Perhaps the most important question for every creative writer to ask—and definitely the hardest question to answer—is “What’s at stake for me?” For writing to work well, the writer must care deeply.
On the surface this question seems simplistic; our care is instinctive, compelling, and unspoken. In practice, the journey through revision is an excavation of the author’s stake, digging below external reasons (“I want to help others; I want to be published”), below the outer story (“I want to explore this memory, character, or idea”), to some subconscious, undercurrent of longing. Our stake is always found in our emotional relationship to the subject matter. Without some connection to our content, we might convey the content to a reader but we’ve no reason to explore it. And passionate exploration is what makes writing great.
What’s in question? What are you risking? What of your heart have you invested? A writer’s stake in a project is a fiery furnace that fuels the steam engine and makes it move. When I ask writers, “What’s at stake?” they frequently have no idea. The writing process is their heartfelt search for that single burning coal. Sometimes writers have an answer that changes with time and revision, a sign that their work is gaining dimension. Sometimes writers continue to learn about their stake long after the project is done. Only when writers have a definitive, unchanging answer do I grow concerned for their work.
I believe every project is an attempt to give words to an inarticulate relationship between the author’s heart and his or her subject matter. Our struggles naming this relationship are understandable: It changes by virtue of being written. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew