Why Writers Write (Hint: It’s Not for the Money)

From Jeff: This is a guest post by Johanna Castro who is a freelance writer living in Western Australia. She champions voyages of discovery to dream places and quiet spaces on her travel blog, Zigazag. Follow her on Twitter @JohannaACastro.

The other day, I was having coffee with a friend who said she thought writing was a waste of time. She went on to ask why I spent so much time at the computer.

Typewriter Keys
Photo credit: Raúl Hernández González (Creative Commons)

“It’s not as if you’re earning a fortune,” she said, slowly licking the cappuccino froth from her top lip. I was a taken aback. After all, I didn’t think it was her place to question me. Especially since she isn’t a writer.

Words and ideas

I realized the fact that my friend isn’t a writer was the crux of the matter. Non-writers don’t get why writers write.

They think you haven’t really “made it” and can’t be called a writer until you’re a New York Times best-selling author or have several traditionally-published titles.

In fact, sometimes those closest to us don’t understand why we do what we do. Just the other day, my husband pointed out I might make more money behind a bar or cleaning houses. My mother often wonders why I didn’t keep trying to be a secretary.

And sometimes, deep down inside, I wonder the same. I even question why I continue to write:

Why do I spend so much time dreaming up words and ideas that I hope might inspire people? What’s the point?

Maybe you’ve thought the same.

Getting out of the comfort zone

A couple weeks ago, I went camping for 12 days in the Outback of Australia on a Kimberley safari with Adventure Wild, a tour company.

I expected to be camping with a tribe of young, energetic 30-somethings. But what I found was a group of jovial baby-boomers, intent on making the most of a camping trip while they were still agile enough to hike, climb, and swim.

During the trip, we were all taken well out of our comfort zones and were better for it.

There were few comforts on this trip. We slept in remote camping spots — isolated places deep in the bush, often without showers and only “long drop” toilets (not to mention snakes, spiders, lizards, mosquitoes, and more).

Through these discomforts, we learned something important about ourselves and what it takes to live an adventure.

Hoping for the unexpected

Although the scenery on the trip was beautiful, we were daily confronted with new norms. For 12 days, our minds and bodies were stretched to extremes. We grew.

Not once did I hear someone complain about sleeping on the ground or helping with the chores. I was inspired as I watched fellow campers walking rocky paths alongside gorges and chasms and setting up their tents in record time.

These boomers were seriously out of their comfort zones. It must have been difficult for some, but they were oblivious to the fact. Instead, they looked forward to each new turn in the trail — filled with excitement and anticipation, hoping for the unexpected.

And for some reason, I thought of writing.

Pushing barriers in life (and writing)

Perhaps being taken out of your comfort zone isn’t such a bad thing.

It took a physical jolt to make me realize why I love writing. It’s the push, the striving, the discomfort that makes it all worth the sacrifice.

Why do writers write?

We write because it pushes us beyond the barriers of everyday existence into a world of what might be. A world of opportunity. An infinite variety of maybes and what ifs. A vast plain of words that might help describe the world in which we live.

Expect the unexpected

For a writer, no two days are the same. The path may not always be smooth and predictable, but there are always new sights to see. There is always more to explore.

Like any great journey, writing is full of its ups and downs. Sometimes, it feels like riding a roller coaster; other times, it’s like riding a donkey.

We can be taken from Byzantine riches to Ethiopian droughts — from good to bad and dark to light — in the flash of a feature or the length of a short story.

There’s no comfort in a thrilling story, and the same is true for a writer’s life. It is an isolated — but far from lonely — experience. With our words and fellow “travelers” to keep us company, adventure lurks around every corner.

Not a waste of time

For a moment, my friend’s comment rubbed the wrong way. But she got me thinking.

Writing can never be a waste of time, because it takes you places you would never go. Not if your feet are firmly planted on the ground, in the here and now.

There’s a lot more to the writing life than what we earn — or don’t earn. After all, it’s not our possessions or paychecks that make for a fulfilled life. It’s those moments we choose to step into discomfort that our stories begin to be interesting.

A trip to the Australian Outback taught me that.

Being away from your routine and placing yourself in a strange environment is challenging. Each moment is full of excitement and anticipation about what could happen next. It’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey.

Just like writing. Just like life.

