The Writing Cycle explores how professional anxiety impacts creativity when the need for market value collides with personal motivations for making art. In this series, I explored ways American Cultural Mythologies Cause Writer’s Block. Next month, I’ll offer exercises to help you Write Accessibly in Everyday Life and Reconnect with Your Artistic Ancestors.
Here, you will define your life purpose . . . and how writing fits into it.
“We’re not on a journey to save the world but to save ourselves. Yet in doing so, you save the world.
The influence of a vital person vitalizes.”
~ Joseph Campbell
Writing gives meaning and significance to life. It’s a way, on a personal level, of exerting power when other options have been removed. On a communal level, literature allows us to look through the eyes of another, facilitating empathy.
Yet statistics indicate only 5% of writers are able to support themselves by writing alone. So those who aren’t part of that 5% are doing it for love. But what “love” translates to in the long run = a sense of larger purpose.
After all, what sustains people in any longer-term creative endeavor is a less ego-driven reason for creating.
If you have not yet explored yours, you’ll struggle mightily and call this laziness or procrastination or writer’s block, yet it’s actually something greater, arising from both systemic and psychological factors, including living in a society hostile to art, along with existential angst.
After all, if there is no certainty of a life beyond the one we’re living, then we are tasked with making meaning in this one life. That’s a tall order. Religions step in to help. But even the devout struggle with doubt. Many more avoid mulling over this entirely, preferring to distract themselves with Netflix or urgent-yet-unimportant tasks on endless to-do lists.
But Artists must confront these “What’s the meaning of life? What do I do that has significance outside my small domestic sphere? Will I matter?” questions EVERY SINGLE TIME they sit down to write or create, which is why depression and anxiety get stirred up so often for those in creative disciplines. We don’t confront this same angst each time we do a load of dishes.
In addition to stress, writing takes time: often, your practice is competing with your partner, pets, children, parents, friends, career, advocacy, health, and other necessary obligations for a slot in your weekly schedule. Hence,you will not give it even ten minutes per day if there is not a ‘more than me’ reason for so doing. You will certainly not give it ten years.
Acclaimed author, creativity coach, and therapist Eric Maisel has written dozens of books on the topic of life purpose and art-making endeavors. He advocates an existential approach to choosing rather than seeking a purpose for your life:
“From my point of view there is no ordained purpose to life. Rather, there are our life purpose choices: our decisions about what we deem important. We have life purposes, rather than a single life purpose. This is huge news. It means that we shouldn’t overvalue writing as the only thing in life that is important to us and we shouldn’t undervalue it, either, since if it is one of our life purpose choices, it really matters to us.”
~ Eric Maisel
USE PURPOSE TO COMBAT CRITICISM AND DOUBT
When it comes to beating writer’s block, the only two elements powerful enough to overcome feelings of self-criticism and doubt are curiosity and a sense of purpose. Curiosity can be a powerful (and playful) catalyst, yet remains notoriously difficult to sustain for the life of a book-length work. What can carry you through uninspired sessions is a sense of how writing fits into the larger life purpose you have chosen.
WHAT IS PURPOSE, EXACTLY?
Tracking Wonder founder Jeffery Davis defines purpose as a “’more than me” yearning and cites studies performed at Harvard Business School that rate purpose as the most important motivator for sustaining momentum over time.
I think of purpose as a North Star to guide daily actions (large and small) so you are moving TOWARD something you value rather than spinning in distraction, running from outdated childhood beliefs, or doing x y or z because this is what society deems valuable.
Purpose is both who you are – your signature strengths – AND how you choose to express these in the world. What’s empowering is that it’s something you choose. And, because you are the author of your purpose, you can refine it over time.
It’s important to note: purpose is NOT a career, activity, or goal. (A goal might be: “Bring water to 3 million people in Africa” or “Write a bestseller.”) You often CHOOSE goals aligned with your purpose – but purpose is larger and has many ways of being realized. For example, “Use (signature strength) to (help those less fortunate).”
It’s also important you don’t limit your purpose to only one outlet of realization. If your purpose narrows to a specific job or hobby, one prize or person, you deny that the Universe has a million ways to help you achieve what you are here to do. You also place yourself in danger should that outlet disappear.
Purpose is something you have done in the past, are likely already doing, and
are naturally suited to. And it (mostly) brings joy!
