A writer’s role


One of the roles of a true writer is to bring all the gifts of their being to the task of creating art which though conscious of history and artistic tradition demands that you attend to how it feels to be alive NOW in this particular society and culture in all its messy complexity.
– from The Immortal Jukebox – A Blog about Music and Popular Culture, written and produced by Thom Hickey (b. 1955), British writer, contemporary music critic and historian, social and cultural pundit

A writer’s role

Eventually we figure out what we’re doing and why we do it.

During a 25-year “second career” teaching and supervising undergraduate college students, ages 18 to 22, in the dark arts and science of communication, journalism, and marketing, I was cast in the role of mentor many times, engaging in soul-searching conversations with young men and women who stood trembling at the doorway to a vast and confusing and seemingly chaotic world, wondering if their talents and intellect –and most of all their heart and spirit – would be enough to carry them through good times and bad, hardship and prosperity, love and heartbreak, joy and sadness, triumph and defeat, comedy and tragedy – all the adventures and misadventures that the drama of human life leads us through.

Most often they were seeking advice and assurance in their attempts to find an unequivocal answer to mankind’s universal question:

What is my purpose in life? What is the meaning of life? What am I supposed to do? What is it all about?

Young people seek unambiguous answers; something like, “Take the entry level job you’ve been offered by Kalamazoo Corporation, and you’ll zoom like a rocket to a top executive position, achieve fame and fortune, find and marry the love of your life, have a perfect family, win the admiration of your peers and community, and enjoy personal reward and true happiness every step of the way.”

I did not offer that advice. Ever. Neither did I deflate their hopes by giving them the harsh but realistic answer to “What is the meaning of my life?”: many people with awareness of and compassion for the human condition are still asking themselves those questions in their 50s, 60s, 70, 80s – even on their death bed.

“What was it all about?”

What I tried to tell them, in a roundabout way, was that asking those questions is evidence of their good character, their desire to do positive things, to give of themselves, to make a difference in a world that desperately needs people of great ability and courage and passion to make things better, to ease the suffering of less fortunate people, to gird their families and communities against times of hardship and sorrow, to lift the spirit and the hopes of every person they touch.

But there is only one person who can answer your question, “What am I supposed to do with my life?”, and that person is you. Do not expect a revelation to come to you on a ray of sunshine as you stand on the brink of your future. I assure you, it won’t. Like every other person you will have to discover the answer through trial and error, making the best decisions you can about the paths you will follow, never being afraid to change direction if you discover you are wrong.

What is the purpose of your life? You decide. You affirm your own purpose. What is it that makes you worthy, fulfilled, valued?

Some career development genius came up with the phrase, “You should be able to explain your work to someone during the course of an elevator ride or write it on the back of a business card.” Absurd. No one’s life or work should be that simplistic. If you can tell me what your life is about in less than 10,000 words you must have a really shallow, stagnant life. I recommend a deep and free-flowing life.

You will learn the uncomfortable (but eventually comforting) truth that there is probably no clear-cut and settled answer to “What is my purpose?” that will guide you through your entire life. There are a thousand ways in this world to achieve your purpose. You may be the source of great good as a special education teacher or a corporate CEO, a sustainable agriculture farmer or a geological engineer, a Marine or a Peace Corps worker, a poet or a computer technician, a mathematician or a writer, a bio-scientist or a stay-at-home parent, and during the course of your life you may be one, some, or all of the above.

As you set out, make your own Plan A, but let me assure you that by the time we reach the age of 30 nobody, and I mean nobody, is still on Plan A.

I have had the great good fortune to make a living first as a journalist and later as a writer who learned the craft of communication through the accuracy and discipline that journalism demands. I do not recommend this as the path for other people. For one thing, I am now on Plan Z2, and the journey through the alphabet was bruising. A final blessing is that in this last phase of my life I am able to continue writing as a shout of defiance at the forces of greed and consumerism that are overwhelming the humanitarian values that hold up the nation and society in which I want to live.

When someone asks what I am doing in retirement, I answer “I tell stories that affirm the goodness and nobility of man in a world that is often brutal, cruel, dehumanizing, and increasingly insane”.

I could write that on the back of a business card. If I had a business card.


More stories about hunting and life in the North Country are published in my three collections of essays, Crazy Old Coot, Old Coots Never Forget, and Coot Stews , and my novel, Hunting Birds. All are available in Kindle and paperback editions at Amazon.com, and in paperback edition at the North Country bookstore Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, and through IndieBound independent bookstores.

About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
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2 Responses to A writer’s role

  1. Mike Rainone says:

    This is very well stated and shows the maturity found while working with young people. Of course, maturity is hesitantly found when you realize that what you say to young people is taken seriously. On the other hand, some of us remember you when your stated purpose in life was, like Hunter S. Thompson, to live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse; while drinking a lot of beer and smoking nasty cigars of course. As one moves into the “Golden Years’ maturity means that life is no longer lived fast, the corpse will not be good looking and you are way past the dying young phase. Drinking beer and smoking nasty cigars are still part of one’s purpose though as it should be.

  2. Thanks, Mike. I do not remember saying I wanted to “live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse,” but there’s a lot of stuff from my youth I no longer remember. I do recall a lot of beer drinking and cigar smoking; I still try my best, but it’s hard, damned hard.
    – Hunter err – Jerry

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