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How we find meaning by writing
The deeper you dive into the craft of storytelling, the more you understand exactly how we make sense of life by turning it into a story
A creative writing student asked me why we need to tell stories – and why we need to write them. That sent me into a dark rabbit hole, where I discovered a simple wonderful truth about life and writing that I had surely known all along, but wasn’t aware of.
Just as every writer tries to inject meaning into their stories, we all strive to find meaning in our lives.
Some of us search for meaning until the moment we die without finding it. A cynic will say there is no meaning – life is merely a series of accidents we must react to, and most of the time we react clumsily and in a state of bewildered panic.
When we eat, we're reacting to hunger. When we fall in love, we're reacting to hormones.
Even our big decisions in life are a reaction:
We want to become a great writer, or a cool, turtle-neck wearing, cigarette-smoking, Satre-paperback-carrying Bohème, we want to be happy, free, rich, respected, have a fulfilling family life – even in those things, we are reacting to experiences that have formed us in certain ways we may not be aware of.
If I were to guess, I would say some 90 percent, maybe 99% of everything we do is reacting. Maybe that’s why we search for meaning – to find that part of life that is truly us, beyond accident, necessity and circumstance.
Does life have inherent meaning?
When I was a kid, I had romantic notions about finding the meaning of life.
I figured life came with some inherent meaning, hidden, but there. I sought meaning in God, in truth, in love, but even when I found God, truth and love (or at least it seemed to me then), that didn’t really explain some greater meaning to life.
For a while I took the path of the cynic: There is no meaning to life, it’s just something you say, a romantic idea.
Then I grew older and experienced life more than thinking and I came to realize I was looking in the wrong places – meaning is not some mystical, pie-in-the-sky notion, but instead is entirely practical; it is not inherent to life, but comes from us, it’s something we choose; we don’t find meaning in life, we add meaning to it.
That simple, practical task of deciding what our life means holds within it a terrifying freedom:
We can give our lives any meaning we damn well please.
We give life meaning by turning it into a story
Life delivers to us a series of events.
On the face of it, they are random – scattered, chaotic, confusing – until we naturally sort them into groups by finding the connections between them. Maybe my favorite teacher in grade school praised me for a book report I wrote; then I got beat up in high school, then my parents got divorced and I moved to California, then I got a job sweeping floors in a warehouse, then I wrote an article for a local newspaper and they hired me, then I fell in love with a woman who abuses me.
Looking back, I see a connection between the praise I got for my book report in grade school and the article I wrote for the local paper – and the story of my life becomes who I became a writer. I connect my parents getting a divorce with falling in love with the wrong women, and I add in getting beaten up in high school into the mix and that explains why I always fall for the wrong women.
All the other things that happened to me in my life that I cannot connect fall away in the backroom of my memories – after a while, they seem meaningless.
The stories I tell myself about my life are the ones I can find connections for – one thing leads to another and causes me to grew into someone I was not before.
How writers understand life
Philosophers, theologians and thinkers have their own way of looking at life. They might will divide life into phases, for example – youth, old age – or into a struggle for identity, or into the expectations of social classes.
Not so writers. Writers find that to write a dynamic story that touches the reader on a deep, unconscious level, they need to look at life as a progression of three elements:
fighting for it, and
the change that comes as a result of that struggle.
Life begins with desire:
The moment when we come out of the womb, we want something. We want warmth and comfort, we want to know what the hell we're doing here, why everything is so loud and cold and hurts. We don't get answers, but we get our mother's breast and the warm trickle of milk that fills our souls and makes us satisfied and comfortable for a few minutes so we forget our other needs.
As we grow, we want and want and want, constantly, every day, every minute, all our lives.
We want food, we want attention, we want pleasure and no pain, we want our parents to be proud of us, we want to be cool, we want to escape and go find adventure, we want to make the man or woman we love happy, we want to make our children happy, we want success, we want luxury and security and freedom, we want an even break, we want a vacation, we want less worry and stress and fear.
But as soon as we want something, we realize that we're going to have to fight for it, especially if it's valuable.
It’s strange life doesn’t just give us what we want. Nature generally gets what it wants – a tree wants sun and water, nature provides it. Not so us humans. Sure, some things we get – but not the things that are important to us.
We say, Mommy, mommy, I want a candy bar, and we get the candy and eat it and immediately forget about it – now it’s just calories.
But when Mommy doesn’t give us the candy, that’s then it becomes a big thing. That’s when we fight for that candy, and if we don't get it, it's a defeat and that defeat means something. And when we do get the candy, that means something too: We’ve conquered Mommy, just like we want to conquer life.
And as soon as we start fighting, we realize we have to learn something or improve ourselves in order to win the battle. We have to be stronger than the other guy, or work harder, or improve the product or our skill, or figure out a better strategy. A part of the fight is always the struggle to change ourselves.
And when the fight’s over and we've won or we've lost, the very fact of winning or losing changes our life. Either we have the candy or we don’t; either we’re the winner or the loser; either the fight has contributed something valuable to our lives, or it has taken something away.
We have changed. We are a different person from the man or woman who started out.
The struggle is the gift of life
Take the search for love.
As a young man or young woman, you want love, true love, and you fight for it.
And love puts up a fight – because there is always another guy who's better looking, or richer; or because deep inside you’re an asshole and the girl knows that even though you don’t; or because one summer the girl's family leaves Hawaii for the mainland and you’re left alone on the beach.
Soon you learn that (no matter what they say) you’re not going to get love by remaining yourself. You have to change. You have to become the man or woman who can love – only then will you find real love (and that will be with someone who has also changed his- or herself).
The act of rising to the challenge, of changing to becoming the person who can meet that challenge, who can overcome that hurdle, who can reach that goal – that’s what makes you a new man or woman. Because the struggle is always with yourself.
It’s a strange, disturbing irony that we fear and avoid struggle – yet it is the greatest gift life has to give us. As much as we dread it, struggle is the key, the permission, the secret formula, to become something greater than what we were before.
It is the …
of becoming something greater than we were before;
of becoming someone unique, someone no one else can be;
of becoming ourselves.
How to turn the randomness of life into meaning
That’s what meaning is.
That's what writers know: We look at life and sort all the random events into stories that progress in some way through need, struggle and change.
And not just professional writers – we all do this. We all look back on life, think about it, locate the threads of meaning that progress through the three stages of conflict and discover the outcome:
These three events tell my love story,
These five developments tell my spiritual development,
These two episodes explain why life is beautiful,
This trauma explains why life is terrifying.
We make sense of our lives by telling it back to ourselves in the form of stories.
Are you looking for the meaning of your life?
This is how you do it:
Whether you are in the beginning, the middle or the end of it, look back at it – look at what it was in the past and what it is now.
Find those events, reactions, desires, accidents, traumas, episodes, ideas, convictions – all the parts of your life that appear significant to you when you think about them.
Draw connections between them. Identify the parts your life that connect with or contribute to the other parts of your life and think about what those connections mean.
Most of all look for those parts of your life that are united by need, struggle and change.
Then write it down – in the form of random thoughts, stories, philosophies, it doesn’t matter. What you write doesn’t have to be good in the sense of literature; you don’t have to show it to anyone else.
The act of writing it down opens up aspects of your mind you didn’t know about before, forces you think about you life deeper and anchors your memories and thoughts in your consciousness.
Then let it go, forget about it for a few weeks or months, then come back to it another time and read it as if for the first time, think about it, ask yourself if things have changed, re-apply it to your life.
You will find that your life has meaning.
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