Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

A Meaningful Life

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Dec• 27•11

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.  ~William Wordsworth

I started teaching writers in 1991 and in these past years I’ve worked with and taught enough writers to fill a small town. Now, if all these writers would move together into this town (I imagine it in the foothills of an impossibly majestic mountain range and laced with rivers and with at least one lake nearby) I would guess that the town council might be fractious, the mayor could be a science fiction writer, laws might be not quite the norm, and although I’m a person of a large imagination, I can’t quite speculate on the murder rate.

I don’t imagine it would be a place of sedate luncheons and teas and fashion shows, beauty pageants, and Kiwanis meetings. But I would imagine a quiet place of gardens, and the click-clack of keyboards, where children’s art is hung everywhere, where there is a preponderance of coffee shops and book stores and theater groups and a well-used library. Maybe I’ll retract the part about the quiet because I also imagine townspeople gathering and chattering about ideas, events, and books instead of sports or weather. It’s a place of diversity and because writers read so much, the intolerance or narrow minded attitudes sometimes associated with small towns are not so much in evidence. And in my town, as dusk fall, things turn almost magical with fireflies flickering in the long twilight, with a low clink of glasses and laughter and children’s games—the old fashioned ones from my childhood— are murmuring in the background and someone with great finesse is practicing a cello or viola on her porch, the notes drifting on scented air.

I’m weaving this little fantasy because I’ve met and worked with so many writers that it adds up to a meaningful life. By now regular readers of this column know I’m not a mystic or a guru or a saint. Nor am I a flim-flam huckster or any kind of poseur. At times in this column I confess how I don’t have some things in life figured out. Some days I’ve lost my groove. Sometimes I’m more worried about my bank account, growing old, and my lower back than my current deadline.

But I’m surrounded by stories and fascinating people and in writing our stories my students and I try to make sense of life with all its perplexities, dangers, loss, and mundane happenings. We recognize the glorious, the silly, the odd, and through writing and noticing we find the humanity glimmering beneath it all.

Years ago I lived in a small cabin in the middle of a northern forest. The place was heated by a wood-burning stove and I always kept a pile of kindling ready for starting fires. These days, like that kindling at the ready, I always hold on to hope to start my inner fire. Even during hard times I keep hope at hand and am buoyed as every morning I’m pulled from my bed and settle into this seat at my keyboard.  And even when it’s been raining for weeks and I cannot make sense of the chapter I wrote six months ago, I still think this is one of the best lives possible. So I want to talk at least one more time about how when writing chooses us, that we’d be fools not to answer yes to the call and move into a writer’s town and say yes to expressing ideas and storytelling.

I suspect that like me, you’ve noticed that something mysterious happens when you’re writing and the depths you find within, the ideas and images and memories that erupt out of nowhere. You might also revel in the insights and revelations that come while walking, or talking to friends or dreaming. This wellspring appears when we stop fretting and worrying and instead surrender to the writing so that these hours spent are filled with everyday miracles.

And then as part of this meaningful life, something has been happening to me in the past few years. I’ve felt a deepening, a connection that keeps me afloat during the hard times. Writing has come to be my practice, my means for untangling emotions and finding myself and living peacefully in the present moment. Have you found this too? You see sometimes more writing can pull us from a slump, a rejection or heartbreak.

Or sometimes it’s just a matter of appreciation. For example, this past fall I was feeling discouraged and went for a long walk and asked for a sign that my life was meaningful and on track. As I returned home and walked in the door the phone was ringing. It was a writer (who else?). She had stories to tell and wanted to attend an upcoming workshop. And in the following month it seemed that daily in a workshop or critique group, at a book signing, at a conference, and in conversations writers were telling the most amazing stories and it was as if my heart doubled. There were the real stories about miracles and injured children and troubles and dying friends and falling in love. Then there were the made-up stories about adventurers and winos and virgin births and bear hunts and car bombs that shook my imagination.

As my community of writers has grown, I’ve looked around at how people in it and those living in other cities find meaning in their lives.  Meaning comes from so many places, our children, friendships and work. Years of research has shown that happiness and meaning come from feeling valued and believing that what you do is important. It stems from using your strengths for something beyond yourself and having some control over the choices you make. The more you believe you are driving your life, rather than the other way around, the greater the chance that you’ll see your life as meaningful. Researchers often call this sense of personal control self-efficacy. Dr. Martin Seligman the author of Learned Optimism and other books has made his life work finding what makes life worth living. He calls self-efficacy as “the opposite of what I call learned helplessness. It’s having confidence that your actions will directly affect an outcome and that you can shape that outcome positively. These types of people tend to hone their natural strengths and be good at getting themselves into situations where they can use those strengths to make a difference.”