What do you think? Share in the comments.

If you need help getting started as a writer, check out The Writer’s Studio, an in-depth audio program, eBook, and writing worksheet.

84 thoughts on “Why Writers Write (Hint: It’s Not for the Money)

  1. I love being tossed in the story of my characters and living the life they live even for a few hours a day. Some times my characters have it better than me but most often they have it worse but either way I love the fiction world I got going inside my head waiting to get down on the sheets.

    I write because of this journey. I write because I can’t not write. I write because without writing I don’t feel like myself and I’m a lot more on edge.

    Thanks for posting, Jeff.

    1. From your reply I can feel the excitement you feel when writing your stories, Shaquanda. It’s true, so many of us write because we just can’t not write. I wish you every success.

  2. I too was a little offended when i read that “writing is a waste of time.”

    It is difficult for me to put into words why exactly I write, but you’ve done a pretty good job of  it.

    I’d only add one thing: that when I write the story isn’t as important to me as the resonance of the words in my mind. My brain lights up when the words pour out of me and fit together in a smooth flowing, seamless stream. For me, I can’t think of anything better or more challenging to do with my life.


    1.  That’s a very good point, Matthew.  I can understand what you mean about the ‘Aha’ moment when your mind and your words gel together – that feeling of being in the flow is hard to beat.

  3. As a non writer, all I can say is that thank heavens you do write – otherwise what would I read?
    Being a writer seems to be very similar to being an artist – it is almost a calling, something you have to get out from inside you. Please continue, for al of us who can’t.

  4. Hi Johanna, it is great to see a fellow Aussie writing here. And you sure can write. I get the same kind of response from those around me about my blogging. It is a passion plain and simple. We are no different than anyone else who likes to spend time doing what they love. Onwards and upwards. Thanks for the post. Now I can go check out your blog as well.

    1.  Hi fellow Aussie, Lilly! Thank you very much for those kind words – writers are often unsure of themselves and so a bit of encouragement goes a long way! Yes, it’s all about the passion and doing what you love, isn’t it? I hope your blog is going well and that you continue to be passionate about your writing. Thanks for checking out my blog – I reply to comments and will check out your latest post too 🙂

  5. Johanna, I LOVE this. From meeting you last weekend I know how wonderful and passionate you are, so please never stop writing!

    When I was a teenager someone asked me what I wanted to be. I replied to them that I would like to be a writer. At that moment they told me that it’s a silly thing to want to be, a difficult career, little money and highly competitive. My parents encouraged me to study business and aim for the stars, for something “big”. I’ve now been there, done that and in my 30’s guess what I’m choosing to do: To write! I love it, it’s part of me and I wouldn’t be complete without it.

    Reading Jeff’s book “You are a Writer” was the best gift I gave myself all year, it means I finally have the courage to fulfill my dreams.

    1. Loreena, I went through the same thing.  I spent 15 years working in the corporate world completely miserable, all the while feeling like a square peg in a round hole, words welling up within me that had no release.  When I was laid off last year right before my 35th birthday I said “enough is enough”.  I told my husband I was not going back to the “cube” and was going to spread my wings and fly.  A year later I’m running a successful business as a self-employed freelance writer.  I have NEVER in my life felt so happy and so complete as I do now.  It’s an amazing feeling when you finally let go of other’s dreams and expectations for yourself, and follow your own!

      1.  Oh Dawn-Renee, the square peg in a round hole, I can so relate to that! I’m so glad you’ve escaped the cube and have learnt to fly. I’m very impressed that it only took you a year to get a successful freelance writing business going – fantastic! Keep writing, won’t you 🙂

    2.  Loreena, it was lovely to meet you at the Problogger event too! And ‘backatcha’ with the passion and wonderfulness! I hear of so many stories of people being put off following their writing passion when they are younger (myself included) but it seems that most people who truly love writing always come back to it in the end. It’s as you say … a part of you and something you just don’t feel complete without.

       I love Jeff’s work too 🙂

      I hope this year you fulfill your dreams; travel, write and continue to believe in yourself – I’ll be following you with interest 🙂

  6. The thing about writing is that I hit the publish button and give the world and  my readers part of me.  And hopefully they get something out of it.  But I learned something about myself during the process.  I may not like what I learned, but I learned something.  I am further along in my journey everyday when I write.

    1.  I agree Larry, that writing really does teach us about ourselves – both the good and the bad. Some people say that writing is a kind of therapy, but it’s also self discovery – maybe they are one and the same? Thanks for commenting here 🙂

    1.  Thank you so much, Denise! When words resonate with another writer, that is truly special, so I am sitting here with a big happy grin and a warm fuzzy feeling! Good luck with your writing and art too 🙂

  7. Sometimes I write because I have something to say, or rather my heart needs a release of some kind.
    Most times tho, I write because the words are begging me.
    My daughter is a photographer and I see her walk around with her camera and “capture” moments in time with her lens. I feel like I do the same thing with my words. A moment happens (or sometimes a memory reappears) and my brains says “hold it right there” and I start snapping word pictures.
    Another commenter said “I can’t not write”. My response to that is “yes, that’s it exactly!”

    1.  It’s great when the words come begging isn’t it Freebie, and when you can capture a moment in time with words? I wish you lots of words, lots to say and that your heart continues to release its inner thoughts.

  8. Nope, it’s certainly not for money.  🙂   I write because for years I didn’t and a big chunk of me felt dead.  When I finally made the decision to face the fear of writing and became okay with looking at all the imperfect and awkward thoughts that ended up on the page…that’s when I came to life.   I write because once you get a taste of “alive” who wants to go back to dead. 

  9. I write because the characters show up and harass me until I put their lives on paper.  I write because when I don’t I feel I’m disrespecting a gift that not everyone was given.  I write to share my dreams with you.    

  10. Writing is about creation and discovery. If these two things don’t fire you up, then yes, you have no reason to be a writer.

  11. This was awesome to read! Thanks for sharing your thoughts on why writers write.  As a writer myself, I’ve often wondered the same thing, so I know family and friends do as well. But, how do you explain to people that writing is like breathing? It’s just a part of you that you HAVE to do in order to survive.  At least, that’s what it is for me.

    1.  Thank you so much Dawn-Renee, I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Yes, writing is like breathing, you are so right, and that’s what’s so hard for some non-writers to understand. Good luck with your own writing 🙂

  12. I think you share some wise words here. And it can apply to so much more than writing. The bottom line is following your passion will often take you out of the easy and (what some might consider) the sane way of living. Steve Jobs said it best when he did his Here’s to the Crazy Ones (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rwsuXHA7RA). Thank you for leaving your comfort zone for us! Where would we be without writers???

    Deborah Richardson

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  13. I went on a mission trip to Haiti recently so I understand your analogy to being pushed out of our comfort zones. We do grow when pushed in that way. I have been a Christian speaker for many years and only recently have begun writing for the written word. It is challenging to finally let it go and push the publish button on my site. So far I have gotten good response from my readers. I had to decide before I started why I was really writing and I decided I enjoy studying the Bible and writing. It’s still hard to call myself a “writer,” when my name isn’t on the cover of a book. But I am learning that even the writing I did many years for speaking was still writing. I am a writer. I think your blog told me to say that!

    1.  I expect the mission to Haiti was a wonderful thing to do, even though you were pushed out of your comfort zone, Amy. The years you spent speaking are a fine groundwork on which to base your writing, and I’m sure you can mine the nuggets of gold you spoke about in your speaches, and be the alchemist to turn them into stories ready for the ‘publish’ button. I wish you all the best.

  14. So many here have already said how I feel so I will add simply, I write because it satisfies me deeply on a personal, vocational basis. It settles my inner drive to create and solve. 

    I work with software developers, who are an amazingly creative bunch. We connect on a creative level in that writing stories is as much a problem to be solved as their engineering efforts. I love taking a story, a prompt or simply an idea and fleshing it out into something I enjoy and can share, that solves a story begging to be told. The bonus is when others enjoy it as well, but there’s nothing like sitting back at the end of a writing session and feeling satisfied with the work. Not the quality inasmuch as the completed effort.

