Why do you write? What message do you want, even need, to share with the world? That core message is at the heart of your creativity—and it’s the way your writing will have the most impact on the world.
We’ve reached episode 11 of Character Test, and I’m doing something a bit different. In August, I presented a talk at one of my favorite conferences, ATL Ideas, and in this episode, I’m sharing that talk with you.
Your Core Message
Something motivates you to write, to create. In fact, that core message probably trickles through all your writing. It fuels your creativity, and tapping into it feels fulfilling. It’s a life message, something you can’t help but share. If you look back at your life, you’ll see you’ve been trying to share it over and over since you were a kid.
But a core message alone isn’t enough. Creativity isn’t enough. You also need to develop your craft, the skills and knowledge that enable you to create powerful, high-quality writing.
There’s a danger here, though, too. Focus too much on the craft, and it’s easy to lose sight of your core message—to create high-quality work, but lacking the heart that drove you to create in the first place.
How do you navigate the tension of creativity and craft? How do you find your core message and use it to fuel your writing? That’s what I share in my talk.
Listen to the Talk
In this episode, we talk about:
- What is a core message?
- How famous writers and speakers found their core messages and integrated them into their art.
- How I lost sight of my own core message.
- Why creativity and craft are in tension with each other—and how to navigate that tension.
- 5 ways you can develop your craft so you can increase your creativity.
- Why discovering your core message will make you a better writer.
Get the slides from my talk when you subscribe to Character Test. Click to download the presentation »
Have you felt a tension between studying your craft and nurturing your creativity? Let me know in the comments.
What’s your core message? What life message have you been trying to share for years, decades even? Take five minutes to reflect and think of the core message that drives you to create.
Then, take ten minutes to write about that message. Why is it important to you? Why do you believe it could make an impact on people’s lives?
When you’re done, share your writing in the comments, and be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers!
Read the Transcript
Hey! My name is Joe Bunting.
What is your core message? What is the story that if you look back on your life you can see that you’ve been telling this story since you were a kid
My core message is awe. It’s always been awe. Since I was 14 years old I’ve been chasing awe.
What Is Awe Really?
It’s kind of a word we throw around sometimes (an awesome word, you might say), but what is it really?
When I think of awe, I think about this page from a book by Cormac McCarthy called Blood Meridian. Here it is:
You don’t have to read the whole thing, or any of it, really. But I think it captures the feeling of awe as well as anything I can say.
That huge paragraph there? It’s a single sentence. An amazingly beautiful sentence that comes when this band of Comanche warriors is bearing down on a troop of Army irregulars. The irregulars are outnumbered, they’re about to be slaughtered, and the sergeant says, this:
Oh my God.
That? That sense of dread mixed with this beautiful writing? That is awe.
Awe if you look it up is synonymous with both wonder and dread.
The way I define it is that it’s this emotional and spiritual realization that life is both full of wonder and full of dread and yet despite it all is overwhelmingly good.
I remember this one moment. I was in Arizona as a teenager. My parents and I were visiting my older sister. I was having kind of a bad day but really a bad year, and was driving in my car alone and I had the window rolled down and I put this song on the radio and it was just right and the light against the hills looked just right and the way the wind felt against my arm was just right and all the bad things that had happened to me, it was finally okay because they had brought me to that perfect moment.
My Journey To Find Awe
I actually decided to become a writer because of this feeling.
It started because I thought that if I could read and write books as my job, I could just sit in that feeling, that awe, all day long. I was a teenager though and I honestly had no idea what being a writer actually meant.
It took a long time to figure out how to actually make steps toward this goal.
And when I finally had my first breakthrough, it wasn’t with writing books, but with songs. I had my first breakthrough actually as a songwriter. I was 20 and I started writing songs and performing them at open mics and coffee shops and the writing was really fun, but performing them was terrible for me. It was the worst. I would go to these open mics and there would be 4 people in the room, and I would be SO nervous. I would play my songs, and no one would care. And then I would get done and second guess everything I had done until I was a nervous wreck.
But there was this one night that it worked. Because in the middle of the show, I felt it. It was like a presence, like some outside thing that had come into the room. It was awe.
