Over oysters on a Sunday morning in Manhattan, my friend “C” implores me to read Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling: “you have to look at the idea of a calling and how it relates to the good life and there is no better meditation on having a calling than Kierkegaard’s work” he said. I downed my nice little dry sherry, trembled indeed at the thought of reading Kierkegaard, and agreed with “C” that he was on to something.

C’s and my conversation about having a calling put me in mind of an interview I did a few months ago with my friend, the English writer Sarah Moss. Sarah is a successful academic, travel writer and novelist. Her books are fantastic. They’re page turners that are rich with observations and ideas. Her characters are intensely relatable, no matter how far-flung and extreme their circumstances. She creates cauldrons of suspense and emotion, but manages the tension with humor and a deft touch. Which is all to say that if you haven’t yet read them, you should do so forthwith.

Sarah is in the enviable position of having found her calling and it was illuminating, and more than a little inspiring, to get a sense of the experience of having – and yielding to – a calling.

A number of aspects of her experience jumped out at me:

1. When you are driven by a sense of calling, there’s a degree of delight – if not downright wonderment – that you actually get to do the thing you want to do. For Sarah, this feeling started dawning when a friend of hers (“someone who lived in the same post code, who went to the same shops!”) became a successful novelist. Inspired by her friend’s success, Sarah herself made the leap to novelist. In doing so, she closed the gap between the kind of life she wanted and the kind of life she had. Now, research trips, hours in her study, editing galleys…they’re all a reflection that she’s made the mythic real.

2. When one’s doing what one’s called to do, there really is a sense of “rightness” about one’s work. Sarah expressed this as a feeling of engaging in “the real thing”. When I asked her to tell me what she meant by that she hesitated, then said, “The thing that I’m meant to be doing I suppose. The thing that justifies my being here.”

What’s interesting is that Sarah knows that it’s the real thing because she’s willing to give the creative writing whatever it asks. She’s listening to the signals from her own engagement with her work. She puts it this way, “That’s how I know this kind of writing is the real thing for me, where academic writing isn’t. Because with academic writing I just do it and then I want it to go away.  And I can just about drag myself to revisit and redraft if that’s a condition of publication, but I don’t want to. I would much rather write a first draft and then just sort of it despatch it into the ether and never have to look at it again. Where, with what for me is the real writing, the fiction and the travel writing, I’ll go back to it as often as it takes. And I will rewrite it as often as it needs rewriting. There’s a real joy for me in erasing 3,000 words because actually it’s not very good. And being able to recognize that it’s not very good and writing it again better.”

3. The third thing that struck me is that having a calling gives one a sense of having a unique role and voice in the world. For Sarah, this emerges through the experience of pulling together disparate topics and themes into a coherent whole: she the connections others might not. In her experience, it’s a process of discovery. Subjects call to her, and it’s up to her to dwell on them long enough to see the pattern that is, in essence, already there. This is how she describes the experience:

“I was in the Victoria and Albert Museum, kind of vaguely prowling because I was thinking about a late-19th Century setting for another novel. And I ended up spending the entire afternoon in the Japanese room, which isn’t very big. But I really wanting to read every word about everything in there and look at things properly. And remember them. And then I went off to the library and read about them. And I don’t know why. But they really spoke to me…

“So, last summer, I had a pile of books about nineteenth century Japanese history, more about post-war British psychoanalysis, and quite a lot about Victorian prostitution – and a couple of my colleagues came and looked at these and said to me, “What on earth are you doing?” And I thought, “I don’t really know, but when I’ve done it, I will know.” And I’m beginning to see now why I was reading those three strands of things. And I’m still reading them, still with absolute certainty that something’s going to come together out of them.

“It’s very odd. I mean, honestly, I have no more doubt that something coherent will emerge from this than I doubt the alarm clock will go off at 6:00 o’clock tomorrow morning, or that I’ll have to get breakfast. I’m quite sure it will happen, but I have no idea why, or how, or even really quite when

“It’s seeing a new road in front of you that you didn’t know was there. And not being able to see where it goes, but knowing that you’re going to go along it and find out. “Ah, there it is!  That’s the thing!” The thing you didn’t know you were looking for, but you’ve recognized it now.”

4. Following one’s calling requires defiance. This doesn’t necessarily look flamboyant (Virginia Woolf’s retreat to a room of one’s own, Picasso’s many mistresses), but it requires considered negotiation about what the world expects of you based on your identity (“wife”, “mother”, “feminist”) and what you need to do to fulfil your calling. Sarah didn’t make a production of this defiance, but I heard it loud and clear in our conversation.

Just to take one example, she defies the implicit norms of the intellectual feminist because she bakes, knits and even crochets. She acknowledges that sometimes this “feels that a betrayal of feminism. It’s expending energy on my own immediate domestic surroundings, and therefore not on any kind of wider political/intellectual world.” But she does it because it helps with her more “abstract” work, like her writing. It’s also a lesson for her writing, “Even if it’s going wrong, and that’s always a good object lesson as well, at least half of what I make I undo and remake several times along the way because it’s not coming out as planned.”

This is a subtle example of defiance to be sure, but the point is that Sarah reflects on what she needs to do to foster the time, energy and creativity to write.

5. Finally, to live with one’s calling is to live a life of emotional intensity. Throughout our interview, Sarah used words like “scary”, “exhilarating”, “fully alive”, “fun”, and “pleasure” (including the “transgressive pleasure” of creating characters who misbehave, which sounded particularly fun). This isn’t to say it’s easy: Sarah also made multiple references to the sheer labor involved in her work – the research, multiple drafts, dwelling with an idea, integrating different spheres of work and late nights. But, if a key part of the good life is feeling alive, following one’s calling is a good way to get there.

The rise in coaching suggests that many of us are longing to find and live our true passions. We yearn for purpose and to feel that our lives have meaning. Sarah’s experience illustrates that having a calling can be a sure path to this. It also suggests that “callings” themselves emerge from engagement with the world, not from fashionable introspection. In other words, while a lucky few might hear their calling, the rest of us can seek it. We can, to borrow my friend C’s term, take a stance on our being. It’s to be in the world and to understand how you see, hear and feel differently. And to dwell on this and think what it asks you to do.