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Whiff of Death, Meet Moment of Clarity

On May 28, Sharon Bially posted a wonderful piece [1] here on Writer Unboxed on linking motive to purpose. She defined purpose as:

[T]he unique gift we each bring to the world and always have. Our purpose has been leading us through our whole lives, in every aspect of our lives, and never changes. It is the solid, internal ground that each of us can stand on while the world is spinning out of control.

I liked this post so much I read its opening out loud to my students at the recent Wake Up And Write [2] retreat in Boise, Idaho (where I was joined on faculty by fellow Unboxer Grace Wynter). I explained to the class that Sharon’s concept of Purpose dovetailed with what I refer to as the Yearning.

At the risk of being annoyingly repetitive, let me once again lay out briefly what I mean by the Yearning: It is the deep need shaping the character’s “dream of life”—the kind of person she wants to be, the way of life she hopes to live.

And yet most people (and characters) stumble through life barely aware of their Yearning—or, worse, they expend a great deal of effort trying to deny or escape it. (This is what Christopher Vogler in The Hero’s Journey refers to as the Resistance to the Call.)

The Yearning can be a harsh mistress. It demands of us a level of honesty, integrity, courage, and commitment that can feel overwhelming, and the shame of not living up to its dictates can be crippling.

Failing to live up to the Yearning’s demands, once they’re clearly recognized, can feel like a living death. Better to let the fog of distraction or denial obscure the Yearning a little longer. And so we head for the beach, hang out with friends, focus on our families, bury our faces in work, attend to the never-ending list of chores, get loaded, etc.

What good will it do to fulfill my Yearning? Chances are I’ll fail, and what would I honestly accomplish in this big, bad, dangerous world if I happened to succeed? Why would it matter? What difference could my fulfillment possibly make in the grand scheme of things?

This may explain why many writers, in order to raise the stakes, short-arm the Yearning and instead invest in an exterior goal that clearly registers as life-and death: rescue the miners, catch the killer, discover the cure. Here the character’s motivation is clear-cut, and the consequences of failure are obvious and dire. No need to delve into the sticky, gooey, vague, mysterious muck of the character’s Yearning or Purpose.

And yet, as Sharon rightly noted, this often leaves readers wanting. Motivations driven solely by exterior causes and consequences seldom provide a deeply meaningful experience for the reader. It’s not enough for the protagonist merely to get the job done—even when the job is saving the world. We will admire such a character’s capabilities but the emotional range of our engagement with the story won’t extend much beyond what we’d feel on a roller-coaster. To feel something deeper, engage more meaningfully, we need some inkling of why success at achieving the goal matters—not just in general, but specifically to the character herself.

This is where (again, as Sharon pointed out) linking motive to Yearning—or Purpose—proves most fruitful. When the character understands how accomplishing some exterior task or pursuing a goal speaks not just to external success but inner integrity, authenticity, validity, or worth, when it resonates with an internal sense of identity and morality that defines who the character is in fundamental terms, we recognize why and how the stakes are truly a matter of life and death. Failure won’t just have external consequences. It will mean the character has in some way betrayed herself by failing to live up to her own promise, her dream of life, her understanding of who she is and how she should live.

By now, some of you have already felt a slight scratching at the back of your mind. You’re wondering: All well and good, but where does this Yearning or Purpose come from? How does one recognize it when it appears—and at what stage of life (or the story) does that take place?

Sharon noted that her post was too brief to address such issues, so I thought I’d pick them up here.

To me, it’s a bit facile to simply say we are all born with this deep inner sense of identity and purpose. That’s proof by assertion, which is no proof at all.

As I noted in a previous post (“Motivating the Reluctant Protagonist [3]”), some individuals at a very young age become aware of this core sense of identity, ambition, or purpose: Judy Garland, Eleanor Roosevelt, R.C. Collingwood, and Josephine Baker were examples I provided.

But not everyone experiences such a life-defining moment early in life. Sometimes it comes later.

Rite of passage ceremonies for both girls and boys often involve not just a step into maturity but a transformation of identity. Among many Plains Indian tribes this often required going off into the wilderness alone, fasting and suffering other privations with the purpose of eliciting a vision. That vision would serve to provide the initiate a new name, and failure to live up to the challenge embodied in that name was considered profoundly shameful.

Occupations that suggest a personal vocation—artist, soldier, lawman, doctor, nurse, teacher, priest, nun—often involve a deep personal identification with the occupation’s professional obligations. The person chooses that career not just because of the intriguing challenges and attractive benefits, but because in a very fundamental way the job speaks to them. They feel “born to it.” (Interesting note: observe how all of the occupations I listed involve service to others.)

