Feeling Misunderstood & The Writer’s Praxis …

Last week author Nathan Bransford posted a question on his blog that I have been thinking about for a long time:

He elaborated very little on the question, only adding that his gut said it might be determination. The power of Mr. Bransford’s blog is such that he can sort of just lob a huge question into the universe and get a gigantic response from enthusiastic readers — I’m talking hundreds of people weighing in.1,2

When I glanced down the many responses from readers, I noticed that they fell into two distinct camps. The first group agreed with Bransford, listing traits that point to a strong work-ethic — “determination,” “passion,” “persistence,” etc. The second group focused more on traits that make up the writerly psyche — things like “curiosity,” “honesty,” and (my favorite) “bloody mindedness.” Obviously, this is a trick question; there’s no one answer to what makes a writer. But looking down this list, I felt like both types of answers were missing an essential element.

Consider the work-ethic answers. Are determination, passion, and persistence important to a writing career? Of course! However, they are in no way unique to writers. Success in any career requires these qualities.

The other camp at first seems more tailored to writers. They perfectly capture the fact that every writer has a unique point of view that (arguably) deserves expression. There’s only one problem: these personality traits have nothing to do with the actual act of writing. Curiosity, honesty, and bloody-mindedness could just as easily apply to a person who aspires to write but never gets around to it.3

To truly answer the question, we need to find a trait that combines the artistic outlook with the professional drive to get things done … in short, we need praxis. “Praxis” is a theological term that essentially refers to the point where faith becomes action.4

So praxis for a writer would be the thing that makes them translate their unique personality onto a page. My storytelling gut tells me that this praxis would likely be some kind of personal experience — an event (possibly traumatic?) that forces them to react by writing. I can’t speak for every author, but when I consider events/moments that spur me to actually write, I think of one thing:

feeling misunderstood

This feeling has plagued me my whole life. Every time I’ve sat down to write something, it’s because I feel fundamentally misunderstood by those around me. Writing is a chance for me to articulate all the things going on inside me in a way that I hope will make sense to others.

The good news is that this never goes away. As of this month, I finally have my first novel in the world(!), and every time I read a minor quibble in a review, I feel the same burning shame and frustration that filled me as a child whenever a teacher or parent misunderstood what I had been trying to say.

It’s that feeling of being misunderstood that pushes me to write another story. And another. And another.

UPDATE:  Nathan Bransford just revisited the topic on his blog, highlighting what he thought was a particularly poignant response from one reader.  Click here to read. 

  1. Not that I’m jealous.
  2. Yes I am.
  3. Also, serial killers.
  4. Students of philosophy might recognize the term from reading Kant, who argued that praxis was the application of philosophy to actual events.

6 Comments Leave a Comment

  • Lesli Lytle says:

    My praxis happened when I had to close my flower shop. I never realized until now that I did, indeed, feel misunderstood. I had to prove I was still brilliant, even without the showcase of my shop, and I started writing to prove it.

    I like to tell people that I closed the store to write, but maybe the egg came before the chicken.

  • Roboseyo says:

    Hmm. I think egocentrism is an important part of being a writer– who else would presume that not only should others read his/her thoughts, and not only that, but they should PAY to do so, than someone who thinks he/she is pretty hot stuff. Maybe other fields of writing are different, but in the blog circles where I move, egocentrism – either manifested in arrogance or in shameless self-promotion, is prevalent.

    Other traits are also important (durr) but there has to be some ego mixed in, or we’d be content to keep a diary, and not send anything off.

    Lesli: But… where did the egg come from?

  • Neha Garg says:

    I agree. Feeling Misunderstood is exactly what has driven me to write. And that inexactly what keeps writers at the grindstone year after year, polishing their stories.

  • Linda says:

    I love the term praxis. I can definitely relate to that. I react by writing.
    BTW: I’m halfway through Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes. Not to sound cheesy, but it’s fantastic. Thanks for persevering, even though you felt misunderstood.

  • AAK says:

    Is anyone going to comment on the lexicographer comic? Because it’s AWESOME.

  • Buechele-c says:

    I would say the most important quality would be literacy, but I thought you had a good answer too.

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