Realistic New Year's Resolutions for Writers
The holidays are stressful for a lot of reasons. You're compelled to travel, hang out with tons of people (some of whom you don't want to see to begin with, some of whom you OD on while they're around), and gorge yourself on food, drink, and cheer. There's shopping, endless parties...it's an all-around orgy of excess that's quickly followed by an admonition that you make a conscious decision to reform mere days afterwards. I'm speaking, of course, of the dreaded New Year's resolution.
Outlets are notorious for pushing lists about New Year's resolutions, especially on the web. The mood of the day drives content and page views, so it only makes sense that 1,000 blog posts about what to get people for Christmas are followed by 1,000 blog posts about how to stop fucking your life up so badly, ensuring you spend most of New Year's Eve alone in a weepy, drunken stupor. Let's not get it confused: self-improvement is a worthy pursuit, but I feel like those who are or hoping to be involved with writing or other artistic pursuits tend to place such enormous expectations on themselves that they end up perpetuating the cycle of creative disappointment. In the spirit of the recent holiday, and my own desire to improve myself as a creative person, I'm offering some thoughts about the nature of resolutions as pertains to writing, and how to temper your own expectations.
Reading is of course, the basis of all writing. Time and again, we're told that before we can even begin to write, we have to read, and we have to read a ton. Once you get through even an acceptable fraction of the classics and then start looking at newer works that are generally respected, the whole thing can start to feel like homework. Once again I feel compelled to say that I'm not saying reading is overrated, or that it's not valuable in and of itself (I am writing this for a literary website, after all). But I want to let those people loading their kindle to beyond full with wall-to-wall classics to stop and consider what they have time for, and what they can handle. If you've never had any interest in Russian culture or literature at all, perhaps you should find a way in besides immediately cracking War and Peace or Crime and Punishment. Don't be intimidated by how better read some of your friends, colleagues, or family seem to be, especially if you're a full-time student, working a demanding job, raising a family, or have other undue time commitments. Read at a level that's right for you, and at a pace that fits with your schedule. By all means, be diligent, and by all means, challenge yourself, but stacking the collected works of Kafka, Joyce, and Steinbeck next to your bed and then kicking yourself when you don't get through all of them by March is a waste. Buy one book at a time. Buy a book you've always wanted to read, or a book by a favorite author that you haven't read, or read one that's already sitting on your shelf that you've just never got around to. Don't concern yourself with what you should be reading. Concern yourself with what you want to be reading, because that's the only way you'll get it done.
This should really be headed "Kill Your Inner Editor", because it's the hardest thing to do when trying to discipline yourself, even before the actual discipline of editing and killing your darlings. In order to get past the hump, the inherent fraud that most people are going to feel when trying to create something for somebody else to read, you have to sit down and do it without worrying about how terrible your stuff is. There's no use in worrying because it's a foregone conclusion: your writing will be terrible, especially at the beginning, but really, it will be terrible most of the time. Get used to it. Stop being afraid of writing terrible stuff, because cycling through the waves of awful and learning to recognize what's good and worth pursuing is the one and only way you get better. Kill that inner editor, spew everything you can onto paper or screen, and then dig up the corpse and put it to work.
By that same token, don't go crazy when it comes to preparing yourself for your new and improved writerly lifestyle. Don't buy a beautiful antique desk and then feel guilty when it collects dust, or worse, bills, toys, or anything else unrelated to your literary pursuits. The same goes for a fancy new laptop, ornate pen sets, and amazing stationary. Focus your energy on things that don't cost a bajillion dollars before you start rewarding yourself with fancy new stuff. But by all means, enjoy yourself if some well-meaning friend or relative gave you any one of the above. Just don't keep yourself from appreciating their thoughtful gift if you do happen to start piling all of your non-writing related dreck on top of it.
This is both the hardest and easiest thing to adjust. Set yourself a set time to write every day and stick to it, right? Well, unexpected things happen. Some of us don't have the time to write every day, some of us have obligations and responsibilities that crop up unexpectedly, and some of us just plain can't turn it on like a faucet any moment we feel like. And that's okay. Just remember to be realistic in your goals, and don't beat yourself up if you don't meet the number you or someone else arbitrarily arrived at. I would say writing every day isn't very doable for most new and even seasoned writers. Try a few times a week, with a minimum of once per week. Pick days and times of day to work, and stick to them, but if something comes up and ruins your plans, instead of cursing your misfortune and inability to invest the appropriate amount of time into your passion, reschedule your block. Move it to the next week if you have to, just be honest with yourself about what you can and can't do and follow through.
A good way to not get discouraged is to randomly make writing your priority. Even the score by not going out one Friday night. Miss a gym session. If you can't remember the last time you were hunched over your desk, bring it back in a way that will shock your system. This is especially helpful if you've fallen victim to the number one enemy of the writer in the Internet age: the Internet itself.
I guess I could refer more broadly to "procrastination", but these days, the Internet has perfected and honed the art of wasting time in almost every respect. The online experience has a monopoly on not getting your shit done, and I'm as guilty as anybody (ask my editors). In the past half hour I've minimized my word processor and cycled through Gchat, Facebook, Reddit, pornography, Brandon Tietz's awesome behind-the-scenes look at club promotion, and pornography. But guess what? Now, I'm back here, typing this very sentence. A little goofing off is good for the soul, and anything you write isn't going to be enjoyable to read if it isn't enjoyable to write, and you won't enjoy writing if it feels like a chore all of the time. So give yourself breaks. Give yourself many, even, but don't forget to balance out all of your little "time sins" with appropriate repenting.
Some of you may have already gotten past all of the previous stuff, and just have the hardest part left: getting your work out there. Of course, you may only be writing for yourself, and that's fine, but don't say it's just a hobby when you want it to be something more. Because if you want anybody to read your work, you're going to have to, y'know...show it to people. This might be no big deal for you, or it may give you grade-school levels of anxiety. Whatever your personality allows for, ease into it. Maybe you'd be most comfortable showing a significant other, family member, or friend. Perhaps you'd rather have strangers look at it? No problem, start a blog, join a writer's group online or in person, or take the big step forward and go to a coffee shop. But get feedback. Get criticism. Get a thick skin, and realize what you're doing wrong so you can know how to work towards getting it right.
That's it. Don't fashion yourself insane deadlines, don't try to guilt yourself into diligence through overspending or overstuffing your bookshelf, and don't beat yourself up when things don't go exactly as you planned it (these things seldom do). Just try to do your best while being happy and having fun, while still moving further and further in the direction. It might take years, it might take days, but however much it takes, always appreciate it for the privilege it is and everything will come along.
Happy 2014, everybody! Somebody pass me a pen and some aspirin.
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