A writer’s purpose

July 22, 2014

Finding your purpose in life can be complicated. It is also, in my experience, a journey often without end. Just when you think you have it, the meaning eludes your grasp.

When I entered university (“college”) at age 18, I thought that I wanted to be a famous novelist.  That’s what many of us wanted back then.  (Later it was famous film directors; then great IT entrepreneurs.)

In my first semester at university, I took an English literature course entitled, “Youth and Age in Love and War”.  Big mistake.  It was the best way to turn me away from literature, which I had, to that point, so loved.  It was dense, analytical, and certainly not fun.  Not just that course, really, but often the academic study of literature – guaranteed to stifle creativity.

So I ended up taking a different path (the subject of a separate post, another time).

But what of life’s meaning for those who write fiction for a living?  Many novelists have attuned with their times, somehow capturing and giving meaning to our age through their writing.  Think of George Orwell’s 1984, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 or many books by Kurt Vonnegut on the futility of war.  (Yes, these are all male; forgive this time.)  It may be about tapping into the “collective unconscious”.

But writing, that most solitary of occupations, can also be the antithesis of a meaningful life.  Think of all of those hours spent alone, scratching your imagination.  Is the writer engaging with the world and helping it, or just hiding out, avoiding the rest of us?

One of the latest additions to a meaningful life through fiction is John Green, self-described “nerdfighter”, successful video blogger and – most notably, young adult novelist of books including Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars, which has been adapted into a very popular movie (US$240+ million international box office).

It has two very appealing young stars in the lead roles:  Shailene Woodley is especially good as Hazel; her scenes with Ansel Elgort (Augustus – “Gus”) are both totally convincing and very effective.  The film may mostly appeal to young women, but the screening I was at seemed to be split 50-50 male/female.  And sure, almost all of the men in the film – save one – are sensitive, but it neatly balances the genders of the characters.

In the June 9, 2014 issue of The New Yorker, correspondent Margaret Talbot has written a fascinating profile of Green (“The Teen Whisperer”).  As Talbot writes, Green displays “a youthfully insatiable appetite for big questions:  What is an honorable life?  How do we wrest meaning from the unexpected death of someone close to us?  What do we do when we realize that we’re not as special as we thought we were?”

She quotes Green about teenagers:

I love the intensity teen-agers bring not just to first love but also to the first time you’re grappling with grief, at least as a sovereign being—the first time you’re taking on why people suffer and whether there’s meaning in life, and whether meaning is constructed or derived.  Teen-agers feel that what you conclude about those questions is going to matter.  And they’re dead right.  It matters for adults, too, but we’ve almost taken too much power away from ourselves.  We don’t acknowledge on a daily basis how much it matters.

Green has created connections with his fans in engaging ways that few contemporary writers do (actually, few in any age, now or in the past).  According to the Talbot article, when The Fault in Our Stars was first published, “Green did extra credit” in promotion:  he signed all 150,000 copies of the first (presumably American) edition of the book.  It “took ten weeks and necessitated physical therapy for his shoulder”.  Is this a first for author devotion in American publishing?  Or publishing anywhere?

A number of times each month, Green talks on the phone with young people with cancer.  And every few months he holds a Skype videoconference with sick young people.  Talbot’s description of observing his Skype session with the teens was eerily and oddly reminiscent of Hazel and Gus going to Amsterdam to ask the “big questions” of Peter van Houten (played by Willem Dafoe in the film):  what about the distances between sick and well people; did he consider a different ending?  But unlike the character of van Houten, Green answered the questions thoughtfully, honestly and delicately.  This is a man who on the inside is pretty much the same as the outside.

No disconnection with the audience here (just the opposite), and lots of meaning.  If you were a young person who had survived – or was going through cancer or any other big illness – I fully believe that this book and the film adaptation could easily become your lodestar.  Green “gets it”.  According to Talbot, at the conclusion of Green’s videoconference with young people with cancer, Green put his head down on the table and wept.  This is not manufactured meaning, but a form of reader engagement almost unparalleled in our time.  Worthy of note.

The fault in our stars film poster

In memoriam for a former college roommate

June 5, 2012

The mail today brought bad news.  It was even worse because the envelope arrived about two weeks ago and I did not open it until early this morning.

One of my freshman (first year) roommates at Dartmouth College, Tom Ludlow, has passed away.  Class of 1974.  Lymphoma.  I read this news with great sadness.

Living in Australia for the past 32 years, I have not kept in much contact with Tom (or many at Dartmouth, for that matter), but we talked on the phone some years back – about Dartmouth College business.  Tom was courtly, well-mannered, sincere and deeply community-minded.  He was not yet 60 when he died.

Richard Ranger, the Class of ’74 President and long-time newsletter editor, introduced the death of Tom and two other classmates with one of Richard’s insightful, poetic and melodic meditations, part of which I reproduce below as it is worth being read by a wider audience:

Making sense of significant deaths is something we all face, and something a great many of us have had to face.  In the public conversation among alumni of prestige colleges it is uncharacteristic to speak of death.  Instead, our conversation tends to dwell in the indefinite and imagined summer between graduation and achievement, where the wedding guests are handsome and well-dressed, the occasional children announced as if greeting the guests in the Trapp Family ballroom shortly before bed, and where the incremental milestones of learning and profession presented to polite but disceerning applause.  Death is acknowledged, to be sure, formerly in a smaller font size at the end of the Alumni Magazine, and now only online.  But a distance is maintained between how we experience death and how we discuss it in the public conversation.  There are many reasons for this, many of them purposeful and constructive.  But most of us find ourselves at some point adrift within that distance, between the distant shore of the public conversation, and the approaching shore of our mortality, appearing at the edge of the formerly limitless horizons of our imagined summers.

To Richard Ranger, to my (third) surviving freshman room-mate (also named Rick) and to the memory of Tom Ludlow, for whom I now mourn:  may your spirits soar like eagles in the unlimited sky, may your lives be filled with happiness and joy, and may you find peace.

Life love and death of Steve Jobs

October 8, 2011

The death of Steve Jobs this past week has caused an enormous amount of publicity and discussion about the achievements in his all-too-short life.  One of the most interesting things to emerge is Jobs’ “Stanford Commencement Address” in June 2005, when he – uncharacteristically – talked about himself, telling three personal stories.  The first one was about his being adopted and attending (as well as dropping out of ) Reed College in Oregon, where he learned calligraphy – which he marked up to giving him the knowledge of spacing and font, which he applied to (and designed into) the first Macintosh computer.

The second one was about his getting fired from Apple – the company he co-founded – at age 30.  And the third one was about his being diagnosed with Pancreatic cancer in 2004.  In 2005 he thought he had beaten it, but it returned and eventually it was what killed him.

Jobs makes the point in his short (15 minute) address that you can only “connect the dots” in your life looking backwards and making meaning that way.  Jobs’ emotional charge are captured in the following two paragraphs near the end of his speech.  I quote them in full below, however I encourage you to go directly to the Stanford University website to read the speech in full – and to watch a video of Jobs presenting it.

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.