Brian Malloy

Novelist, Essayist, Teaching Artist, Grant Writer and Reviewer

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How do I know if my writing is worth pursuing?

November 29, 2014

Tags: creative writing, novel writing, fiction, publishing

Gentle Reader,

If you’re asking me, I will tell you that there is nothing to know, that writing is inherently a worthy pursuit. If, however, you ask a financial planner, you may get a series of questions rather than an answer in response to your query, including (but not limited to), “Really?”, “Are you putting me on?”, and, of course, “Have you been drinking?”

But let’s turn our attention away from such unpleasant personalities as midlist novelists and financial planners and instead consider W.S. Merwin’s poem Berryman:

you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write

If you don’t like the tough love of Berryman, here’s something a bit more hopey/changey from Natalie Goldberg:

"Don’t listen to doubt. It leads no place but to pain and negativity…Instead, have a tenderness and determination toward your writing, a sense of humor, and deep patience that you are doing the right thing…See beyond [doubt] to the vastness of life and the belief in time and practice."

There are also entire schools of literary theorists out there who can analyze your writing from a wide variety of perspectives, including aestheticism, pragmatism, deconstructionism, formalism, modernism, new criticism, new historicism, postmodernism, structuralism, etc., etc., etc. None of them can tell you whether your writing is worth pursuing, however, because in my opinion, literary theory is a load of hooey.

But I digress.

Is your writing a worthy pursuit? By asking the question you are expressing doubt and seeking, perhaps, assurance, a guarantee of sorts that you’re not wasting your time with your poem, your novel, your memoir, your essay, your picture book. If your only criteria are riches, fame, and critical acclaim, then no, in all likelihood, your writing is not worth pursuing. Let me suggest, however, a different set of criteria beyond the National Book Award and a top spot on the New York Times bestseller list:

•Does writing stimulate your imagination?
•Does writing help you organize and express your thoughts?
•Have you discovered something about yourself, others, or about the world around you as a result of your writing?
•Does creating characters or writing about real people make you more empathetic to others?
•Can you take risks with your writing that you cannot take in other areas of your life?
•Does the writing make you more persuasive? Can you convince a reader that there really is a monster under their bed?
•Does writing give you a sense of accomplishment?
•Does writing challenge you?

If the answer to any of those questions is “yes” then your writing is worth pursuing.

Do you want to be younger? Professor John Mirowsky, author of a study on creativity conducted by the University of Texas (Austin) told Bio-Medicine that “The health advantage of being somewhat above average in creative work (in the 60th percentile) versus being somewhat below average (in the 40th percentile) is equal to being 6.7 years younger.” And, in news that may shock your financial planner, Professor Mirowsky says that this advantage is as beneficial as having fifteen times the household income or two more years of education. So really, who needs a huge book advance or an MFA?

Do you want to be smarter? As Dr. Judy Willis writes in her article The Brain-Based Benefits of Writing for Math and Science Learning, “in the past two decades, neuroscience and cognitive science research have provided increasing evidence that correlates creativity with academic, social, and emotional intelligence. Writing can help the brain to develop the logical functions required for successful math and science learning.“

Too academic for you? Consider less ivory-tower reasons why your writing is worth pursuing. Zoe Whitten, a writer of dark and weird fiction, tells us “creative writing excels in relieving stress. After all… you can kill everyone who has ever p***ed you off, and you’ll feel zero guilt the next day.”

So yes, dear reader, your writing is worth pursuing. Literature—even the literature you and I create—is part of the humanities, and as Stanford University tells us, the humanities are “the myriad ways in which people, from every period of history and from every corner of the globe, process and document the human experience. Since humans have been able, we have used philosophy, literature, religion, art, music, history and language to understand and record our world.”

Understanding our world is a worthy pursuit, indeed.


  1. November 29, 2014 12:16 PM EST
    Thank you, Brian! This is the most encouraging thing I've read for a long time.

    A calculus I've sometimes subscribed to goes like this: when the frustration outweighs the pleasure, it's not worth pursuing. But I think you and I both know that the frustration often outweighs everything! Yet still we persist.
    - Bonnie MacDougal
  2. November 29, 2014 5:17 PM EST
    So Brian,I'm guessing you may not be a fan of Hermeneutics? I wanted to knife myself in this class. I still don't know what it is, but I did enjoy Kant, Heidegger and sort of the dialogues of Plato although I got tired of all the binary opposition. As an aside I did not know Robert Pirsig was from Minneapolis and went to the u of M until he flunked out. Finally, to your points outlined above, Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle" was rejected 121, yes, 121 times, and yet sold 5 million copies when it was finally published. I guess he wasn't stymied by self doubt. "Chrissy, bring me the big knife."
    - Babette
  3. January 26, 2016 8:49 PM EST
    Thank you, Brian, for sharing so many perspectives on this. I need all the encouragement and reasons I can get for continuing to write. You have convinced me it is worth it to keep going!
    - Diane Currie Richardson
  4. March 6, 2017 11:58 AM EST
    Brian, I found your website because The Year of Ice was chosen as the first novel that my book club is reading. As a novelist myself, it always helps to read or hear encouraging words. For those questions you posted to the readers to determine if their own writing is worth pursuing, my answer is "yes" to all of them! Thanks for the affirmation, and continued good health to you!
    - Michael Elias, author, The Gift of Life