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Writing With Purpose


by Sylvia Dickey Smith

“Cat: Where are you going?
Alice: Which way should I go?
Cat: That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don’t know.
Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
― Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland

When we write, our purpose is not to get to a certain place in the book (or poem or article). It’s to enjoy each step along the way.

Annie Dillard says, “One of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it all, play it all, right away, every time… give it, give it all, give it now.”


There are countless ways into our writing. These ways usually involve innumerable questions.

How do I start?


Who are the characters,

What shall I name them?

What’s my plot going to be.

These are fantastic questions—Why? Because they create cracks. Fabulous cracks—the beauty of our story is often in the cracks created by those questions, not in the questions themselves.

I want to invite you to circle those cracks made by your questions.

The answers often change, but we keep circling the questions. How do we do that? By writing. By examining the different sides of the questions, the angles, the cracks.

Tim O’Brien says, “Fiction’s purpose is not to explain the mystery, but to expand it.” (1946, Austin, MN) The Things They Carried:

A classic work of American literature that has not stopped changing minds and lives since it burst onto the literary scene, The Things They Carried is a groundbreaking meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling

Lots of people write from answers. We’ve discovered some truth and want to share it. Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis for example. They take us by the hand and walk us through a process to learn the truth they learned. That’s not bad. Often those are important truths…but…

I challenge you—and me—to read and write, not books that lead, but books who don’t lead, but allow me to join them on the search, who utter unanswerable questions, who expand the mystery.

Authors like Annie Dillard, Elie Wiesel, (Night) Henri Nouwen (Life of the Beloved)


Ghosts are fleeting, subtle entities, which make them more terrifying.

Sticky haunts

Vague images of disturbing ideas.

When a ghost shows up, we usually run away. Click on the TV, pour another drink while trying to convince ourselves we didn’t see it.

Writers can’t afford to avoid them. We choose to be haunted.

Break into a haunted house. Eyes wide.

Walk through a cemetery late at night.

Call out to spirits and phantoms.

THEN, when we discover a specter, don’t run…..write.

Grab the details….fast…knowing how quickly they spook.

We give it life, sinew, we give—er…lend it our skin.

We ask its name and wait for it to whisper why it exists.

Do not ignore the lessons of the Ghosts….


“It’s funny. No matter how hard you try, you can’t close your heart forever. And the minute you open it up, you never know what’s going to come in. But when it does, you just have to go for it! Because if you don’t, there’s not point in being here.”
― Kirstie Alley

Sometimes it takes us a while to learn what our book is REALLY about. We think we know—maybe we think we are writing a book on…say… ….class distinction or environmental crimes—but then, in the process, we find, or sometimes our closest readers reveal to us—that the hot center is the relationship between two characters. Once you find it—the hot heart of your piece—tend it.

How do you tend it? Feed the fire! What? Details, secrets, characters, props to exacerbate the dramatic situation.

Sometimes the best way to increase the heat is to feed the fie with details, secrets, characters.

The fuel you add can be a memory, a person, or an environmental element. It can be traumatic.

A drunk sitting in a bar in a drunken stupor, persistent mosquito buzzing around his head, hot, humid ringing phone. Often the heart of your story is hidden under the fire, that you keep piling kindling on top of, while it smolders.

Writing with Purpose is not an easy trail to follow. Take time to circle the cracks within the questions of your work, delight in the discovery of purpose. Face the ghosts that show up, give them air-time, follow their trail, and Find the Heart of your story—and exploit it.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Good advice, Sylvia. And good to see you back.

    August 8, 2018

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