Finding Creative Purpose
One of the many things I have thought about lately is determining why I write and draw. Knowing your "why" is helpful, especially when you're stuck. It gives you an opportunity to ask yourself: Does this align with my values as a writer/artist/whatever? Does it align with who I want to create work for? With what I want them to feel? You can use your own history of what you've written before or wanted to write (or your own interests if you're just getting started) to figure out what your guideposts as a creative should be.
I had a major identity crisis after giving birth to my daughter. Those first three months, I was in the role of "mom" 24/7, all day, every day. Moments for "me time" were near nonexistent and I was trying to survive day-to-day. Before, I was taking on challenging code projects by day and writing and drawing by night. Suddenly I was not doing any of those things and instead was spending my days "panic parenting" (AKA having no idea what I was doing and a googling anything that popped in my head while being held hostage by a sleeping infant). I started to feel like I had no idea who I was anymore.
I had big hopes for returning to work and things "returning to normal".
But then the literal day I was to return everything shutdown because of the covid-19 pandemic.
Finding a light
As is the case for many people, what "normal" means changed for a lot of people after 2020. It was a long time before we could start daycare, and another two months to get over our daughter getting colds constantly once we did (and therefore also us getting colds constantly). But, for the first time in a while, I felt like I could breath again. I was a little less exhausted and a little less burned out.
I tried multiple times to get back into writing and drawing. But, things were different. They felt different. In ways I couldn't yet articulate, but in a way that definitely wasn't working.
It was time to re-identify myself and what's important to me. To re-assess who I am as a creative. To do that, I needed to reflect.
For now, I focused on my writing. I looked to my most recent stories and ideas, as well as my favorite books by others. For each story or idea, I considered:
- What are my favorite parts, and why?
- Does it touch an event or idea I relate to personally?
- Does it remind me of something?
- Did it change my perspective?
- What are my least favorite parts, and why?
- Is it how they are written, or the idea itself?
- What do I like most about the genres I write?
- What do I hate about them?
- Do I have tropes I come back to?
- Tropes I avoid?
- Who do I wish I wrote like, and what do I wish to emulate?
- Is there any commonality among the things I like and dislike? (Both in content and reasons.)
- Are there things in what I write that aren't in what I read?
- Or vice versa – things in what I read that I don't write?
- Have I written any of the ideas or content that I dislike?
If you want to try it too, this makes for a good journaling exercise. Let yourself vent away about what you hate and go nuts gushing over what you love! It can be easier to journal it out first and then parse through the result for what you mention multiple times.
Here is a general list of mine:
- The commonality: Many of my favorite characters have redemption arcs.
- The reasoning: I believe people are complicated, and in second chances. I like when people learn from their mistakes!
- The commonality: I love slow-burn romances and various romantic tropes.
- The reasoning: I like knowing who the characters are before who they are as a couple. I love when at least one is hopelessly romantic, but also when they're shy and would rather pine than admit their feelings (because same!).
- The commonality: Even though I love romance, the amount of sex in romance novels puts me off from the genre as a whole.
- The reasoning: I identify on the asexual spectrum and just don't relate! I want emotional intimacy over physical.
- The commonality: Fantasy is my favorite genre.
- The reasoning: I love that the world can be anything the creator imagines — as close or different from ours as they want. Anything can be real if you want it!
- The commonality: Various endings I found depressing.
- The reasoning: I dislike endings that are pessimistic about humanity/people because I prefer to be hopeful.
- The commonality: I dislike many stories where characters with mental health issues are "cured" or portrayed as inspirational.
- The reasoning: I have had anxiety and depression most of my life, and many of my friends' have long-term mental health challenges as well. Managing it is part of my life. It doesn't make me any more "creative" or "brilliant" — I do my best work when I'm not suffering.
Determining my writer values
From what I discerned in my list above, I could then translate this into a series of values. These values contain a what I want to achieve and a why for each.
Here are some of my mine, pulled from the previous list:
|I write happy endings.||
|I write characters with mental illnesses.||
|I write asexual characters in love.||
I could then use these values to also determine who my audience is.
|Who||What I want them to feel|
|People wanting to "escape".||I want them to forget the "real world" for a while.|
|People who want hope and happy endings.||I want them to feel satisfied, happier, and maybe even inspired.|
|People who do or have experienced anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.||I want them gain confidence in who they are and feel strong.|
|Those on the asexual spectrum who still want to read romances.||I want them to feel seen in the genre.|
Basically…I write for people a lot like me!
If you have a goal to publish, you probably want to make your audience more specific. You might have different audiences based on the different things you do. For example, if I'm writing a slow-burn romance featuring an asexual relationship where one character has intense anxiety (which I am), that audience is different than those who want to read my more genre-typical fantasy stories. Some may overlap, but not all.
Using my guidepost
The idea of having values written down is to remind me what I like to create and why.
This exercise proved helpful to me immediately. One of my stories I felt stuck on. It wasn't working, I felt unmotivated to work on it, and worse was not knowing why. After all, it sounded exactly like the type of work I want to create…didn't it?
(Spoiler: not really.)
When I considered it again under a fresh lens, I realized it was actually missing a lot of my values. It focused on the wrong things, and had turned more into what I felt was typical for it's genre than what I wanted to bring to it and liked. Had my values changed since I started it, or had I lost sight of them? Probably a mix of both. Who I am now is definitely not the exact same person I was before the pandemic and before having a child.
I ended up throwing the whole outline out and completely rewriting it. Having a deeper understanding of what I actually like to read made it easier to know what I want to write (and what I don't). Writing the outline felt easier than the previous ever had and I felt more confident in it — not to mention more motivated!
Now, when I feel stuck, I have a reference to go by to help me get unstuck. I can ask myself:
- Am I betraying how I want the audience to feel?
- Am I betraying one of my values?
- Am I missing the mark on one in particular?
- Revisit my original list of likes and dislikes:
- Am I trying to achieve something I like, but falling short?
- Do I have to an example of what I'm trying to achieve that works? If so, compare to what I have. What am I missing?
Creating with purpose
Having my values and audience actually written out (and not just a sticky note in my head) has helped to create a path forward. It defines my purpose for creating (or at least, for now, writing — though many values may cross over into my art as well). I can ask myself if a project fits along this path or not. If it doesn't, can it be fixed, or should I drop it and move on?
Showing up is a huge part of the creative process. Not feeling inspired is too easy an excuse to avoid it! (Trust me — I am guilty!) But defining my purpose helped. Beyond fixing scenes and story issues, I have reasons why I need to write these stories.
I want to bring more hope in the world. I can help people feel more seen. I can help people believe in themselves.
Even if not big differences, these are differences I want to make. That I can make. Even if there is only one person who needs this story — and even if that person is me — isn't that still worth doing? At the very least, it's worth writing a few more words and seeing where it takes me.
I hope you find the same to be true for you.