The notion that you are here for some purpose; that all you have to do is discover the one thing hidden deep in the recesses of your soul or psyche in order to fulfil your life's goal or nature or some other externally determined objective, is a pervasive one. An Internet search will bring up many and various ways to discover your purpose with the assumption that there is an esoteric 'very reason why you exist', more colloquially 'what you were put on earth for'. Yet not only are these supposedly deeply-embedded purposes hard to find, most of them seem to be described in sweeping statements so general as to become meaningless. Things like being here 'to bring peace' or 'radiate light'.
So is life simply meaningless? Does it not matter one jot how we live and whether we are purposeful? Quite the contrary. This life is everything we have, it matters completely. But the self is not some static, pre-determined, dim creature that is put here for 'something' great, despite not having a clue what that might be. Rather, the self is dynamic, 'active, forceful, and capable of change', as Hazel Markus and Elisa Wurf point out in The Dynamic Self Concept: A Social Psychological Perspective. The self makes constantly makes meaning by the stories it tells.
As Joan Didion put it, 'We tell ourselves stories in order to live.' The problem is that sometimes these stories are terribly limiting. We retell old stories that get less accurate with each telling but also, at their worst, more fearful and constricting. You weren't clever/quick/pretty/determined/rich enough last time, so you won't be in the future. I grew up in a household were the saying, 'It's not for the likes of us' was more frequent than meals. ('It' being anything good in life, from holidays to hope). Even when I moved from a book-free home to Cambridge, as a somewhat bemused undergraduate who thought she'd landed on an alien planet, I carried the limiting stories with me and I later had someone in my life who regularly told me, 'It can't be done'.
And yet we know memory is an exceptionally slippery thing and that stories are not fixed. Stories are fictions, powerful ones that communicate values, share mores and deep understanding, but fictions nonetheless. We can make other stories. Certainly there are circumstances that come into play and the limitations of cultural norms are not insubstantial, but that still leaves an enormous amount of freedom to shape your own narrative. How?
Not by mystically uncovering some sound bite masquerading as purpose but by creating purpose. Everyone can do this but writers are particularly well placed, especially through journaling.
In Walden, Henry David Thoreau says:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear…
I live at the foot of a mountain rather than in woods and, despite it's remoteness, it's only a click away from a world-wide-web but, for me, journaling is the place where I attempt to front the essential facts of life — to be both realistic and optimistic, to work towards crafting a story that is alive, awake and deliberate.
There are endless ways to use a journal for this but a useful exercise I came across recently was from David Hieatt's Do Purpose, in which he draws three intersecting circles: one for what you love doing, another for your skills and the last for what he calls 'zeitgeist', the climate of our times and how we perceive it. The central overlap, says Hieatt, is where you will find yourself most alive.
What do I love? New places. Immersing myself in somewhere unknown. And words — stories, poetry, articles, philosophy, opera, theatre and above all, the written word. I sometimes believe I don't know what I think till I've written it. When I'm writing fiction, I'm in another space, in the trance of it.
What are my skills? I'm a creative person who sees both the minutiae and structure in writing so I work well as a creative editor. I'm an enabler, a teacher and a performer. I'm organised, can hold a lot of disparate information in my head and I'm good at solving logistical problems. So running a small press and being a writer, editor and mentor works for me, using my skills doing things I love.
The type of press we run and the novels and poetry I write come out of passion and skills but also from the zeitgeist. What do I see in the world? A crushing pressure towards conformism and homogeneity; endless inducements to mindless consumerism, even if it means sleep-walking into political and environmental disaster; a breath-taking arrogance amongst corporate and political elites; a world of fear where the 'Other' is marginalised in favour of gatekeeping for an inner, privileged circle; and yet an extraordinary generosity, resilience and honesty of spirit in some, which gives enormous hope and should be celebrated and borne witness to.
So, the flavour of books we want to publish and, even more, the flavour of books I aspire to write, is one of passion and purpose. By this, I don't mean books that have designs on us, those that preaching and browbeat but rather those that witness to something humane and extraordinary, that don't tolerate mediocrity or blandness. I'm currently reading Anne Michael's poetry collection, All We Saw, and it's a perfect example. The writing is exquisite. It's deeply personal and poignant with stunning flashes of insight that are layered and subtle. It makes a difference to have read it. I want to publish and write books that, like Michaels' work, are humane and honour the losses but still believe in life. As Adrienne Rich puts it:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
The second book of the trilogy I'm writing, A Remedy for All Things, is set against the extreme political injustice found in Hungary in the late 50s, yet much less extreme situations and systems can also trammel individual and community life. In that sense the suffering is of a piece, if rather more severe, with the erosion of life and the limited worldview of '70s Teesside, which formed the backdrop for the first novel, This is the End of the Story. The novels are not didactic. They are primarily character-driven stories of people exploring just how imaginative we can be in creating our narratives, using discontinuities of time and identity to explore who they might have been or become. What I am conscious of is the urge to write a different story, not to churn out what might be safer or more comfortable.
I'm alive when I'm buzzing with words, fizzing with a story that I have to get written and that confronts pessimism or conformity. I'm alive when I'm working with the words of other writers I admire, or helping emerging writers to discover the words in them. I'm most fully alive when I can combine this with being in new places, unfamiliar place that prevent me being too comfortable.
What would you put in your three circles? Or what are your own ways of creating your purpose, not finding it?