Deb Vanasse | Writing with Purpose


Before November 8, I mostly refrained from posting anything political on social media. As an author, I didn’t want to offend readers, believing that while we might not agree on politics, we could still share a love of story. I believe this still. But post-election, my posting policy did a 180. Polite silence was no longer an option.

Let me say straight out that I don’t assume that everyone reading this reacted as I did to the election results. Such assumptions are polarizing, and Lord knows we have enough polarization aplenty. If the news that made me weep caused you to cheer, I respect your right to your opinion. The health of our democracy depends on divergent perspectives. There’s room enough on social media for all of us, and I trust that as some of us reset our personal rules of engagement—mine include sharing thought-provoking posts and links from respectable, documented sources—we’ll make our own choices about which ones we read.

Even if your politics mirror mine, you may have your own reasons for not going public with them. That’s fine. I’m not here to dissuade you.

What I want to talk about is the idea of how we as writers contribute to the broader discussions that further whatever type of change we hope to see in our nation and in the world.  I want to talk about how we “reckon honestly with our role in shaping the American psyche,” as Barbara Kingsolver urged in a recent op-ed piece published in the The Guardian. What role does this reckoning play in the creative process? How does it affect our choices of topic, format, and audience? How concerned should we be about the interface between literary and popular culture? To what extent can we reckon with the ways in which the American psyche shapes us as writers?

These are too many questions to address in a single blog post, so I’ll begin with the first and save the rest for future entries. Reckoning of any sort may feel as if it’s at odds with the spontaneity and freedom of the creative process. But if we’re attentive and honest, if we follow our instincts as concerned and empathetic humans, the reckoning will out itself in our creative work.

I write because I love the process, but these past few weeks, I’ve also thought a good bit about the extent to which my work matters. In particular, I’ve thought not so much about my most recent novel and biography, though I’m happy with both, but about Totem Tale, a children’s books that I wrote years ago during a phase of my life when I simply didn’t have time to write anything with a big page count.

In no way did I set out to shape the American psyche with this book. I admired the craftsmanship of totem poles, the way in which the poles were themselves a narrative format. I posed the classic writer’s question, “what if,” and imagined what might happen if the totem animals came alive. Until teachers and reviewers pointed it out to me, I hardly recognized that I’d written a story about cooperation. That’s the beauty of the creative process—if we allow it to do its work, the best of our thoughts will rise, whether or not we’re immediately aware of their implications.

We hear a lot about writers and ego, but the truth is that self-forgetfulness, also a critical component of empathy, is vital to the creative process. When you get lost in your work, you’re in what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a “flow state.” Author and geneticist Dean Hamer elaborates:

Self-forgetfulness means having this type of ‘flow’ on a regular basis. People often experience flashes of insight or understanding when they are in this frame of mind. Creativity is maximized, originality is fostered. Even the most ordinary things seem fresh and new.

The trick, then—if we care to frame our process in such terms—is that we recognize the responsibility that comes with having a readership, and then, having formulated the recognition, we let go of it, as we dispense with self-consciousness in general. From awareness, we yield ourselves to the flow state in which we trust our creative processes to generate works of beauty and power that will help to shape the psyche of our nation and, with any luck, leave the world a little better than we found it.

Beyond yielding to the creative flow, literary agent Donald Maass offers practical suggestions to those of us concerned about how our work matters. In “Putting Your Purpose on the Page,” he proposes questions that help authors identify their purpose:

Ask yourself: What is wrong with our world?  What injustice do we need to see?  What trend should cause us alarm?  What aspect of our human condition do we timidly suffer or ignore?  Who looks different to us who is really the same?  To what irony should we pay attention?  What do we need to remember?  Where may we find inspiration when we’re not looking?  What is good about us when everything around us makes us feel bad?  If we get nothing else right, or are able only to do one thing noble in our lives, what would that be?  What makes it okay for us to die and leave this Earth?

And this: If after experiencing your novel, your readers will be inspired to do one thing differently, what will that one thing be?

In his post, Maass also explores four ways to integrate purpose into narrative (spoiler: preaching and judgment aren’t part of the mix). He concludes with a challenge:

If your intention in writing is to “illuminate” or “explore”, or simply to entertain, why are you aiming so low?  Make a statement.  Declare yourself.  Teach us what we don’t know.  Show us how to accomplish that which we are afraid to do.  Don’t just challenge our thinking, change it.  Don’t just create conflict, shine a light on injustice, stir our timid hearts, make us want to leap up and act, show us the better world in which we could live.  Don’t just warn us, inspire us to change.


Deb Vanasse has authored seventeen books published with six different presses. Her most recent titles are the novel Cold Spell and a narrative biography, Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold. In addition to her published work, Deb works as a freelancing editor, teaches creative writing workshops, and speaks at conferences on topics related to writing and publishing. After 36 years in Alaska, she now lives and works on Oregon’s north coast.




4 thoughts on “Deb Vanasse | Writing with Purpose”

  1. Michael Engelhard

    “The moral duty of the free writer is to begin his work at home: to be a critic of his own community, his own country, his own government, his own culture. The more freedom the writer possesses, the greater the moral obligation to play the role of critic.”
    ― Edward Abbey

  2. Beautiful post, and needed at this time in our history. I am dealing with these issues also, so it is good to hear how you are thinking about them.

    1. Thanks, Lynn. Every interaction with a fellow writer is a reminder of the individual and collective power of our words for good!

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