Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Finding Purpose

Cliches drive me nuts. I've been in what seems a constant struggle since I entered highschool to find my "place" in the world and the response I heard most often is "You can be whatever you want to be!" When I was young, I wanted to be a gymnast, but I'm 5'9" and not athletic, so that's shot. Having a modicum of brain power didn't help because then it became "You can be somebody great!" I'm a secretary and a gradschool washout. Then I hit the workforce after college and it was "I don't care who you are, tell me what you can do." I never tell them I can do data entry but I still end up with it. The problem with all these sentiments is that they offer only a drop or two of truth and even less help. None is true enough to base a life on.

Writers face the same kinds of aphorisms from well meaning friends, family members, and even fellow writers. We hear "Write whatever you want to." Well, what if I don't know what that is? Or then there's the statement, well-beloved of highschool English teachers, "Write what you know." What I know is pretty dull, actually. Both of these statements do the same thing as the career goal cliches, they offer little help in discovering a writer's focus. We have a lot to do to discover our writing identity -- developing style and craft, determining whether we are pantsers or plotters, when/where/how we write best, who our audience is, etc. The most important question a writer needs to answer is "Why do I write at all?"

We can find the answer to the latter in some of the same ways that we discover life purpose -- by asking more of the right questions. An Aussie pastor I listen to gave a list of questions we should ask ourselves to help us see purpose in our lives. I found the list helpful in discovering some of my motivations to write and some directions to take my characters and plots.

1. What is my deepest desire? The obvious answer for a writer is to write best-selling books, right? That isn't helpful, though. Separate the act or career of writing from your desires and see what's left. Do you want justice? True love? Hope in the face of despair? All of these are traits to give your characters. If they want what you want, you can infuse their story with your own heart and make them real (Just don't give them what they want too early or you'll lose your audience).

2. What makes me angry or what makes me cry? This question helped me, because producing conflict in my stories is difficult for me. I don't want to go there in real life, so why would I want to put my characters through it? But harnessing my emotions will help me write better conflict. I can let my characters can get just as angry as I get at social injustice or when someone shames a friend or when they feel betrayed.

3. What flows naturally out of me? I think the cliche of "write what you know" came out of this idea that we should write what comes naturally. If short stories come easily for you and you could never consider writing anything longer than 15,000 words, then don't feel bad if you don't write a novel. If horror doesn't come easily, then don't write it.

5. What thoughts, visions or dreams do I find impossible to shake off? This is the big question for a writer, because we deal in the currency of visions. If you find yourself living in a story, a character, even a single image, write it.

6. To what can I give 100% of myself? If you're not going to give your whole self to a written work, then you'll never finish. It's just that simple.

I have to answer all of these questions for myself, and I feel like I am just at the beginning. But, like most areas of life, the answers come in the process and the direction comes in the moving. I have a card on my bulletin board at work that a writer friend sent me. It says "We write to discover what we believe." I write to discover who I am.


haricot vert said...

dang it, i feel all inspired now.

these particular lines especially, spoke to me: The problem with all these sentiments is that they offer only a drop or two of truth and even less help. None is true enough to base a life on.

well written m'dear.

Anonymous said...

hey, Christy.. this is Harley!
i clicked on this page from your nerdie blog, to read your 'Inklings' post (excellent)..

it is now 5:11 am and i have 49 minutes left until my night shift ends, before i can go home and sleep (hooray!)..
i have spent the last three hours of a very slow night at work, reading all of the 'pass the plot #1' entries, and then those in between- some good stuff on here!

anyways, wanted to say i really enjoyed this site, everyone's writing, and look forward to reading more!

and as most of the world is stretching good morning-
i say goodnight..


p.s. finding purpose- really strong intro, really good advice. i may come back and comment/converse more on this one after i've had a chance to digest and apply some of it.. and maybe when it's not 5am!