All of a sudden I was crying, crying in the middle of my show. It’s really hard to sing when your voice is shaking because you’re almost sobbing into the microphone.
But I wasn’t the only one. Other people were crying too, a few people weeping even. I looked around the room through blurry eyes to see grown men with tears running down their faces. It was amazing.
This I thought was something I could give my life to.
Maybe you’ve had a similar experience in your life. A time when something touched you to the core, beyond words, and you thought, ugh, this is it, I want to DO this. I want to experience more of this. I want to share this with the world.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was discovering my core message.
What is your core message?
Your core message is a primal thing. A feeling, idea, or message that if you look back at your life, you’ve been trying to share since you were a kid.
When I’ve asked people this question they’ve told me things like wonder, hope, acceptance, love, awareness.
My friend, Marianne Richmond, her core message is connection. She suffered horrible seizures as a child that made her feel completely disconnected from her friends, from her family, that made her live every day in fear that she would be found out. But when she finally was open and vulnerable with people, instead of rejecting her, people celebrated her. She finally felt connected for the first time in her life. That led her to writing her first children’s book, and her books have gone on to sell over 6 million copies all from that core message of connection.
My friend Terrence Lester’s core message is empathy. You might have seen Terence already at this event, Terence was homeless as a young man, and he has this amazing ability to treat everyone he meets dignity, no matter how clean or dirty they are, no matter how rich or poor they are. And in his work invites us, most of us who probably haven’t experienced homelessness, to enter into that experience, and it’s extremely effective. Terrence has helped over 300 people get off the streets because he has told his core message so well.
And by the way, your core message doesn’t have to be touchy-feely. I had the chance to interview 4-star admiral Bill McCraven recently. Bill used to be a SEAL, then an admiral, then one of the top commanders in the military, but when he gave a commencement address about making your bed that went viral and reached 9 million people, he tapped into a message he didn’t even know he had. He told me the work he’s doing now, inspiring people to live a life of good order and discipline is the most meaningful work he’s ever done.
What is YOUR core message? Again this is primal, sometimes beyond words, more of a feeling.
What is your core message?
For me, my core message was awe, even though I didn’t really know it, even though I couldn’t really put it into words. And I knew I wanted to be a writer so I could experience more awe and share that feeling with the world.
But I didn’t know how to do that, so I began learning my craft.
And this was smart, because having a core message isn’t enough. You also need to learn how to share your message.
What is the craft? It’s every skill you need to be successful at your calling. For me, it’s writing, of course, but also marketing, copywriting, social media, web design, networking, sales, IT, and so many other random skills that I use EVERY DAY to make a living as a writer.
Craft is hard. It’s not sexy. It’s not magical. It’s definitely not awe-inspiring. And it’s essential.
For Marianne, the children’s book author I talked about, learning the craft meant becoming a creativity machine, writing and publishing books constantly, she’s published over sixty children’s books.
What is the craft? It’s every skill you need to be successful at your calling. For me, it’s writing, marketing, copywriting, social media, web design, networking, sales, IT, and so many other random skills that I use EVERY DAY to make a living as a writer. Craft is hard. It’s not sexy. It’s not magical. It’s definitely not awe-inspiring. And it’s essential.
It’s taken me almost 20 years.
There are three ways to learn the craft,
- Classes are the most popular way to learn a new craft and the least effective. You should absolutely take classes. You should take marketing classes and copywriting classes and sales classes. You should learn to write code, I don’t care who you are. This is the craft and it’s essential. But classes can only get you so far. You also have to have mentors.
- Mentors. When Ernest Hemingway was living in Paris in the 1920s, he had these two authors he looked up to, Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound, and he said that they were the kind of people that could help “a young writer up the rungs of a career.” If you think you can make it on your own you can’t. I needed a mentor too, and when I was 23 I found one, another author who encouraged me that I wasn’t crazy for wanting to be a writer, he taught me how to write a book, he even introduced me to other writers who would become mentors to me. I wouldn’t be talking to you right now if it weren’t for him. And you need to find people like that to learn from too. Whether you’ve been doing this 1 year or 30 years, you need someone speaking into your craft, giving you feedback so you can grow. the last way to learn the craft is to steal.