    Perhaps that was more a ramble than a simple thought. But I’m satisfied. 🙂

    1.  Thanks for your thoughts Rob. I enjoy being taken on a bit of a ramble, and yes it’s great how sometimes two seemingly opposite worlds collide in an engaging way – software developers and writers both trying to solve problems from start to finish, or tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. You’re so right about sitting back at the end of a writing session and feeling satisfied – and isn’t it great when others enjoy it as well 🙂

  15. Johanna, how many times have we all seen that look, when you tell someone you are writing a novel. The look of why bother, your not a real writer.
     When my husband and I moved from our comfortable well paid jobs, house and life and took a risk, moving to the country side. With no job prospects, no house and a child diagnosed with autism, thats when I began to write with passion. I met real characters for my stories. We were way out of our comfort Zone and on our second week in a new rental house working on a dairy farm we had Two funnel web spiders inside the house. If I look back now and knew the struggles we were going to have I probably would not have given all the comforts up. But I write more now than ever, we as a family have grown and learnt many things and we laugh and enjoy life in all its beauty never look back, cherish the moments and yes I will keep writing because I could not survive without it

    1.  It sounds as if your are on an interesting journey K A, and it’s great that you are following your dream. Keep on writing with passion about the things that matter to you 🙂

  16. The more I write the better I understand the adventure. I never know when inspiration will strike or how creatively I may need to capture that thought.
    Your description is dead on.
    Jeff, thanks for introducing us to Johanna.

    1.  Chad, thank you for commenting and good to meet you too! I wish you all the best with your writing adventure and lots of inspiration to keep the sparks flying and the wheels turning 🙂

  17. I love what you said about writing taking us places we wouldn’t otherwise go. For me, that means writing has changed me. So often what I write for others enables me to work through difficulties I’m having. Then later when I reread my words, I’m often helped again. I could have a part-time job with all the time I spend writing, but there’s nothing else I would rather do. It’s wonderful to talk with others like you who get that.

    1.  Thank you Melanie 🙂 I’m so glad that my words spoke to you in a good way. Yes, it’s true that writing can help on several levels, and that often when we help others we help ourselves by default too. I wish you all the best with your own writing, please keep at it 🙂

  18. Just a note to say a big Thank You to Jeff, for letting me guest post on his wonderful site. I loved writing the post and I’m really enjoying reading (and replying to) the inspiring comments that it’s garnering from his lovely readers.

  19. I find that my best writing comes when I’m not constrained by “how much will it make” or “will this ever make me some money”. To be honest, it would be nice to not have to worry about where rent money is coming from, but that’s not WHY I write. I agree with Johanna on this though. It’s more about the love of the art than the money it makes me.

    1.  Yes, Jason, isn’t that a fact? The creative muse is a strange creature – if only she understood about rent! I hope though that you continue to love the art, and I hope that some money follows on too 🙂

      1. I hope so too. So far as I see the ideas aren’t abating and as long as the stories are coming I’ll keep on writing. This was a very inspiring read, it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who thinks like this.

  20. Hi Johanna and Jeff,

    So true, no one else get writing.

    In fact even when you make a decent living from writing no one sees it as real work. But it is… kind of… Like you I certainly couldn’t do anything else! 

    1.  Hi Annabel! Yes it’s sometimes quite comical how even when you are making money from writing, it’s still often construed as a ‘hobby’ – something you do on the side for a bit of fun. Those people don’t understand the long, hours, the pulled out hair and waste paper bins full of scrunched up paper! But still we do it, because we ‘couldn’t do anything else.’ Thanks for commenting, and I know you are a writing professional, so keep up the great work 🙂

  21. Writing is an outlet for me and in fact I started writing because no one really understood me and I found it difficult to have meaningful conversations with people. There will always be a segment of the population who don’t ‘get it’ and well so be it. I agree it’s certainly not about the money and it’s never a waste of time. Great post Johanna. 

    1.  I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Miss Sassy. Writing to be understood is a perfectly respectable reason to begin writing, and perhaps many writers are much happier explaining themselves on paper, than they are in real life. I know I am. Keep writing and thanks for your comment 🙂

  22. Love this post Jo! So great to see you writing on Jeff’s site.
    I love how you related it to the exploration of travel. It’s just like all the comments we always receive from people not understanding why we travel. It’s because it pushes us to grow and discover more about ourselves. I couldn’t live any other way. I would probably be quite wealthy if I never travelled, but then what would be the point.

