I like to set resolutions. I know some people don’t. But my thinking is very much along the lines of Sarah Hoyt’s, as she blogs about it here. Humans, she writes, “live by ritual and symbols as much as by concrete things . . . I use the rituals and the dates and the symbolic turning points as a fixed point off which to rappel and change my direction.”
[T]here is a dreadful weight of inertia to human life. Things-as-you’ve-always-done them become established in your mind and you end up doing them the exact same way over and over again, even if you hate it. It’s kind of like trying to swim in a soaked overcoat. And in this case, the habits formed during this year are the kind that, like that soaked overcoat, will be the end of me, if I don’t change them.
Exactly. Which is why resolutions can feel good. They can imbue your life with a sense of “getting somewhere,” of having some measure of control or at least influence on your destiny.
Only if you are kind to yourself about them, however. As Dean Wesley Smith notes in this post about setting writing goals, when it comes to goals, it’s important to be flexible about how we define “success.” If you set an “extreme” goal, he advises, “have fall-back success levels.” Understand that missing a goal doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve failed.
Seven of my eight 2013 resolutions were writing goals, and guess what: they were all extreme. I didn’t meet any of them. But I made substantial progress on three. So out of kindness to myself, I hereby christen 2013 a success :-)
And also out of kindness to myself, I’m going to be careful about my 2014 resolutions.
I realize, in retrospect, that the resolutions I made last year set me up to fail not only because they were extreme, but because meeting them depended too much on things outside my control.
Without going into too many personal details: the daily claims on my attention are real. I’m a mother. I have bills to pay. Etc.
The time and energy I can devote to writing fiction are limited. That’s a fact. And if my resolutions don’t accommodate that fact, I’m doomed to miss them. So:
Lesson #1. Don’t set goals/resolutions that are too vulnerable to factors I can’t control.
So how do you get to goals/resolutions that are within your control?
One clue to answering this question is this:
Process Versus Product
A couple of months back I discovered Hillary Rettig, who’s written a book about overcoming writer’s block. Here’s a jumping off point if you want to read her excellent articles about procrastination.
Much of what Rettig describes isn’t new to me. I’ve known for 30 years that procrastination is a behavioral response to anxiety. But her articles are a terrific refresher, and I particularly appreciated her page on Perfectionism, where she discusses the importance of focusing on process versus product. Perfectionists, she writes,
are obsessed with how good the final result of their efforts will be, and the reward they hope to reap. A reward could be a good grade, promotion, publication in a top journal, review in a top publication, or, more generally, money, fame, love, and/or respect.
Non-perfectionists, by contrast, stay mostly focused on the work itself and reap most of their rewards from the intrinsic pleasures of doing that work. If grades, publication, money, etc., come, they’re happy, but those aren’t the main point.
Focusing on the reward is doubly risky because you’re putting your self-esteem in the hands of others (potential customers, reviewers, lovers, etc.).
Okay, so I’m seeing myself there ;-)
When it comes to my writing, broadly speaking, I occupy one of two different states. One is when I am submerged in a fictional world and describing it. I’m in the flow. Writing is effortless when I’m in that state, and I’m able generate lots of words. Scary amounts. I had a week-long stretch in May where I averaged 3,304 words per day.
If I maintained that pace, I’d write over a million words per year. Eep!
The other state isn’t nearly as much fun. In the other state, I have a little knot in my stomach, and just under the surface of my awareness is a ball of thought that, if verbalized, would go something like this: I need to write more. Why aren’t I writing more. I should spend less time on the Internet. This pay-the-bills work keeps interfering with “my” writing. I can’t get in the flow unless I have chunks of time open, every day. I’ll write later, as soon as I’m done with ___________.
And so on.
But Rettig is right: the laying of blame/self-recrimination/focus on circumstance is not the essence of the problem.
It’s a cloak. A soaked overcoat! A noisy, distracting, chattering overcoat.
The real problem is something more fundamental, and darker. Fear. Fear of failure, perhaps, or fear of success.
I’m not sure which it is in my case, and I’m not sure that it matters.
All I know is this: I could invest everything I’ve got into my writing. My time, my talent, my hopes, my skills — but I still can’t be sure that good things will happen as a result. On the contrary, there’s some aspect of my psyche that is perpetually deer-at-the-edge-of-the-clearing.
If I step out, I’ll be seen. And if I’m seen, I could get shot.
Either for being bad (as with Libby, when Amazon reviewers declared open season and blasted away, killing my sales almost overnight) or for being good.
Only here’s the other thing: that doesn’t matter, either.
It’s something else that’s outside of my control.
If my novels suck and people hate them, there’s nothing I can do about it.
If my novels are fabulous and people are threatened and envious, or the pressure of keeping up with the standards I’ve set becomes overwhelming, there’s nothing I can do about that, either.
Instead, I have to do what Rettig suggests: attend to the process instead of the outcome.
It makes perfect sense. It’s Zen, it’s the Tao. And it’s what life is really about. The journey, not the destination, as we know from the inspirational messages we see very day on Facebook when we’re there instead of writing ha ha ha ha.
It’s also the way to reap the payoff for Lesson #1, because if I’m focused on process, by definition I’m focused on something that is in my control. So:
Lesson #2. Focus on process, not outcomes.
Okay, so far, so good. But there’s something else. How do I articulate a resolution that guides me to focus on process? For that matter,
What is a resolution, exactly?
A good question to begin with, don’t you think?
