaginable work in front of others, moving them to still more action you can't imagine, that is the point of writing, to me. You may think it is humility to imagine your work doesn't matter. It isn't. Much the way you don't know what a writer will go on to write, you don’t know what a reader, having read you, will do.
…I have new lessons in not stopping, after "the election." If you are reading this, and you're a writer, and you, like me, are gripped with despair, when you think you might stop: Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write. And when war comes—and make no mistake, it is already here—be sure you write for the living too. The ones you love, and the ones who are coming for your life. What will you give them when they get there? I tell myself I can't imagine a story that can set them free, these people who hate me, but I am writing precisely because one did that for me. So I always remember that, and I know to write even for them.

And from the novel SOME STRANGE MUSIC DRAWS ME IN by Griffin Hansbury:

This is why the leaders of small places are afraid of music and books. And queers. They offer another way. But they don’t convert. They awaken. Sending a signal to dormant cells, they rouse what’s already there. “It’s time,” they say. “Wake up.”

To close things out, my friend, you asked me why I write. After I went through my own existential crisis on the whole matter years ago, weighing many things such as the above, I realized my personal answer was simple.

I write while the world is on fire because the world is on fire.

I write because I can’t imagine not.



Milo Todd's logo of a simple, geometric fox head. It has a black nose, white cheeks, and a reddish-orange face and ears.
Until next time, foxies! Be queer, write books!