The Purposeful Writer: Creative Writing Meets the Golden Circle
by Soramimi Hanarejima
It can feel like as writers we go where inspiration and curiosity lead us, to the vistas craft can take us. Purpose, then, could seem transcendent or irrelevant. Yet a sense of purpose, whether majestic or mundane, can be essential to a writer as a way to focus on producing more meaningful work. But how do we go about identifying and enacting purpose in our creative work?
When it comes to leading a purposeful life and pursuing meaningful endeavors, Simon Sinek’s Start With Why is full of insightful and actionable perspectives that can structure how we approach our work. Central to this book is The Golden Circle, a framework that aligns and integrates motivation, action and outcomes—the Why, How and What:
- Why we do the activities we feel are meaningful.
- How we act upon that motivation.
- What we we ultimately produce, the outcome of enacting the motivation.
Here’s how The Golden Circle might look when applied to creative writing:
Clarity of Why: Why do you write? What deep purpose drives you to tell stories?
Discipline of How: How do you act upon that purpose? How do you strive to accomplish this vital calling?
Consistency of What: How do you maintain a high level of quality in what you are creating as a writer?
The last blog post I wrote for Sione focused on the Discipline of How, and this one addresses the Clarity of Why.
The How and the What are the comfortable domains in which we usually connect with our mentors and peers. Much of the advice and guidance we’re given as writers is related to the topic of that previous blog post—the How—as well as the What. We’re typically told things like, “You must carve out dedicated chunks of uninterrupted time for your writing,” and “Watch your use of adjectives and adverbs.” And as writers, we are often asking each other, “What do you write about?” and “How do you do your best work?”
In contrast, engaging each other in the realm of the Why can be all too rare, and perhaps for good reason. Why we write can be challenging to figure out and discuss, and it can vary tremendously from person to person. One writer’s Why may not resonate much with another writer. When Norene says, “I write to better understand how people face personal challenges,” a few beach towels down, Johan might be thinking, “Gee, I’m not interested in understanding people confronting challenges in my writing. I want to focus on how serendipity shapes communities.” There’s also a very real possibility that grappling with why we write will be confounding and even discordant. We may feel hesitant to reveal why we write to peers and to ourselves for fear of the reaction, “Oh, that’s what it’s all about? That’s what you’re after in all these literary maneuverings?”
A sense of purpose, however, can be crucial for writers. Without knowledge of what one’s deeply meaningful motivations are, it can be all too easy to migrate to extreme feelings about one’s creativity, ranging from, “I just love it so much I have to be doing it all the time,” to “Man, this is such a selfish luxury I’m always indulging in.” Lacking connection to one’s Why can also leave a writer vaguely unsatisfied with his work, nagged by the nebulous feeling that, while wrought with honed skill, his efforts are somehow off target, missing that je ne sais quoi.
In other words, a writer without a Why runs a greater risk of having a rough relationship with writing. On the other hand, knowing one’s substantive motivations for writing allows a writer to be strategic—provides, for example, the zeal to seek out and seize key opportunities to carry out that motivation, the audacity to take certain risks in service of the writing. So how do we further empower ourselves with this awareness of the meaning we’re in pursuit of?
Gaining perspective on and articulating your fundamental drive as a writer can be done in any number of ways: thoughtful conversations with colleagues and mentors; substantive journaling; searching out patterns in the kind of reading you enjoy; taking long, contemplative hikes in the woods. I think the more of these kinds of honestly reflective activities you do, the better, but it can be helpful to start with something concretely structured. So here are a few specific resources I’ve found particularly helpful in that vein.
The Why Discovery Course. Simon Sinek’s fantastic online course is a series of guided reflection exercises that build towards the articulation of a Why Statement, a succinct expression of your deep motivation in life.
Finding Your Purpose and Living It. Keith Yamashita’s article for the 99u book Make Your Mark pushes you to answer four questions—in anywhere from four minutes to four years—to elucidate what truly matters to you.
The Crossroads of Should and Must. The idea in this book by Elle Luna is simple, but putting it into practice can be intense: separate all the things you feel you have to or want to do into the two categories of should and must. And if you feel like you already know that you must write, push beyond that with this book to think about what stories you must tell, what characters you must get to know and share with the world.
I would be remiss here if I didn’t mention GrubStreet’s Launch Lab, even though I have not participated in it. At GrubStreet’s fantastic annual conference, The Muse and the Marketplace, I’ve gotten glimpses into what Launch Lab entails, and I’m still impressed by a crucial part of the process: articulating your mission as a writer. Because we need to have a solid sense of what we are trying to accomplish through our creativity in order to guide our endeavors—unless our writing is purely exploratory (and even then it may have the purpose of being exploratory)—how can we hope to create meaningful work if we don’t have clear intentions to steer it toward, then evaluate, its meaningfulness?
In helping colleagues and students work through a couple of these resources, I have been enchanted and awed by the insights they have shared with me. As they reveal to themselves and to me vital perspectives on who they are and how they can be more themselves in their work, it’s as if wondrous, gleaming secrets have been uncovered to transform into brilliant truths about our work, relationships and lives. Elizabeth Gilbert puts it aptly in Big Magic when she says, “The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, then stands back to see if we can find them.” A writer’s Why is one of those gems, and while its excavation may be daunting, the effort is well worthwhile and doesn’t have to (read: shouldn’t) be done alone.
|Photo credit: Soramimi Hanarejima|