Several years ago, only a few months after I'd moved to a new city, my Fun Friends Nick and Hillary came to visit. They’re maybe ten years younger than me—so, they’re old enough that we have things in common, but young enough that I’m pained every time they mention when they graduated from high school.
I’m grateful to Nick and Hillary for many different types of fun: it’s because of them that I’m on Insta and that I Bitmoji. When we all lived in the same city, they were the reason my husband and I had Fourth of July BBQs to go to and Karaoke invites to decline. And when they come to visit us, they give us the energy to plan all the fun stuff we feel too tense and cranky and busy to plan on our own: We go hunting for blackberries. We take impromptu day trips. We have late dinners with tall drinks in dim lighting.
We sleep in.
In other words, our life is more balanced when they’re here. More in line with how I mean to live my life. Which is why, whenever they leave, I’m always a little down: “How come we’re not fun?” I’ll ask my husband, in a wheedling tone that causes him to close his eyes with a heavy sigh. I start listing all the Fun Things we could be doing every weekend if we weren’t who we actually are. “We don’t do anything when Nick and Hillary aren’t here.” I say, flopping down on the couch. “We’re boring.”
Their visit had taken place in the middle of the semester, when life is at its most hectic. I was struggling to see the overall arc of the book I was working on, and I was obsessed with trying to figure it out. That meant I was writing even when I was doing other things. And whenever I could, I’d slip into my office to scribble down a few more thoughts. “Hey!” my husband would call from the living room at 8:00 o’clock on Saturday night. “Are you working?!” I would sometimes pretend I couldn’t hear him.
Other parts of my life had lagged too. My blog posts were late. The fridge was empty. I’m not quite sure how my dog was able to hold his bladder for so long each day. There was certainly no fun being had in my home. But I didn’t care. I just wanted to write.
In truth, our Fun Friends only illuminated a pattern that happens to me pretty regularly. At the beginning of the semester, I set my writing goals and I promise myself that I’m going to give as much attention to my personal life as I give to my professional life. But I love writing, even when it’s driving me crazy. And besides, there’s that whole editor/press/deadline thing. So little by little I get caught up in all the stuff I want to do with the manuscript. Then all the sudden, I look up and realize I’m tired, I’m cranky, and everyone else’s life seems more sparkly and meaningful than mine. It leaves me wondering, every time—why does this happen? And is there any way to stop it?
The reason this happens is because in the midst of all the demands I’m juggling, I sometimes forget my purpose. Purpose isn’t something academics talk about all that much: Like writing or (Heaven forbid) emotions, we can sometimes find the idea of having a purpose a little…I dunno, inappropriate, maybe? Distasteful? A little TMI, thank you very much.
We edge up to the subject of purpose when we talk about our goals, since the assumption is we’re working this hard for a reason. But a goal and a purpose aren’t really the same thing. Your goal is what you’re shooting for. Your purpose is the reason you’re shooting for it. Sure, you want the PhD. Obviously, you want tenure. And of course, you’ll eventually go for up for Full. For my part, I’m determined to finish this book. But why? What’s the point of pouring ourselves into such arduous and invisible work? Or more pointedly, what’s the life we’re trying to build, and how does all this writing help us build it?
When I ask other scholars this question, I often hear something about the working conditions of academia. No doubt, the autonomy and relative job security are hard to beat. But even when it’s the first thing they mention, it’s not the thing they get stuck on.
It’s not the thing they tell me the story about.
What they tell me the story about is how they were literally saved by some idea they encountered: in a novel, in a research article. Sometimes in a person (not always a scholar) whose work and spirit embodied the life they wanted to lead. They talk about the first time they encountered that thing that was somehow entirely new, but also the key to a world they’d sensed, but been unable to find. They talk about how entering that world felt like a kind of coming home. So much so that they don’t just think O man. That’s what I wanna do. They think O man. That’s what I’m meant to do.
They don’t say to me, “I knew I wanted to be a Provost.” They say, “I realized I wanted to help first generation college students graduate without being smothered by debt.”
They don’t say, “I wanted to be able to compellingly synthesize, in both oral and written form, and without the aide of notes, the extant literature on depression among gender nonconforming teens.” They say, “I want to keep kids like my cousin from committing suicide.”
