Know Thy Essence
Create Your Essence List and Harness the Power of What Matters Most to You
by April Bosshard
This exercise allows creatives to connect with what matters most to them at a meta level. An awareness of one’s unique set of personal values, captured in an Essence List, serves as a powerful compass for accessing inspiration, motivation, and even healing.
This two-step exercise requires a blank sheet of paper, a pen or pencil, and about fifteen minutes of quiet time.
Draw a line down the middle of the page to make two columns. In the first column, list the eight things you want most out of life. More than anything else. These are the big things, often expressed in a single word, such as Connection, Love, Peace, Beauty, Success, Pleasure, Truth, Justice, etc. Write quickly and intuitively. There are no right answers, only your answers.
When you’re done, have a look over your words. If you wrote several words, or a specific thing, such as, “Write a great novel,” try to reduce that to the essence of what that means to you. Is it “creative expression” or “creative success”? Or simply “creativity” or “success”? You’re looking for the meta meaning here. If you wrote, “Have enough money for the rest of my life,” does that reduce down to a word like “security” or a word like “abundance”? Play with the words a little bit, but not too much. First thought, best thought works well for this exercise. At the same time, you want to reach for the underlying essence, the deeper meaning, of those things, so that you end up with a list of eight single words or short phrases.
In the second column, across from your original list, write down that word’s opposite. Not its exact language opposite, but an opposite that rings true for you. Again, write quickly and intuitively. The words on your first list have a “resonance” for you; their meanings are deep and wide and not necessarily easy to explain. If you wrote down “love,” what you mean by love may not be the same as someone else’s meaning, and so your opposites may be different. Your opposite to love might indeed be hate, but it also might be loss, indifference, alienation, or loneliness. Again, there is no right answer, just your answer.
After creating this two-columned list, keep it somewhere safe. You might want to transfer the words to a recipe card and pin to your wall or tuck it in your purse or wallet. This Essence List becomes a personal reference tool both for your life and your creative processes.
HOW THE EXERCISE CAN BE USED IN SESSION OR GIVEN AS HOMEWORK
If a client is having a hard time sticking to a project, or accessing enough energy to finish it, seeing their work through the lens of the Essence List can be reinvigorating and motivating. Once the list is created, a coach can ask, “Which words on the list are showing up in the project?” Someone feeling stuck or blocked can be asked to locate the word on their Essence List that connects to their original inspiration for that stalled project.
Things get interesting when you start exploring the opposites. If, for example, the original inspiration for a project was rooted in joy, the client can be encouraged to look at the opposite of joy on their list. Is that opposing energy trying to sabotage the work? If their opposite is sadness, or perhaps despair or misery, a coach can ask if the client is experiencing sadness, misery, or despair around the project. Maybe they’re sad that it’s not all they hoped it would be, or they’re despairing at never truly “making it” as an artist, or because one aspect of creation feels miserable to them, that one element is now overshadowing the whole process. You can then help them get back in touch with the positive value on the list.
Many writers struggle to create enough authentic conflict and motivation for their characters, and they can be encouraged to create an Essence List for one or more of their characters. It can be a powerful resource for character development and a compass for identifying relevant conflicts. Since good stories pit strong values against each other, writers who are courageous enough to make the most of opposing values end up accessing a lot of dynamic story energy.
HOW A CREATIVE MIGHT ADAPT IT TO HOME USE
The Essence List can be returned to many times and for a variety of situations.
For inspiration when creating a new project, we can ask ourselves: Which value is driving this project? Or: Which one or more values do I intend to explore with this project?
It can be a source of motivation if we’re struggling to maintain momentum. We can ask: Which value have I fallen out of touch with to get this work done? We can look to the list of opposites to see which forces may unconsciously be working against us.
During stressful or depressing times, this list can be source of healing if we interpret it as “what I need right now.” At low points, we often need something on that list (peace, truth, connection, or a feeling of success or power) because those are the things that matter most to us. We can then find a way to experience something that represents a sense of peace, truth, or connection to us. We can also peruse the opposites list and identify where our difficult feelings are coming from (a sense of powerlessness, isolation, loneliness, inner chaos, etc.).
Stepping back and examining our struggles and successes from this meta level gives us a unique perspective on our creative process and our individual life, because what we care about most lies at the heart of what we create and how we create.
RESULT WITH ONE CLIENT OR GROUP OF CLIENTS
In workshops with writers, I’m always impressed by how focused people are while coming up with their lists, though sometimes they need a bit of encouragement to be loose, intuitive, and less literal.
In one workshop, Sandra’s first list included the sentence, “I want everyone in my family to be happy.” Asked to investigate the idea a little more, she was able to simplify the idea to “relationship harmony” and then eventually to the single word “harmony.” She realized how important harmony was to her in her personal life as well as her creative process. (And she was surprised to discover that her main character felt the same way!) Sandra also had the word love on her list, which didn’t surprise her, but what did were the words she chose for love’s opposite. They included neglect, indifference, and being ignored. These words uncovered some life issues related to her career coming to an end and her children growing up and moving away.
Alan, a middle-aged man in another workshop, was insistent when he wrote, “Write a bestseller and have it turned into a movie.” I asked him to consider what he wanted out of that. Was it success, recognition, or esteem? Or maybe he wanted to be impactful, powerful, or make connections with a large number of people. In the end, he simplified his words to “respect.” On the way, he had a profound insight about an old need to impress his father by doing something important. It turned out that a need for respect drove some of his main character’s motivation as well.
Invariably, people in a group share one or more values on their Essence List, but the particular combination of the eight is always unique, as are the personal meanings underlying the words (especially when factoring in the opposites). There are always enough variations to reveal that each person is unique, but there are also enough similarities to reveal that many values are shared collectively.
What we want most in life is rooted in the values we hold most deeply. This is true for everyone. When creatives can identify the values that matter most to themselves, and choose to create work grounded in values-based themes, not only do they stay connected to personal meaning in their process and projects, they also have a greater chance of tapping into what is personally meaningful to the audiences they wish to reach.
April Bosshard is a writer, painter, story coach, and workshop facilitator who works with clients around the world. Her keen awareness of story principles and deep understanding of the writer’s craft and the creative process allow her to help writers face many of the complex issues that arise when creating stories and sticking to the writing process. Find out more at www.deepstorydesign.com