A Writer’s New Year

January 1, 2011

So this is the blog where I don’t write about New Year’s resolutions, and how, we as writers should make all kinds of promises to ourselves to do more, to do better, to up the ante in our writing lives for the next year.  This is the blog where I don’t tell you to plan the great American novel or the great American memoir you’ve been wanting to write for years, but haven’t.  Where I don’t tell you to make three contacts that might prove useful in your writing life.  Where I don’t tell you to make a writing schedule you can stick to.   Where I don’t tell you to write 500 words a day every day, or 750, or 100.  Where I don’t tell you to write 20 hours a week or 2 hours a day.

And I’ll tell you why.  It’s been my experience that most of us make New Year’s resolutions we can’t possibly keep.  We’re busy enough as it is, and we’re only human, and lifestyle changes aren’t all that easy to make all that quickly even if we have the best intentions in the world.  Lifestyle changes take a long time to make.  And they’re best made taking a baby step at a time.  So if we make grandiose New Year’s resolutions (work out six days a week; write two hours a day; be nice to my partner all the time; cook gourmet dinner four nights a week), a few days or weeks or months down the road when we find that list of our New Year’s resolutions and we discover that we haven’t done what we promised ourselves we’d do, we’ll feel terrible about ourselves, we’ll beat ourselves up, we’ll tell ourselves we’re no damned good.

So why bother to make New Year’s resolutions at all if they’re so hard to follow?

To me, New Year’s resolutions are just another way of us telling ourselves we’re not good enough the way we are.

What if, instead of making New Year’s resolutions we probably won’t keep, we spend a few hours telling ourselves we’re fine just the way we are, that our essential selves are fine, and that there’s nothing we need to do today, tomorrow, or the next day to transform ourselves into better people?

So what do I do on New Year’s Day instead of making New Year’s resolutions for myself as a writer?

I think back over my writing year, and I gather information about what my writing year was like.  I look over my planner and my journal and I think about my yearlong writing journey.  I take stock and I acknowledge where I’ve been without judgment, without accusation or praise.  I simply try to “see” what my writing life was like last year.

So this is what I learned about my year’s writing.

I learned that I started writing a blog about writing memoir, and that I wrote one entry most weeks.  I learned that a good number of readers of my blog found what I wrote useful.  I learned that it felt very good to take time out from writing my memoir about my father to write my blog.  I learned that writing my blog helped me become a more fluent writer than I’d been because I gave myself a time limit for each entry (one hour) and some ground rules (write what you’re impelled to write; make minimal revisions).  I learned that I’ve laid the groundwork for a new book about writing.  I learned that I want to continue this practice.

I learned that during the month of March I decided to undertake what I called “the final push” for finishing the memoir about my father.  I learned that until March I was terrified of the book but that when I started the final push in March I became less terrified though I was still frightened of the book (and still am).  I learned that it took me four months to revise a very difficult chapter.  I learned that I continued to work no matter how tough the work felt.  I learned that making my “Next To Do” list every day and at the end of each day worked miracles for me – focusing on only one thing at a time was less overwhelming.  I learned that I’d overlooked a substantial body of research I had to do and I had to stop and do it.  I learned that giving my work to other people to read was helpful up to a point, but that I had to stop because I lost my focus and became confused by the input I received.  I learned that I have five solid chapters finished.  I learned that I could make a chapter-by-chapter outline of my book.  I learned that I finally understood what my book was about.  I learned that I needed to write a proposal if I want to secure a publisher for this book.  (This is the first book in a long time that I’ve written without a contract.)

This is where I’ve been on my writing journey.  There’s more.  But this is enough to show you what I do, what you might think about doing, so I’ll stop now.

I think that you can see how much more useful this is for a writer than wasting time making New Year’s resolutions.  It’s like pausing when you’re on a long journey, standing on the top of a rise, and acknowledging where you’ve been, the hard work you’ve done to get where you are, before you think about plotting a course for where you want to go next.

Where I am right now.

Where I am right now is simply put: I’m nearing the end of writing my proposal for my memoir.  I’m at the beginning of revising the chapter about when my parents met.  I’m no longer terrified; I’m no longer afraid; I’m not sure of myself either; but I’m in a pretty good place with the work right now.

And what’s the next part of my writing journey?  To continue revising that chapter about my parents when I’m finished with my proposal.

That’s it.  It’s not a grand plan.  It’s a simple plan.  I don’t want to say “Finish the memoir” because that’s too grand a plan.  I don’t want to say “Finish revising the chapter” because that’s too grand a plan.  I just want to know what the very next tiny little thing I’ll be doing in my writing life.  That’s all I need to keep my going.  Anything more than that would probably stop me dead in my tracks.

So, see where you’ve been.  See where you are right now.  And look just a tiny way down the writing road.

May we all have a blessed writing year.