    I’m so glad I decided to take same that journey of discover through writing over the last two years. Yes, the money sucks, but I have never felt more fulfilled. I discovered that I do have a voice with something worthwhile to share, and I think all writers are brave enough to acknowledge their voice and to put those words out there for the world to read and judge (hopefully nicely)

    Thank you for sharing this!

    1.  Thank you Caz 🙂 Your journey of discovery through writing is truly inspiring and I know that people respond to what you have to say and share. I so agree with your thoughts; if we don’t do what makes us intrinsically happy and follow what we’re passionate about, then having all the money in China isn’t going to make us truly content. Please keep exploring and telling the world about what you find 🙂

  23. Excellent stuff. Writing — along with my other passion, playing music — always takes me places I’ve never been, and places I’d forgotten.

    But for me the crux is in that great truth John Lee Hooker expounded on in Boogie Chillen: ‘Cause it’s in him, and it has to come out.

  24. Hi Johanna, why do we write? It amazes me friends and family ask questions like that, the type of people who ask are the ones who sit for hours watching soaps on TV… do they get paid for that? no they don’t, but they enjoy it… as we writers enjoy writing.

    I enjoy seeing where my imagination takes me, and allowing it to flow. I love playing with words and trying to think up a better ways to say things. I like to know that I have made people laugh and informed them of things they didn’t previously know. 

    The truth of it all… I enjoy it. 🙂

    And I can see from all of the comments, I most certainly am not alone. 

    1.  You are definitely not alone, Andi the Minion! In fact I think there may be rather a lot more of us than we are even aware ‘out there’!  So glad to hear how much you enjoy writing 🙂

  25. certainly not doing it for the money! (bit like my photography too really) but wow isn’t it wonderful seeing one’s name and words and images in print (in magazines in my case). And it has taken me to places I might not have gone and I have met wonderful people along the way that I might not have met.
    Wonderful post Jo – you really put into words what meany writers I think feel about their writing – it’s not a question of why but have to!  It is so important for our own selves to be who we should be!  Thanks Jo.

    1. So glad you felt that my words encapsulated what you and other writers feel too. So often a writer never knows for sure, but just has a hunch that something is right. Yes, you’re right that we should try to be who we really are. Thanks for commenting Jill.

  26. I can’t think of anything more to add to the comments already posted here. I have wanted to write since the day I knew what writing was. Until now I have not had to courage to write or declare myself as a writer. I have been following this blog for sometime now because it always give me confirmation of what I know and feel about writing. If I don’t write, I get cranky. It’s like being deprived of oxygen. I need to write because it’s like breathing. Money will just be the icing on the cake if and when it comes. Writing for a writer is never a waste of time. It is the best time ever! 

  27. Oh what an inspirational piece of writing Jo … so spot on. It is about going out of your comfort zone and being the best that you can be. I sometimes wonder if it’s the writing that I love or having written  … but of course you can’t have one without the other!

    When I was growing up I was discouraged from writing, especially by my father who said “you’ll never make any money writing, you want to get a real profession.”  and so that really influences the path you take. So after having ‘a profession’  I always came back to writing and love it. And you can see by so many comments here so many people feel the same way. Thanks Jo.

    1. Thanks Ingrid! Yes, it seems so many people can be discouraged from writing when they are young, but so many come back to it full circle in the end. Keep on writing!

  28. “Writing can never be a waste of time, because it takes you places you would never go. Not if your feet are firmly planted on the ground, in the here and now.”

    I really like that man! I had this huge revelation the other day after being frustrated for a while about trying to attract lots of money and readers. I realized that I was pushing the here and now away and trying instead to grab the there and then.

    You need deep roots in order to reach high. You need your feet firmly planted in the here and now in order to create what you wish to create.

    Thank you!

  29. I know I’m a little late to this comment party, but I loved your thoughts on this Johanna. There something about writing that fulfills that need to create that is wired into all of us. I supect your friend is gifted to fill that need in others areas. But we all have it. As Eileen suggested, when we don’t create, we feel dead.  Well said.

  30. If you feel anything like the master felt, you must be doing something right.

    “Writing comes as a result of a very strong impulse, and when it does come, I for
    one must get it out.”  -C.S. Lewis 

  31. Excellent post. “Sometimes, it feels like riding a roller coaster; other times, it’s like riding a donkey.” – Johanna … great line. It is always so encouraging to read something that validates your inner thoughts. In this case, I was shouting on the inside, “Me too!… and she lives across the world… and is really good!” 

