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.

52 thoughts on “What We Learn about Writing from Politics

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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. 🙂

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

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

  5. 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.

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

  7. 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!

  8. 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! 

  9. 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)

  10. 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.

  11. 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. 

  12. 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

  13. 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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