Friday, May 19, 2017

Pursuing the mission-driven life

C.F. Tunnicliffe, Badgers

Why do we creative types cede all talk of mission to the corporate realm?

When I was younger, I thought about starting a business, and I attended a few workshops sponsored by the Small Business Administration. Mission was the name of the game. Over and over again, the experts stressed that to obtain capital and to communicate to prospective clients, it was crucial to have both a clear idea and a statement of mission.

I worked on a mission statement for my business. (It was a writing consultancy that I called “Your Wordsworth.” I still like the name.) As instructed, I went for a brief, lively statement that I could put my energy behind—something to say This is what I am, or, more to the point, This is what I can do—the problem I can solve, and my reason for wanting to do so.

Mission statements were also on my mind when I was the editor-in-chief of a literary journal. Journals often seek funding for their efforts, and one crisis in the field is that we all seem to share the same mission. Most magazines seek “to publish the best work available by writers both established and new.” A few magazines specialize and serve a particular demographic or literary style. The word that almost never gets unpacked is “best.” Thus, magazines all seem to compete for the same dollars with the same tired statement, while they also compete for the same work—the best work. Strangely, no one seems to want the crummy stuff.

As editor, I underwent some training with the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses—the folks who brought us the Contest Code of Ethics that most reputable journals subscribe to. Their message was the same as the Small Business Administration’s: It’s critically important to set ourselves apart with a clear picture of who we are, what we want to do, and how we are distinctive in our approach to doing it. If we couldn’t do this, why would anyone choose to subscribe or donate?

These days I’m more tuned in to writing than to entrepreneurship, and I’m no longer at the helm of a journal. However, I’m finding more and more that this notion from the corporate world has relevance to my life. Shouldn’t I be able to state in a clear sentence what it is I’m about? I think I should—and not to coax in customers or sources of capital, but to remind myself of my purpose and to doggedly pursue it, come what may.

What a poet understands better than a trainer from the Small Business Administration is that words are powerful magic, and we tap into that magic by declaring how we intend to function in the world.

For some, it’s a huge step merely to declare oneself a poet. When you love poetry, claiming that title feels like assigning yourself an honorific—might as well ask everyone to call me Lady Gorgeous De Fancypants, because it’s just that ridiculous. But the simple fact of the matter is that if we write poetry, we’re poets. We might be suck-ass poets, but bad dogs are still dogs—we don’t pull the title when they eat a slipper, because it still serves as a useful description of type.

This whole issue is complicated by all the writers we know who never write or publish. I went through a long—as in a multi-year—dry spell in my thirties, and I didn’t stop calling myself a poet during that time, but I sure wasn’t writing. I was editing and I was reading, but I wasn’t actually writing. By the time I figured out I was more of a former poet than a practicing one, I was already starting up again, and the distinction was unnecessary.

This summer, I’m thinking a lot about the power of language and the mission-driven life. Like so many academics, I keep up my writing through the school year, but I wait for the summer for high-concept work—like putting book manuscripts together, or sending out book proposals, or making a publishing plan. Summer, too, seems to allow sustained thought on writing projects, so I feel more inclined to take on ambitious work—a multi-page poem instead of something sonnet length.

But to make that sort of productivity happen, I have to tell myself the right kind of story, and those words become sort of a de facto mission statement. I devote time and energy to my writing. I make the most of unscheduled time to complete ambitious writing projects. I am driven to create in the time that is available to me. Statements like these keep me on track during those non-teaching months I think of as free time but which are really my best writing time.

What follows a clear statement of mission is a process of goal-setting—how am I going to complete my mission?—and then of working to meet those goals. With a mission that feels honest and optimistic, it’s a pleasure to scheme and then to follow through. But a great summer of writing doesn’t happen by accident, and I know that I need to plan now to make the most of the time I have.

I’m a poet. And I’m on a mission.


Would you like to make the most of your summer writing ambitions? I’m offering personal training for writers and researchers through a program I call “The Badger.” In June, July, or both, I will cheerfully “badger” you every day, by helping you to set and track goals and to stay true to your own mission, whatever it may be. Information is available here.

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