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.