Seligman also said “…there is one thing we know about meaning: that meaning consists in attachment to something bigger than you are. The self is not a very good site for meaning, and the larger the thing that you can credibly attach yourself to, the more meaning you get out of life….. there’s no shortcut to that. That’s what life is about.”

As January looms we have a blank easel before us, large with promise. What colors will you paint on it?  The writing life is built from growth and enduring and commitment. It requires that you invest the most precious part of yourself—your essence. So what are your investment plans? Have you written them down? Bought a new notebook or journal? There are a lot of things that the writing life cannot deliver. It cannot be a refuge from loneliness or a sure path to fame and fortune. But in it you can find the heroic, compassionate, and transcendent part of yourself as you show up for the page again and again.

I don’t know about you, but I’m going to be realistic about my plans for the coming year. I probably won’t learn Italian or French or to play piano. I probably won’t get chosen for X Factor or any reality show. I likely will not paint a self portrait or finish a triathlon or whoosh down a mountain or score a touchdown. I will not become a vegan or move to L.A. or San Francisco or New York. Neither will I discover a cure although it’s likely I’ll lose my temper or say things I’ll regret.

But I will master new recipes and invent a few of my own.  I’m going to spend many hours sitting here, writing away, and I’ll weave this solitude with laughter and friends and long walks and sunsets and the sound of the ocean from time to time.

I’m going to sing and learn new songs and maybe even when the spirit stirs me, howl a bit. I’m going to look for happiness not in things but in friendships and connections. I’m going to marvel at the stars and take in the clouds and relish the wind.

I’m going to grow flowers. I’m going to read widely. I’m going to light candles. I’m going to write poems. I’m going to listen to children. I’m going to use stronger verbs and strive for fresh language. I’m going to wink at the ghosts from my past. I’m going to write in my journal. I’m going to dance. I’m going to work at being less jittery. I’m going to talk about global warming and my concerns about our government. I’m going to nurture proximity to people who make me laugh. I’m going to hoard smells and colors and textures. I am going to pay attention to my heart in all its seasons. I’m going to work at controlling my moods and training my mind so it’s less a goofy puppy yapping at everything that passes by.

I’m going to walk into my office every morning as if I’m sitting under a Venetian glass chandelier and its casting a pale ruby glow down on me. Warming the room. Stretching my heart.

In 2012 we can all be bold. Be true. Keep going. Be original. We have a new year before us and a chance to look deeply into ourselves to find a place of solidity and engagement, yet also a place where we can rest, and a place of quietude.

I’m looking forward to gathering with writers and helping them build skills or watch them break out of fears or insipid prose. But mostly I’ll be listening stories  about a mother’s death , broken bones, a husband’s Alzheimer’s, the dog attack when the writer was six, that long-ago arrest in Georgia, getting lost in Turkey and the never-forgotten soldier lying frozen in death at the side of the road during the Battle of the Bulge. This is why I teach and why I’m so grateful for this meaningful life.


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  1. Your town of writers sounds a lot like Portland. Nice touch, moving in some fireflies. May you keep your embers banked all year, my friend.

    • jessicap says:

      Thanks for the good wishes Murr. Actually my town is smaller than Portland…and the fireflies are a must….And of course I want you in my writer’s town…

  2. christine says:

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Living from your heart. Writing from your heart. I secretly want to write but I…..what…I am afraid that people will read it and judge it, judge me. I want to write where I can be free to just write what is inside of me. Just to let it out. Just to find myself and connect with me, the inner essence. Thank you.

    • jessicap says:

      Christine, thanks for reading. I was just sitting here writing the column for my next newsletter and this is what I wrote ” A writer’s life is luminous and engaged.” Write what’s inside of you, especially as a means to connect with the self. A new year is coming and as Annie Dillard says, the way we spend our days, is how we live our lives. best to you, Jessica

  3. A wonderfully reflective post, Jessica. It’s that time of year when we start evaluating what’s been accomplished and how better we might make the coming year. I’ve never been one for making resolutions but I like your approach. 🙂

    • jessicap says:

      Carol, I love making resolutions…it’s the keeping them that’s tough….Actually writing down goals helps me a lot. Happy New Year to you. Jessica

  4. KT Wagner says:

    A wonderful, inspiring column for the New Year. Thanks Jessica.

  5. Olivia says:

    Hi Jessica,
    as always, your writing inspires me and makes me want to continue. Have been doubting myself a lot lately, so your article made me feel better. Hopefully this year will be better than last year.
    Thanks, Olivia

    • jessicap says:

      Thanks for reading. I really appreciate it.
      Some years ago when my first book came out I ran into a real snag in my career that made me doubt everything. It was then that a publishing professional told me that writers don’t choose writing, it chooses us. This has always brought me solace and hope it fits for you too. Jessica

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