In other words, their purpose isn’t a skill, or job, or a promotion, or an award. It may eventually get operationalized that way, but that’s not where they start. Where they start is with this sense of who they want to be and how they want to—I know it sounds corny—change the world with their work.
This is what I mean by purpose, and this is the thing it’s so easy to lose track of--especially when you’re just trying to get through the reading for class or decide how late you can afford to stay up to figure out where the damn book is going. Especially if we lose touch with the community of people that helped us form and grow our purpose, it’s easy to forget that the tasks we’re completing aren’t themselves the ultimate point. They’re just one route to getting there.
One simple way to uncover your purpose is to take a few minutes and write down the purpose of the manuscript you're working on right now. If this seems just a little too corporate—or perhaps a tad too woo woo, think about it this way: you’ve already written a Statement of Purpose, most likely several times. You did it when you applied to grad school, when you wrote your job letter, even when you wrote your Research Statement for your mid-probationary or tenure review. With each of these documents, you were asked to do more than list your plans and accomplishments: instead you were asked to make meaning of all that you do. We tend to consider this question narrowly, in reference to our research agenda. Rarely do we broaden the scope of our questioning and think how it might apply not just to our work, but also to our life.
But clarifying your purpose can support and even buoy your writing in two specific ways. First, writing down your purpose helps you stay motivated to write, even when things get hard. Developmental psychologists and scholars of creativity and performance are very clear: work that is highly meaningful—that allows you to accomplish something of value—is also highly motivating. The chance to do that meaningful work is often more motivating than the external rewards that accompany its completion.
At some point this quarter, you’ll get to the point where you want to give up. When no one seems to get your work and you’re rewriting the same line for the umpteenth time. If the only thing you’re working for at that point is the next ribbon, that’s only going to take you so far. But if the push for that ribbon means something more and you’re clear on what that meaning is, it’s easier to stick to your work when the end is unclear and uncertain. It’s also easier to let yourself take a break—cause you’ll be more willing to guard your energy for what you know is important.
Another way knowing your purpose can help your writing, is by helping you make substantive decisions about your project when time grows short. So, imagine that moment you know is coming: when an upcoming deadline forces you to cut some element of the manuscript. When you’re clear about why you’re writing, it’s much easier to decide what elements your work has to have and what can wait until the next draft (or next project).
Say you’re submitting a draft to your (former or present) advisor and want her opinion on the two possible directions your work might take. That manuscript needs to look entirely different from one you’re going to give to a peer you’ve long wanted a genuine reason to talk to at a conference. It will also look different from what you give to a senior scholar who already knows and likes your work, but with whom you’d like to strengthen your mentor-mentee relationship. In other words, what your manuscript needs at any given moment depends on the purpose of the draft. So the clearer you are about that purpose, the easier it is to know where you should focus your energy.
I thought about my purpose after my Fun Friends’ last visit, and I was surprised to find that I wasn’t totally off base, just a little out of whack. Not knowing the arc of the book is always a long, painful period for me—but not one that requires the level of attention I was giving to my writing. It made no sense, the way I was obsessing over it. So, I locked away my writing beast on Saturday nights and spent them binge watching Black-ish with my husband. (You see? It turns out I am boring, even when I’m not obsessed with my book).
At the same time, I believe that scholars change the world with their writing. And I believe that choices around writing are choices about how you want to build and live your life. I see how fear and self-doubt keep us from building the writing lives we want. I’m hoping my work can help other scholars move past those fears. So I’m willing to devote some of my downtime to this book when ideas grab me. I’m doing what I most love to do. I just need to do a little less of it.
While I write this, Nick and Hillary are in Delhi, God love ‘em, and seeing them on Insta sorta makes me wish I was them. But I also just polished off a chapter; one I hope is going to someday help a whip smart but struggling graduate student finish her dissertation without killing herself in the process. It’s a little bit boring, I admit, especially when compared to India. But I’m actually ok with it. Because it’s what I’m meant to do.
Want the InkWell blog delivered straight to your inbox? Have questions about this post and how to follow its suggestions? Subscribe to Inkling, a bite-sized newsletter filled with ideas, inspiration, and information for academic writers.