7 Responses to “A Writer’s New Year”

  1. Kirie Says:

    Thanks, as always, for your blog posts. On this one, though, I have a slightly different slant. I love approaching a new year because I do write down my goals. I write my lifetime, 10-year, and 3-year goals, and my “if I were to be painlessly struck dead in six months, how would I live until then” goals. After a day, I re-read and see which goals have a “buzz.” I do the same over the days approaching the end of the year until I have a list of, say, ten finalists. I then pick three.

    I put the list away. Each day, though, as I plan my writing day, I make sure that if nothing else, each of the top three goals has at least an hour of my time. If I can’t do an hour, fifteen minutes will do.

    I know this works for me, because last year, when I re-read lists made at eighteen or thirty-two, or any other year, most of the seemingly impossible items even on the original long brainstorm lists have “come true.”

    To me, this is funny: a local business here in NY gives away a bag with a purchase. On the bag, it says “In a study, only 3% of Harvard students wrote down their goals. These 3% were the ones most likely to succeed.” That’s a lousy paraphrase, but I like to think writing my goals helps me visualize the results.

    Finally, I do all of this is a spirit of love and happiness. That may sound trite, but my goals have to feel right to me. If they feel like nasty work, as writing can sometimes seem, my unconscious (if you will) might find ways to sabotage me.

    Thanks again for your wonderful blog.

    Happy New Year!

  2. Annie Says:

    Thank you for writing these blog posts – I’m so happy you plan to continue them. I’m writing a memoir, chronically ill, almost but not quite homebound, and your blog is the most useful thing I’ve found to support me in that process.

    • writingalife Says:

      Annie, thank you for this. In my memoir “Breathless,” I wrote about writers with chronic illnesses who nonetheless carried on with their work. I’d suggest, too, Nancy Mairs’ memoirs if you haven’t already. They’re endlessly satisfying.

  3. Ann Says:

    I too would like to thank you.

    It is a fascinating time to be starting to put real effort into my own writing, at midlife and with a seemingly successful career as a “professional communicator”. I don’t even remember which blog linked to yours, but I am grateful to have found it and look forward to your updates in my inbox. There is a lot of dross out there targeted for the “so you wanna be a writer” set. Your blog is definitely wheat, not chaff.

    Your musings make getting through my own days at my “paycheck job” easier, because I remember to shift my view and live through the mundane and ridiculous events that unfold in any large organization with a separateness and healthy analysis. I remember your post about conversations and try to really listen to dialogue as it happens. And on a practical level, your entries remind me to post something interesting each week on my own blog.

    Surely one day this will all show up in a piece that will touch others, though, like Miss Rumphius, I do not yet know what that might be.

    Happy New Year!

  4. For those of us with day jobs, for those of us who write in the corners of the day, or at its edges, I think it’s important to remember that Toni Morrison was a full-time editor when she started writing fiction; that Carole Maso was a waitress when she was writing Ghost Dance;that William Faulkner tended a boiler when he was writing his fiction before his work “hit”; that many, many writer worked hard at their writing when they had little strength, little energy. So you belong to a distinguished cadre of writers.

  5. Bianca Cartagena Says:

    With New Years right around the corner, I’m glad I came across this blog. Although this blog was written for the year 2011, I think it can be equally applied to the year 2012. It’s ironic because I was just thinking about New Year’s resolutions earlier and how I refuse to make them this year. I’ve learned through personal experience and through the experiences of others, keeping resolutions are almost impossible (if not impossible!). It’s difficult to change something about yourself overnight. Literally, the concept of New Year Resolutions is to formulate a list of things you don’t like about yourself, but you’re going to force yourself to change overnight. It’s ridiculous! Yet, so many people do it! Better yet, so many people fail doing it! Well, not me! I refuse to set myself up for failure again this year.

    I agree that the best way to see change (if anything needs to be changed anyway) is to do it one step at a time. Yes, baby steps are slower than a miracle occurring overnight. But baby steps are meant to be slow and it’s slow for a reason. It may take one longer to achieve a goal, but the goal has a better chance of being effectively achieved because there’s time for the change to change.
    I like the simple plan approach. I think it’s healthier for our self-esteem to focus on little things one at a time than to put all our focus into some grand plan that’s too difficult to reach. I plan to take this approach this year and look a little bit down the road while I take baby steps to get to where ever my heart wants to go.

  6. Jo Sanders Says:

    I never was any good at making or keeping New Year’s Resolutions especially that journal I get every x-mas and swear to write in only to come across it in June or September and find only the first page written on (the second if it was a good year). But I now understand the importance of creating some kind of writing schedule or at the very least tracking the writing you do get done. Looking back has to be a fulfilling experience and if it’s not perhaps that’s an incentive to start writing more. I have looked back on my own writing and it has actually encouraged me (in a positive manner) to write more or at the very least continue writing. I love the even the “To-Do Lists” are even worthy of a second look! Learning so much from tracking my writing.

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