- [Steal.] TS Eliot said mediocre poets imitate. Great poets steal. What does it mean to steal? Every time I write something in a new form, whether a newspaper article or nonfiction book, I go and find three to five really amazing examples of that form and I study them. I look especially for structure, and then I steal that structure. I don’t steal the content. We’re not talking about plagiarism. I steal the structure so I can figure out how to communicate the message I am trying to share effectively.
And that’s what I did. I studied great writing and great marketing and I learned how it worked.
All right, do you mind if I get a little nerdy here?
I learned how to share an idea in five easy steps.
- [Problem] The first thing I learned was to start by writing or talking about the problem. NOT the solution. Everyone want to start with the solution. But people won’t listen to you unless you can first identify the problem. What problem are the people you’re trying to reach experiencing? Start there.
- [Make the problem personal] Then you need to make the problem personal. How do you make it personal? By telling a story about a time when you or someone you know experienced the same problem.
- [Solution story]. Next you share the story about how you discovered the solution. This is to build tension so that they’re ready for their problem to get solved.
- [Solution] Only then, after doing all those other things, do you share the solution to their problem. Skipping straight to the solution is like cutting in line. It might make you feel good, but it will piss off everyone else. Don’t do it!
- [Call to action] Last is the call to action. Now that you’ve shared your idea, you need to ask people to do something with it, to subscribe, join your community, buy your book, do 10 jumping jacks, whatever it is.
I learned hundreds of different formulas, thousands of steps to accomplish everything from turning my taxes incorrectly to launching a six-figure product.
At some level, all my focus on the craft worked.
People started paying attention. My audience grew, by small amounts at first, and then by huge jumps. This year, my writing is going to reach over 5 million people. My book, 14 Prompts, has been read by over 100,000 people. I’ve accomplished so many of my dreams.
But then it began to hit me. I had spent so much time focusing on the craft that I’d forgotten what the craft was for.
It wasn’t supposed to be about getting the biggest audience possible. It was to help people experience awe. And that feeling that I had worked so hard to chase, the awe? I realized I was growing more and more distant from it.
I think every writer, every artist, every nonprofit and business experiences this tension, the tension between the craft and their core message, the tension between the marketplace and their true purpose.
Most people try to relieve this tension, one way or another. They focus all their attention on doing the things that sell and then get frustrated when they feel like a sellout or that their work is hollow. Or they ignore the marketplace, focusing just on their art, and then are disappointed when they find they can’t make a living on their passion.
For me, I had focused so much on trying to impress people with the craft, to make people think I was a good writer who knew what he was talking about so they would listen to me, that I forgot what the craft was for. It wasn’t supposed to be about impressing people. It was supposed to be about passing along this feeling, this awe that I had dedicated my life to.
There was this moment not too long ago. I was at a conference in Portland in a room kind of like this one and there was a person on the stage sharing their core message, this feeling that they had given their life to, they had combined the craft so perfectly with their message that it was indistinguishable. It was perfect. And I started weeping. Half of the audience did. There in that theater something had come into the room and I couldn’t help but get swept in it. And it woke something up inside of me, and not just me but so many of us in that audience.
And that is what you have the ability to do if you take it. Find your core message, that thing that mysterious thing that makes you weep or get excited or gives you energy and purpose and meaning and harness it to your craft, the skills, the marketing, the network you’ve built and use it to wake people up, to give people hope, to free people where they’re locked up, and to make the world better, more humane, more connected, more full of awe.
Will you do it? Will you do what it takes?
I’m starting a new journey. A journey where I’m refusing to let my craft dictate to my core message. Where I let awe inspire my use of the craft.
But I’d love to invite you to follow my journey. Later this year I’m going to publish some writing that I’ve been hiding away for years because I’ve been so terrified it might not be good enough. I’ve also started a new podcast called Character Test, where I talk about the intersection between our character and the characters in the books we read and films we watch. If you’d like to follow along as I struggle to find my way through this tension, you can find me here on:
Thank you so much. It’s an honor to be on this stage and part of this community. Thanks for being an amazing group.
Let me just close with something of a creative blessing.
May you discover your core message. May you find your place in the tension between the craft and that message. Most of all, may you experience awe today.