P is for Purpose

A few alphabet letters back I advised you not to write. Given that you are still here and still reading, I suspect that you are still writing. So, let's move the debate forward. Sit down for a moment, place your left hand alluringly close to the corner of your mouth (see diagram below for classic 'thinking woman's pose'), and ask yourself.....What is the purpose of your writing?

It is possible that when you think of 'purpose', your writing doesn't get a look-in to the long list of purposes which drive your life. In that case, you might want to shift things about. Get creative. If, for example, the only purpose that springs to mind is mothering, then write your own bedtime stories a la J.K. Rowling; if your dominating purpose is to keep the rabbits from eating your vegetable patch then write a story about a rabbit learning to leave your lettuces alone a la Beatrix Potter, and if your imagination is worn thin by your daytime job of managing a bank, say, then get creative with the staff handbook and evaluation policies, or scribe an alternative universe in which the discrepancy between the richest and the poorest is reversed by a canny bank manager... just like yourself.

If, writing is already part of the grand purpose in your life, then you are one lucky writer. You have learnt the lesson that writing is more than a hobby; you know that it's bigger and more important, more vital, than just moving a pen across a sheet of paper or typing out a random series of letters (with the possible exception, of course, of Jack Kerouac who proselytized the value of purposeless writing... and produced the kind of prose which people either love or condemn; Truman Capote famously commented that  'That's not writing, it's typing.')

George Orwell was a big believer in writing being purposeful. In his 1946 essay 'Why I Write', he identified four main purposes for writing:
  1. sheer egoism;
  2. aesthetic enthusiasm; 
  3. historical impulse;
  4. political purpose.
I love the universalizing confidence of Orwell's thought. According to his list of purposes, I am never wasting my time when I am writing. If the activity seems a futile waste of my time, I need only check my actions against Orwell's list to realize that I am actually engaged in a purposive, and therefore valuable, activity. Today, for example, I indulged purposefully in the sheer egoism of doodling the letters of my name into an elaborate graffiti rather than focusing upon a telephone call with my new medical insurance provider; I titillated my aesthetic enthusiasm by redrafting my descriptions of Mrs. Hambleton's imagined death in 1908 (chapter 17 of my novel - and, now, largely based upon the fate I wish upon a nameless medical insurance clerk whose telephone manner should be recognized in any kind of performance review as 'an area ripe for improvement'); I satisfied a minor historical impulse by writing a page in my journal late at night before beginning this blog; and I expended energy on micropolitics through an elaborately worded note to my daughter's gym teacher excusing her from today's sporting activities. All purposeful and, therefore, meaningful stuff. The fact that the washing machine is still waiting to be emptied, a lettuce has turned to mush in the back of the fridge, and the tomato plants need watering, is neither here nor there. I have been writing!

But, frivolity aside, writing does have a serious purpose to my life. It is more than a hobby. I don't write because I want to be famous. I'm not sure that I write because I want people to read my book with bated breath and admiration. I write because it is vital to me. The story of my novel has me in its thrall and the demons need to be exorcised. When I write, I am a better person. Part of me, which would otherwise languish neglected in some unrecognized part of my life, has been fed. As Jeanette Winterson says, 'Creativity is on the side of health - it isn't the thing that drives us mad; it is the capacity in us that tries to save us from madness.' And that is the purpose I need.

Zoe Fowler


  1. I have never thought about it's purpose in my life: I just do it because I need to. I do, however, worry that it is a frivolous, indulgent use of my time. Perhaps if I turned my thinking around to focus on the purpose of writing in my life, I can see past that?


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