  32. I write because every now and then there are thoughts and feelings inside of me that bubble up and insist to be released into written words. Every time I fail to head the call, those thoughts and feelings evaporate into space. When that happens I feel that something in me dies.    

  33. I wrote tonight to help purge the mundane that my life – at least to me – seems to be. It’s hard because I have a family that I love but still, I’ve lost track of me. I’m a baby boomer who will probably never spent an hour, let alone 12 days in the Australian outback, or spend a year with the Peace Corp or go to Africa and actually help dig a well. Sure I can send a check, but you make a real difference with your hands, your blood, your sweat and your tears …

  34. Great post! I somehow can relate to that line , ” you haven’t really made it as a writer unless you’re writing on the New York Times”.. I mostly do journal writing since high school and don’t consider myself as one even if  I started blogging.. but Mr. Jeff Goins changed my perception about that.. Why not?  I write so yes, I’m a writer (with great conviction). It is my way of unleashing the demons inside me. I do it mainly because there is something that I have to say. Period. Not to earn money … or maybe not yet but it’s not my end goal.
    But as you said, writing is a journey, so might as well enjoy the trip.

  35. I agree wholeheartedly!
    Every time I tell someone I’m a writer, the first question they ask me is, “Are you published?”

    I wish people would understand that I write to express my thoughts, not for money or fame. Yes, recognition would be great, but that’s not what I strive for!

    Another thing I wanted to mention… I’m a part of a few online websites like Wattpad and Fanfiction.net, and it disgusts me that almost every author says the same thing in their author’s note: “I’ll publish the next chapter if I get 10 likes/follows/comments.”

    I’ve never been ‘famous’ on any of these communities and I’m fine with it. I was born a writer and I’ll stay that way, whether I get famous or not! 🙂

  36. I don’t want to come off like a troll on here, so I’m just going to say that I politely disagree with this post. I think it’s really great that everyone can find this to be an inspirational post, and I hope you all keep writing because you’re true artists.

    I also consider myself a writer although I’ve never made it on any notable list, but I make a living off of what I do. Enough so that I can even help support my family.

    To say that it’s not about the money, though, is not the truth for me. It is. For me, my writing puts food on the table. Also, I value my work enough to get paid.

    I get what you’re saying that it’s not fair that others think you’re not a real writer if you haven’t written a best-selling book, but to that I say…are those really your friends? They don’t sound very nice.

    Also, if you really are trying to make it as a writer, I don’t think it’s so bad to take some financial advice. I think a lot of people are coming from a good place, when they dole out that advice. Maybe you see it as an attack on whether or not you’re a true artist, and I’m sorry if you feel that way, but that may just be your interpretation.

    It’s fine to keep your dream alive. Keep doing that! Shush the haters (even me) and keep doing your thing. But maybe, when you’re telling others to pursue their dream, regardless of how much money they’ll make, maybe also include that you’re coming from a place where you realize you have the luxury of doing this…whereas others might not have that luxury. That’s all I’m saying.

    I wrote a post about Jeff giving his book away for free and how I don’t think that could work for me, and I think the same lesson applies here. Good for you! Not for me.


  37. It was great to read your blog on why writers write. I am in the beginning of writing. Your words and inspiration from Geoff has helped me to see that I just have to keep going…

    Have been journaling for over 10 years, and have had a lot of fun doing that, but not before now did I start the excited writing journey that will become lots of books ebooks audio CDs etc. I would say it is an inner drive in me that makes me need to write. An innder drive that God has put inside me that pushes me to always think about writing and always need to write.

    He has given me the talent to write for a reason only He knows. He deserves all the glory! He has told me to write many times when I have been stopped. He has said: “Use the talent that I have given you. Writing is one of the talents I have given you. Use it. Use it to My glory! You pleases Me when you write! heaven rejoice when you Reidun write!”

    To know that He wants me to write keeps me at the writing every day. I want to be a finisher. And I know only my writing will get me out of debt. So yes, money is also a drive to write. But mostly it is the fact that I am born to do this because that is how God has created me. Just cant stop write! 🙂 THANK YOU FOR INSPIRING WORDS!

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