Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

What We Learn about Writing from Politics

The American PresidentOne of my favorite movie lines comes from the Rob Reiner film The American President, starring Michael Douglas and Annette Bening.

At one point in the film, in the midst of political controversy, the president (Douglas) says stoically and dismissively, “We fight the fights we can win.”

It has the smug ring of a cynical worldview to it. Those of us who have weathered the storms of life all sigh and slowly nod our heads, thinking, “It’s true. That is life.”

But then, in a moment of movie magic, the loyal friend and faithful attendee to the president A.J. (Martin Sheen) retorts with uncharacteristically bold defiance: “You fight the fights that need fighting!”

It’s inspiring and compelling and we all find ourselves cheering along.

Because it’s true.

The politics of life (and writing)

Yes, life is hard, and it’s tempting to get jaded. But what makes life worth living is the ideals by which we stand and persevere.

So, let’s draw an analogy to the writing process, shall we?

As you all should know by now, you don’t write for recognition or to get published. You write, because you’re a writer.

And because the recognition doesn’t always happen. Not like we want it to, anyway.

Stop listening to your voters (er, readers)

Sometimes, your readers don’t know what they need to hear. Sometimes, you just have to write the words worth writing, regardless of the fanfare or applause you do or don’t receive.

Sometimes, you have to lead your audience.

That’s what Mark Twain did. He wrote for the joy of it (writing, as well as causing a ruckus). Some hated him for it, while others celebrated his work.

And he’s still causing controversy to this day.

Talk about making a difference.

Real writers and amateurs

There is a difference between professionals and amateurs.

Real writers write because they have to. It’s a compulsion. A life-calling. Something that they can’t not do.

Amateurs write, because they get paid. Because someone told them to do it. Because they want an audience.

When you get published, it’s easy to become an amateur without realizing. It’s easy to start writing only what people want to hear. To try to be cool.

Beware the politican’s trap

It’s a subtle temptation — this need for acceptance — but it creeps into your daily decision-making until it becomes your primary motivator.

Like a president dying to get re-elected, you slip into survival mode, forgetting why you first started blazing down this “campaign” trail so long ago.

It’s easy to get caught up in the politics of it all — to focus more on retaining the audience you’ve gained than on changing lives. To coddle instead of challenge. To appease instead of antagonize. To only pick the fights you can win.

But that wasn’t why you got into this whole communications business in the first place.

Was it?

Write the things worth writing

I propose an alternative to the fluff-filled, middle-of-the-road approach to writing:

Write the things worth writing and stop giving a damn about “winning” or “losing.”

Write like Twain and forget about the politics of self-preservation.

The irony is that if you love what you do and do what you love — even if it gets you fired — you win every time.

What’s an example from your life of a fight worth fighting? Share in the comments.

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • I’m reminded of a Benjamin Franklin quote: “Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.”

    But seriously, when I first started writing on my blog, the posts that came out were a little more personal in nature. Those posts seem to have come out naturally (and it felt pretty darn good). I’m challenging myself to get back to that rhythm.

  • Great quote, Ricardo!

  • Anonymous

    When it comes to the naysayers of our writing, we have to be the shortstop in the Abbott and Costello’s classic skit “Who’s on first”…his name was “I Don’t Give a Darn!”

    In the Air Force, I once stood up for requiring all Public Affairs enlisted people needing to know how to write feature stories to obtain a particular skill level. All my peers agreed until the chiefs criticized that idea. My peers all caved in, but I stood firm. I lost but never gave up the fight.

    • Well said. Some fights are worth losing.

  • Evan

    Love this movie! Great post, Jeff!

  • Great post!
    I have not seen the movie yet, but it’s in my Blockbuster queue.

    Thank you for the candid reminder of why I write. I am a writer NOT an amateur. 🙂

    • Indeed, you are!

      But, dude, Blockbuster… are you SERIOUS?!

      I didn’t know they were still in business.

  • Jamal Jivanjee

    Vital truth. Thanks for sharing this. A needed reminder for me:)

    • I am glad to hear it, Jamal! Thanks for the comment and encouragement.

  • Eric

    Thanks for this reminder and encouragement, Jeff. Sorely needed.

    Shout out to Jamal Jivanjee for referring me to this blog entry.

    • Very cool, Eric. Glad you found it. And thanks to Jamal for sharing. 🙂

  • I think Julien has been reading your stuff, especially after his post today.

    I love what you had to say, we write because we are writers. I think the people that get frustrated the most with blogging are the ones that write for different motives, not because they are writers.

    • It’s the other way around. I’ve been reading his stuff. He inspired me on a lot of levels. Thanks, Kyle!

  • Carolyn Solares

    When I do write as you described, it just feels…right. Thanks, again you have challenged me to be a better writer.

  • Way to go, Jeff!
    Yet another powerful, memorable post.
    I have not seen that film yet but would like to after reading this!



  • A little late to the party here, but loved this post. I suffer from writers’ block all the time but periodically, I get compelled to write about something all at once when I get passionate on the topic. An example, the aftermath of the shooting in Tucson earlier this year. (https://www.avassallo.com/?p=283) Also, I read Julien Smith’s blog and I take you do, as well? I did see a similarity here with his recent post about not sticking to the middle ground–the end of caring too much about offending people. I’m trying to embrace that philosophy. Thanks!

    • Yup, I love Julien. He’s the real deal. Thanks, Andrea!

  • This is a great post! Thanks! I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic lately, as I’ve been trying to work on an essay about writing to write, not writing to be published, but looks like you’ve already communicated the core concept. Phew! 

  • I needed this: 

    “Stop listening to your voters (er, readers) Sometimes, your readers don’t know what they need to hear. Sometimes, you just have to write the words worth writing, regardless of the fanfare or applause you do or don’t receive.”

    I think this is relevant in life period – because not everyone will catch (or hit) what we pitch. (the best analogy here I could think of was baseball)

  • Thank you for the great reminder.  I’m glad to have someone to help keep me focused on the truly important things about writing.
    Thanks, Jeff.

  • SS

    I really like your blogs and your overall life attitude. No matter how pragmatic the theme of the blogs are, there is always an underlying spiritual breath in them.

  • paulhakel.info

    Word. Some of the best artists I’ve known have always said to do what you want to do and let the people deal with it. 

  • Sheryl Anne

    I love this piece. You are so inspirational. My fight, the thing that is being focused on, for me, right now, is the comment that I make as people leave my line at the grocery store. I say God Bless Your Day ~ GBYD. My boss was ok with it, I did my job, I smiled and took their money at the register. Someone complained and Corp. told me to stop. I will write about it for our day 21 in the challenge. (and by the way, it is such a habit I do it anyway. i may get fired, but I won’t stop) GBYD

  • Fiona Tarr

    Thanks Jeff, encouraging article, especially as most of my post topics tend to be controversial in nature. I have never been one to tow the line of conformity 😉

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