One of the things I have been wrestling with for the last 12 months is the idea of an identity for myself that has become hopelessly tied up with writing and how I see being a writer in my future. It seems that on some level I have gotten 2 things confused that I didn’t even realise are actually mutually exclusive: purpose and meaning.
1) Finding Purpose Does Not Equal Finding Meaning
This is the big one and it is a realisation that took me a very long time to come to. When I finally took the bit between
my teeth and decided to pursue the notion of publishing my writing full time, I discovered purpose. Along with engaging in that purpose, came a sense of meaning.
This sense of meaning was so powerful that over time I began to see the notion of being a writer as being inextricably part of extracting meaning out of my existence. Or worse than that, solely responsible for extracting meaning from my existence. In other words, if I was not writing or did not continue to publish, my purpose was lost and all meaning would drain from my life.
The truth is, my writing is only as part of me. Which is obvious really. It’s an important part, it means a lot to me. But I also love fine food, running through the park, beer, making music, reading, being in love and traveling. Who I am is more accurately represented by the sum of these pieces than by the fact that I have been known to have a way with words.
Once I understood that part, I began to realise that these other important aspects of my life are just as responsible for the meaning I experience as writing is. Combined: even more so. Which means that while I am always a bit uncomfortable when I do not write, it doesn’t mean my life becomes a cruel and shallow money trench or a long plastic hallway.
I just used to think it did.
2) Being Published Does Not Make What You Do Any More Or Any Less Meaningful
There is a very real temptation to see being published as the ultimate validation of your work as a writer. But it’s not. It’s important for financial reasons, for marketing purposes and for being able to move onto the next thing more easily. But if you’re using it to give yourself a sense of self-worth, a heightened sense of meaning, you are deluding yourself.
We all do of course. In a world of medals, certificates, pay checks and ‘influence’, the cachet of being published works as both a psychic and professional balm that we are all desperately in need of.
But the truth is that publishing always has been, and is possibly becoming more so, a fairly randomised way of recognising talent and value that all too often relies on an old boys club, pre-existing celebrity and conformity to market forces rather than any ability to recognise naked talent and take it to market.
That may sound like sour grapes. And yeah, of course I feel that what I do is always a masterpiece BUT I also know that it’s not always to market taste and I have a long way to go in honing my craft. What I have begun to realise though, is that as the publishing industry continues to change, my chances of ever being published again are shrinking daily. I cannot rely on this for validation. And nor should you.
In terms of being able to continue doing what you do, exemplifying your purpose and personifying meaning, you need to do what you do for love and passion. Not rewards. Sucks, but it’s true.
3) Discipline Is Nice, But Some Things Just Cannot Be Forced
I got to the stage where I felt that, if I scheduled the time, I could write anything, anytime. And I can of course. It’s just not always going to be very good. It’s also not always going to make you feel very good. Feeling oppressed by your purpose is a less than ideal place to end up.
Having a routine and the discipline to work for long periods on projects are massive advantages when inspiration hits and the juices are flowing. Your writing muscles are fit, you are conditioned to putting in the time and your motor is running.
But if you’re just pushing a pen across a page or a cursor across the screen and you don’t feel it, neither will your readers.
Know when to take time off to re-charge, to change direction, to try new adventures, formats, genres or techniques. Identifying purpose doesn’t imply the end of the road, it’s the beginning of a whole new superhighway of opportunity and choices.
You have got to learn to trust yourself that, when you feel the after burners ignite and the whoosh of air of the muse returning can be felt beside your ears, you will sit down, buckle up and get going and keep going for as long as it takes. But you can’t spend every day strapped into the chair hoping this will bring the muse. Pavlov’s Dog is a one-way phenomenon.
It is true that there are days when, mid flow, nothing happens. There is no inspiration and at these times it IS important to push through, to keep going, to be disciplined. What is just as true is that no amount of discipline will remarkably bring the Muse online.
Learn to live with that.
I have written these three rules with specific reference to writing, but I believe they apply to most things in life. It’s always important to not confuse meaning with purpose or get hooked on the idea that one specific thing is the answer to all your prayers or that by just doggedly keeping on doing, good stuff will come.
You need to open your eyes, spread your wings and feed your heart with the good stuff. That’s where it all comes from anyway, this juice called creativity, innovation, change. Whatever you wish to name it.
And when it hits, drive it like you stole it.
A big thank you to Jani Allan for this story that inspired me to write this post