Hounds with Purpose is a space for alumni to share their stories of purpose and vocational engagement beyond their years at Assumption. This blog is created by the Center for Purpose and Vocation and the Career Development and Internship Center (CDIC) to better connect students and alumni through experiential storytelling.
Writing My Way to Purpose
By: Alexandra Caulway, Class of ’14
I am twenty-nine-years old, and I have known my purpose since third grade. That was the first time I was sent to the principal’s office.
“Do you know why you’re here?” The principal asked. He was a sturdy man with a thick gray mustache, wearing a washed-out button-up shirt with narrow pink stripes. His desk was cluttered with framed photographs I couldn’t see. My Language Arts teacher was sitting next to me in the scratchy pale green chairs, the uncomfortable kind found only in waiting rooms. I felt unimaginably small. I did not understand what I did wrong.
“No,” I said.
He held up a slim white book with my handwriting on the cover. “My Dream Island,” it said, with thin pencil drawings of waves, a beach, and a palm tree. The empty book had been a gift from my parents. I had filled it with words, the only thing I was comfortable with. Everything around me could be in chaos and it didn’t matter as long as I could bring words to paper, stories to life in my mind.
This little book was not my first story, of course – I had been making stories since I could talk. But this one I had showed my teacher. And now I was in the principal’s office.
“This is quite impressive,” he said. “It’s very good.”
My heart rate slowed. He was complimenting my writing. Now this was familiar territory.
“Thank you,” I said.
“I only have one comment,” he added with a smile. “You describe coconut milk as sweet. I can tell you from experience that it is not. It doesn’t taste very good.”
I wasn’t sure what to say to that, but he saved me from further conversation when he handed me a new pencil. The outside was printed with a fake one hundred dollar bill, topped with a bright lime green eraser.
“Keep it up,” he said, and my teacher brought me back to class.
I still have that pencil. The end of it is slightly sharpened from the time I caught my sister trying to use it. I will never get rid of it.
The Iconic Pencil from third grade, she will never get rid of!
In this manner, my purpose was continually thrust upon me. The principal was not the first or the last person who would be impressed with my gift. I had a short story published in the local paper when I was ten, a movie review in a state-wide magazine at thirteen. I always got A+ grades in AP English, at least 105 points on spelling tests including extra credit. I went to the state competition level for the Reader’s Digest National Word Power Challenge. I read books. Constantly.
I wasn’t good at much else other than using words. Or if I was, I didn’t recognize it. I took dance classes and did just fine, but no sparkling solos. I ran track, but my body fought against every step, and I could do no better than the middle of the pack.
I was a writer. Would be a writer. Must be a writer. Writer, writer, writer.
And so I was not one of those people who are unsure of what they want to do with their life. I knew I would go to a good liberal arts school and get a writing degree. Graduate and get a full-time job as a journalist. Write a novel on the side, become a bestselling author, and move to a beach house where I would sit in an oversized chair and write the sequel.
This is the point where I will remind you of an old saying, a phrase that enters my mind on a frequent basis: “We plan, and God laughs.”
Spoiler alert: I did go to a great liberal arts school and major in writing, but I am not a journalist. I don’t have a published novel. I make a living working in marketing at a tech company (yes, you can do that with an English degree). My life looks nothing like I imagined, but I learned from my Assumption education how to see things with a different perspective – specifically through my courses in the Honors Program. I remember taking an Honors class called Life Stories, which was exactly what it sounded like. Reading stories of other people reminded me then, and reminds me now, that hardly anyone goes through life doing exactly what they planned.
It doesn’t mean I don’t write at my job. I do, every day, on all kinds of levels, from social media posts to emails to presentations. It doesn’t mean that I haven’t been writing fiction, taking steps towards my purpose one slow word at a time. In fact, I finished a manuscript during the pandemic. Sent inquiries to literary agents. Two of them replied with interest. When I first saw a message asking to read the novel, my heart nearly exploded. This. This was it. I was finally going to do it, the thing I had been dreaming of, the thing everyone in my life expected of me. My purpose would be fulfilled.
Alexandra’s home office during the pandemic
This was at the end of 2020, the hardest year many of us have survived. The possibility of making my dream come true kept me above water like a fragile fishing line, barely there, just enough to keep me hanging on while the world burned. My novel, whether I realized it in the process or not, had been the thing keeping me alive since March 12, 2020.
Both agents read it. Neither wanted it.
The fishing line snapped, and so did I. Since then, I have been lost. It was not just the rejection. It only compounded the pain I was feeling after months of working from home in a tiny apartment, postponing my wedding, missing my friends, missing restaurants and cute outfits and listening to podcasts on my commute. Pain after living through the biggest societal upending in recent history. (Can we all just take a moment to acknowledge pandemic burnout, and the fact that everyone is feeling it?)
I was empty and hopeless and purposeless. My creative bucket was drained. I had spent countless hours working on the novel, only to have hopes dashed in minutes. Such is the publishing world – and trust me, I know I have lots of rejections ahead of me. But the only way forward is to actually go forward.
I think that’s the power of purpose. It is the thing you return to, no matter what, no matter how scared you are. The place where you make sense. It is the thing that drives you, the thing that is ever present, the amorphous being that fills you up and tears you down at the same time.
Passion. Pain. Hard work. Mistakes and madness and breakdowns and successes.
Purpose is all of these words wrapped up, handed to you by God, with no instruction and a lot of faith that you will find a way to do the thing you are called to do. He doesn’t choose wrong. If there is a purpose you are called to, it might feel insane, or impossible. For me, most of the time, the idea of actually becoming a published novelist feels like both of those things. But I have moments of magic, moments of beauty when I meet a new character or write a sentence that makes my heart pound. Even better if I can write a sentence that makes someone else’s heart pound.
I am writing this in 2022. Two years ago, I wrote a novel and it broke my heart. It is easy to feel crushed at any point in the writing process, but rejection on top of a pandemic on top of isolation while I worked from home made the experience a lot harder for me.
This year, I am doing it again. A new story. A different story. A story I don’t know the ending to. I am, to put it mildly, terrified and unsure and still not feeling that creative. But I know that words have always forgiven my transgressions, allowed an outlet to something bigger than myself, provided an escape when the world was too devastating to live in. I may get frustrated and sad and angry and ignore them for months, even years, at a time, but they are always there when I find the strength to brush away the clouds and meet them again.
It is not lost on me that I could say the same thing about God.
This giant, overwhelming goal will require all of the elements of my education – the art of writing and grammar, the acceptance of criticism and movement towards better, the open mindedness to understand perspectives, and the passion for creativity. But what I am most grateful for is that I chose to get an education not only in words, but in faith. Purpose cannot exist without faith, and faith cannot exist without purpose. They are one and the same, and different for everybody, but the most clear thing to me is that without writing stories, without my purpose, I am not alive. And without God, I have no idea how to go about being alive.
I have accepted that the vision I had for my purpose wasn’t exactly the same as God’s (surprise, surprise). And the fact that my life looks nothing like I imagined is not bad, but better, and I have learned a lot about how far my skills can take me. Fiction writing is only a piece of the puzzle.
If there is any advice I can give to a current student, it would be this: among all the chaos in the world today, the only certain thing is that nothing is certain, and the only thing you can control is yourself. So hold on to your purpose. Find it, cradle it, and move towards it with forgiveness and patience and determination. Use it like a compass, keep it in your heart, and remember that even if your life looks nothing like you imagined, it doesn’t mean you are doing it wrong.
By: Alexandra Caulway 14’
Edited by: Esteban Loustaunau & Pilar Betts