For example: my sweetheart, who gets to the nub of things with maddening swiftness at times, commented the other day that goals and resolutions are completely different things. He has a point. We think of the two words as synonyms, but maybe it would be more useful to put them in separate corners of the room for a bit.
Goals are externally oriented. They’re measurable. They’re outcomes.
Resolutions have the connotation of being more internal. Resolutions require resolve, and resolve is an inner state, not an external outcome.
And get this: resolve’s Latin root, resolvere, means to unfasten, loosen, release.
A resolution is therefore also about letting go of something. It’s shedding that soaked overcoat, to return again to Hoyt’s metaphor. We make resolutions because we want our lives to change, and our lives can’t change unless we let go of what went before — of what we were before. Which leads me to the next question. When it comes to writing,
Who Am I, And Who Do I Need to Be?
I have three novels published at this point, plus a bunch of short stories. I have another novel nearly done.
In that respect, I’m far ahead of many, many people, alive or dead, who want or have wanted to claim the title “author” or “novelist” for themselves.
But oh, it’s such a bitter ambition. Because “author” and “novelist” are titles we define by exterior measures, and therefore there are dozens of ways those titles can be placed out of reach. Inferior writing, rejection by publishers/agents/critics/readers, failure to produce, failure to make living at it . . .
In my case, it doesn’t help matters that I wish my novels sold better. Another externality thrown into the mix! Another measure over which I have virtually no control.
And yet I’ve repeatedly used it as a measure, setting myself up for a bullet to whistle past my snout. I read what other writers say they sell, I handicap my chances based on how similar my output is to theirs, and I come up with scenarios. By such and such a date, I’ll have x books published, so surely by then I’ll be making $y per month . . .
And then the date comes and goes, and the sales aren’t even close to what I’d envisioned.
If I’m rational about it, the issue is some combination of bad luck (or absence of good luck, if that’s not the same thing) and a constellation of circumstances. I was a little late to catch the first wave of Kindle book sales. Libby’s failure destroyed what momentum I did have. I don’t write in/stick to genre, so readers who like one of my books won’t necessarily want to buy another. Discoverability is hard. Etc.
All out of my control. So yeah, this is a bit of the same lesson expressed a different way, but I’m going to call it out separately any way, because I really need it:
Lesson #3. It’s a waste of time and energy to care about sales.
That said . . .
Writing is Transactional
Even if it’s not about generating output for the sake of sales, writing requires a hand-off from writer to reader.
Yeah, sure, there’s the sort of writing we do for ourselves. But when I write fiction, I’m not writing it for me.
I’m conducting a conversation. I’m writing for a reader.
More: I’m writing to give a reader pleasure.
Which leads to another point: the fact that writing is transactional, that there’s a second party, is one reason I (and probably other writers) get pulled into thinking about product instead of process.
The other party — the reader — is so central to the whole exercise.
You, Mr./Ms. Reader, are in the room as I write, looking over my shoulder.
Thanks for that — not!
There’s a workaround though, I believe:
Lesson #4. The process of writing has to be marked by the spirit of giving and trust.
In other words, while the primary aspect of that state of flow I described earlier is the energy of creating, it must also be blessed — in the sense of consecrated — by the sense that what I’m creating is a gift to my reader/s.
Okay, almost done, but not quite, because there’s one more piece that’s important to consider:
Process, Change, and Being
Returning to Hoyt’s post that I linked way back when: the reason New Year’s Resolutions are important to us is because they suggest that we can change: we can become better people.
Notice the wording: become better.
When we set external goals (publish 3 novels, lose 10 pounds, quit smoking) what we’re really trying to do is change who we are.
And it can work. If you resolve to quit smoking and stick to your resolution, at some point you’ll become a non-smoker. And maybe you’ve noticed this in your own life, when you’ve finally overcome a habit like smoking: once you’re a non-smoker, once that is who you are, you’re no longer even tempted by cigarettes. Smoking is no longer part of your world. It’s foreign to you.
Which is why you can sometimes start with internal change — you can start by changing who you are. That’s maybe why hypnosis can work: if you impress on the subconscious a new identity (i.e. that of non-smoker) then the old behaviors fall away.
For me, the internal orientation I want is that of a novelist.
Notice I didn’t say “writer.” I’m already a writer. I’ve been supporting myself by writing for my entire adult life, almost. I write every day. It’s who I am.
But fiction — ah, fiction. That’s different. This self-as-novelist is an identity I’ve not fully assumed. This may surprise people who know me, who have read my fiction: you might think of me as a novelist.
But I don’t. Because I made being a novelist conditional — I’ve not seen myself as a novelist because I’m not making a living by writing novels.
See what happened, right there?
I’ve let myself be defined by circumstances outside my control.
And I’m going to change that, starting today.
My 2014 New Year’s Resolution: I am now a novelist.
And if being a novelist has nothing to do with book sales, then it must be based on
Being something, otoh, is about internal orientation.
And that is more important to me, right now, than how many words I write per day or how many novels I publish over the next 12 months.
It’s about who’s peering out of my eye sockets.
Because if I’m oriented to my life as a novelist — if that’s my primary identity — then the rest of my life will naturally accommodate it.
And my output will likely increase in 2014, compared to last year.
And if I internalize what I’ve learned from my past experiments in setting resolutions, I’ll avoid some of the issues that have hampered me in the past.
Or anyway, that’s my working theory. Time will tell if it works.
Wish me luck :-)
P.S. If you like my meanderings on the writing process, please consider purchasing my 99 cent Kindle short, Writings, Dreams, and Consciousness. Thank you and Happy New Year!