IDENTIFY YOUR BIG WHY
I. Fill in the following on paper: (It helps to perform a centering sensory activity immediately prior. And, please, DO NOT JUDGE your answers.)
II. Can you construct a single sentence of purpose from these notes?
Write this sentence on a card to keep by your bedside. Read it when you awake and before you fall asleep. Your choice of purpose represents a marriage of your unique personality + your choices of valued action. Notice how, the more you read it, the more often you will start to choose actions and goals that align with your purpose and prioritize these over other tasks.
You will also celebrate how often you already act in alignment with your purpose and see that you’re not as far off course as you might imagine.
III. Put purpose into practice: Include a task or two each week on your to-do list that aligns with your statement.
Let’s imagine Oprah (an NF type on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator) might define her purpose as something along the lines of: Bring people together in conversation about the self & spirituality. Over the years, her goals that arose from this purpose included hosting a talk show more substantial than others on the air, starting a personal-growth magazine, and providing a platform for experts on topics related to “soul.”
Based on his writings, Abraham Lincoln (an NT type) might have constructed his purpose as something like: Given these are not the days of miracles, I must use reasoning to deduce what is right, as far as I can see right, and then act on behalf of what is right. While his resume included preserving the Union, freeing enslaved people, and winning the Civil War, his ability to accomplish any of this would have arisen from his sense of purpose.
HOW DOES WRITING FIT IN?
Any writer who hopes to produce a body a work or sustain a creative discipline over the course of a life must identify motivation(s) for writing, selfish and significant.
Now that you have already identified a larger life purpose, it will prove easier to investigate your motivations for writing at a deeper level.
Everyone has different motivations for creative writing. So, what are you writing for?
Do you write to:
IV. On paper, venture an answer.
Only after you identify this can you push further, to consider a specific project, pinpointing: What’s the purpose of this piece of writing?
An example of an artist who understands her purpose is Sharon Loudon, who, in her book, Artist as Culture Producer: Living and Sustaining a Creative Life, argues for the relevance of artists in contemporary culture:
“The world needs artists as producers of culture, creative problem-solvers, and hope for a better world . . . we contribute to the wellbeing of others. We create environments not only for interaction, but we give other people permission to be free and expressive.”
MBTI Personality typology can also assist. For example, an ENFJ type may write for the purpose of sharing information. Their reward might be the exchange, the reception, its impact on others. (And affirmation as well.) An INTP may find the creative process reward enough–researching and puzzling out an idea proves an end in itself. ENTJs more often want results and financial reward, whereas ISFPs may find improving a skill or honing an aesthetic in each subsequent artistic attempt delivers ultimate satisfaction.
None of these motivations is better or worse than another.
But understanding their differences empowers a writer or artist to consider how to better motivate themselves, as well as how to open up additional avenues to achieving ultimate goals. Writing a book is not the only way to interact, impact, puzzle, play, impress, or improve your skillset or society. It is one way amongst many.
V. Finally, ask yourself: Given my life purpose, and my motivation for writing, what OTHER avenues, in addition to this project, might achieve this?
Doing so takes the pressure off any given work in progress, allowing you to create with greater ease. It opens you to innovative ways of connecting and reveals numerous paths toward success.
Understanding purpose ultimately helps writers withstand criticism. If you think your goal is to write a bestseller or win someone’s approval, it’s understandable to become discouraged when you receive a harsh critique or readers ignore your work. But if your purpose is greater than ego, and writing merely one way you might fulfill it, the pressure gets taken off any particular project.
If you are deeply rooted in your sense of purpose, as well as in how writing fits within your larger value system, you will not be thrown by bad reviews, adverse life events, or the inability to secure fortune and fame.
WANT MORE WAYS AROUND WRITER’S BLOCK? READ ON TO LEARN:
II. How to enter the brain wave state for optimum creativity in only 90 seconds.
III. How to reconnect with your artistic ancestors.
IV. How MBTI Personality Type affects writing style and skillset.
V. Ways to reclaim writing as an accessible everyday activity.
“When in brief flashes of serendipity you glimpse what you were born to do …
Take steps toward it, even if they are depressingly small at first. With each inch closer to your central magic, you will feel it.
It is unmistakable for anything else.
It’s called purpose.”
~ Jacob Nordby
an Arizona-based writing coach and editor who turns ideas into art.