And yet some people seemingly stumble into their professions only to realize afterward how suitable the work is to who they are. It’s as though their unconscious minds were at the helm, guiding them despite the oblivion or even opposition of their conscious minds. (Not everyone is so lucky, of course.)

For some people, the experience of parenting can awaken a deep sense of purpose, but that purpose is so intimately wrapped up with the child’s well-being it is sometimes difficult to know if it is truly a calling to one’s unique destiny or simply a recognition of the overwhelming duty of parenthood—which may in fact prove to be a profound digression or distraction from fulfillment of one’s own Yearning. This accounts for why so many people with hopes of pursuing a meaningful career struggle to be truly aware and attentive parents.

Last, no doubt there are people who feel no such deep need, purpose, or core identity at all. They may have been pounded into cynicism by failure—or fear. They may adhere to the belief that life is essentially meaningless and must be lived for the sake of the moment. They may believe “one must be many things to many people,” and assume a role as circumstances dictate. If they feel the call of a deep-seated need to fulfil a unique individual purpose, they have either found a way to stifle or silence it or have established a serviceable means to distract themselves from it, override its demands, or deny it altogether.

The point from a narrative perspective isn’t so much when the Yearning is formed—whether in childhood, adolescence, or maturity. Rather, the issue is how and when in the course of the story the character not only becomes aware of the Yearning, but comes to understand and feel the full extent of its demands.

This is often when the “death” element of life-and-death comes in. It is often only in the face of death or failure so profound it approximates a kind of death—personal, emotional, professional, even physical—that the Yearning clarifies most intensely. (This is what Blake Snyder, in Save the Cat!, refers to as “the whiff of death.”) That’s when we have to ask ourselves—why go on? Why keep trying? Why not compromise or turn back or surrender?

We die alone, and in that inescapable isolation lies the truth of any unique purpose or calling we might have.

Put differently, I come to understand most profoundly how and why I might possess a unique reason for living only once I truly grasp the fact that I cannot escape my ultimate annihilation. My Yearning is a reflection of my need to make my life mean something in the face of my inevitable death.

I’m not saying that our awareness of our mortality creates the Yearning, i.e., only once I realize my life will end do I feel a need to make it matter. What I’m saying is that such an experience clarifies the Yearning in a way nothing else does.

For a self-help take on the matter, consider this post, “Thinking About Death Clarifies Your Life [4],” by Vancouver Life Coach Pamela Dale.

For a fictional example, consider the exchange between Vincent and Jules (John Travolta and Samuel Jackson) in the diner at the end of Pulp Fiction. (Here’s a video clip [5] if you need to refresh your recollection.) Jules has just experienced what he believes is a miracle—he should have died in a hail of close-range gunfire, but none of the bullets hit home. He has felt the touch of God in this, but has no notion of why God would involve Himself in his life. That question haunts him. But what is undeniable is he has experienced “what alcoholics call a moment of clarity” (see the 4:10 mark of the video), and he knows he must change his life.

Incidentally, Tarantino is rightly praised for his creative use of time in plotting and other technical innovations, just as he is often condemned for seeming to cater to mere shock value. It’s precisely this moment and others like it in this film, however, that provide something deeper and richer. This entrée into Jules’s inner life, his reflection on his mortality and his need to pursue a new direction, provide the emotional resonance the action scenes cannot. Note also how this is accomplished by allowing Jules to reveal through conflict—i.e., Vincent doesn’t buy what Jules is saying, and makes him defend his position at every step of the process.

Go to your current WIP. For your protagonist, identify the point in the story where they realize their Purpose or Yearning. What prompted that “moment of clarity?” Is there only one, or several? If several, how do they build to the deepest, most affecting moment of awareness in the story?


About David Corbett [6]

David Corbett [7] (he/him) is the author of six novels: The Devil’s Redhead, Done for a Dime, Blood of Paradise, Do They Know I’m Running?, The Mercy of the Night, and The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in a broad array of magazines and anthologies, with pieces twice selected for Best American Mystery Stories, and his non-fiction has appeared in numerous venues, including the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Narrative, Zyzzyva, MovieMaker, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest (where he is a contributing editor). He has taught through the UCLA Extension’s Writers’ Program, Book Passage, LitReactor, 826 Valencia, The Grotto in San Francisco, and at numerous writing conferences across the US, Canada, and Mexico. In January 2013 Penguin published his textbook on the craft of characterization, The Art of Character [8], and Writer’s Digest will publish his follow-up, The Compass of Character, in October 2019.