Goals, Goals, Writing Goals

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I’m a chronic goal setter. Give me an excuse, any excuse, to set new goals and begin again and I’ll take it. When Josh and I first got married, I set a million goals for us, including but not limited to having weekly check-in meetings together and going out for a unique and creative date night once a week which may have involved a “Date Night Jar” filled with cheesy ideas (friends, he’s still married to me- can you believe it?). Now try to imagine what goals I set every time I get a new job, a new hobby, have a birthday, celebrate the new year, buy a new phone, reorganize my house, or get a spontaneous burst of motivation to be better. I’ll admit, I exhaust myself sometimes.

In years of late, however, I’ve been easier on myself. I still jump at the chance to start anew and try to improve, but my goals have become increasingly vague and open-ended. At the very least I am okay with new habits or good intentions falling by the wayside in months (or days) to come. I’ve forgiven myself for not following through on the thorough daily house cleaning schedule I created and it’s been a while since I’ve vowed anew to exercise each and every day, long since filed away as “all talk, no action” (though I have loads of barely used workout gear to prove I was once motivated). I’ve learned this about myself: While I am very Type A, I thrive when I give myself room to follow what feels best.

I’ve learned that, to me, setting and planning goals are a bit of a hobby of their own. I love writing checklists and creating plans of action. I turn goals it into a friendly game where I’m only competing with myself and if I fail, I’ll give myself a handshake and say “well done” anyway. Because I found a clever way to motivate myself to do hard things even if just for a little while. I got things done and in a month or two, I’ll find another excuse to set more goals and get more things done. But for that time, I’ve created joy and fun in things like house cleaning and grocery shopping.

This year, my only resolution is to keep writing. Emphasis on the “keep” because sometimes all I want to do is give up and find a normal job that doesn’t feel like I’m taking a pen and jabbing it into my gut over and over and over again until I decide I’ve done enough and it’s time to ask someone if my gut-jabbing has impressed them. Sometimes I feel like I’m Dory the fish saying “just keep writing” over and over and over again, turning it into a song that’s less cute and more of a chant the railroad workers sang to keep themselves from losing their minds.

In the past few months, I’ve created plenty of goals in an attempt to light a fire under me and find new ways to get excited when the process is less joy, more work. I began with the usual “write 2000 words a day” which quickly became “write 1000 words a day” but became confusing when I started editing so turned into “work on writing every day” which was too vague so it became “write 1000 original words a day in addition to any editing, brainstorming, etc. on my bigger projects.” But once I delved into the novel I’m working on, I found that just sitting down and continuing off of my last 1000 words felt too directionless, that I was just laying track every day just to get the job done but when I looked back at my tracks, they were leading nowhere, sometimes twisting in directions that didn’t make sense, when the work I was really excited for was up ahead, tempting me to just skip forward and lay down that track and go back later to fill in the rest. All the excitement from my writing was gone and I was getting nowhere.

So I set a new specific writing goal. Write a scene a week. When I imagined writing my novel, I imagined these moments; the perfect thing the main character says, what happens when she’s in hot water, who’s right there with her, who or what’s fighting against her, how it all looks and feels and smells right there in the moment. I love writing scenes, letting them propel the plot forward as the characters do things and say things and cause drama and make mistakes. Chopping my writing up into scenes feels like creating tiny short stories that each play a small part in the grand scheme of things. It feels doable. It feels exciting.

As always, I’m keeping the rules flexible. I can skip down the track if I want. If, later on, I decide a character really needs a nose job or a hair dye or a complete gender switch, I’ll run with that feeling and go back to change things later. If a scene doesn’t sit well in the grand scheme of things, that’s okay. I’m keeping my characters on my mind and building their world.

I’d like to vow to write 52 scenes this year, but I won’t. I know myself too well to do that. And besides, at some point I’m going to have to take all those tracks and somehow stick them together to create one long path. Who’s to say if that will take 52 scenes or 100 or 38. Who’s to say I won’t want to start filling in the blanks before I even get to 20 scenes. I’ll see where my characters and my gut feelings take me.

I’m not naive enough to think this will be all joy and excitement. I’ve learned that my happy little image of “being a writer” sitting at my desk writing down my gorgeous imagination that just flows out of my pen- that isn’t writing. Writing is work. And it’s hard. And sometimes it’s staring at the wall in front of your desk for an hour wondering “what now?” And sometimes it’s banging your head against that wall because it all sucks sucks sucks and nothing’s working. But this is what I want and it’s what I’ve signed up for. So I’ll keep finding ways to create joy in the work and pain. And I’ll keep writing.

A Fourth Grader's Dream

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In fourth grade, Mrs. Rushford told me I would make a great writer. That year was the big writing year, the year students got books "published" into hardcovers with laminated jackets we illustrated ourselves. Our classroom was stocked with tiny toy-like word processing laptops we were free to use during recess and writing time and I remember spending many lunches inside at my desk working on a secret silly chapter book about a unicorn in the forest. I couldn't wait to get my fingers on the keyboard and put my imaginings into a very official looking document.

When it came time to write our own books to be published at the end of the year, I couldn't decide between two stories. I had mapped them out in my head and felt sure that both would astound my class with their maturity and depth, so which to choose? Finally, I shyly asked Mrs. Rushford if it would be alright if I wrote two, expecting to hear that each student would only get one book published because if not, wouldn't everyone write multiples? To my surprise, she got excited and told me she would love it if I wrote two. Strangely, no one else in class seemed to want to do the same.

I'm not sure why I needed two different books because they were about the same thing. Two young girls who are loved and admired tragically die. I specifically remember illustrations of a morbid graveyard with a young girl's name etched in stone. Looking back, this might be a great discussion topic for my therapist. I had recently watched a Hallmarky movie about a couple that falls in love and the woman dies tragically of something or other. I became enraptured with death; my emo stage was definitely fourth grade. Thus becoming the ten-year-old Nicholas Sparks.

After we turned in our stories, Mrs. Rushford didn't bat an eye at my depressing subject matter (though I wonder if she considered talking to my parents?) and told me I would make a great writer someday. I held onto that for a long time, truly believing that if my teacher assured me that I'd excel at a career that I must pursue it.

But I would go to the library and look at the rows and rows of shelves filled with books. So many authors. Too many. Writers of books people had never heard and never checked out. Would my work even get noticed in the sea of books out there in the world? Sure, maybe I could get something published, but I'd probably never be famous and make a lot of money just from writing. Eventually, I set that dream aside and developed other interests, some of which were short whims, others lasted longer.

I still loved reading and writing, despite never allowing myself to seriously consider it as a career. I started a blog at the end of high school and loved publishing posts, even if no one read them. I read novels as much as possible, hauling heavy boxes of books between each place I lived in college.

I studied graphic design and went to culinary school and my reading and writing became much more niched, much less imaginative. Over the years, I thought of Mrs. Rushford. I wanted to someday send her a copy of a book I'd published and show her I followed through. So I thought of workarounds. I'd publish a cookbook! Or a food memoir! Or I'd become an expert on design and entrepreneurship and write a self-help book! Then I'd be an author and I could tell her I did it, even if it wasn't exactly the original plan.

Then I got a job at a bookstore and realized just how much I love books. I read more seriously, more widely, more in-depth. I wanted to be as knowledgeable as possible when making recommendations or discussing books with customers. And I discovered that when working at a bookstore, people assume you're a writer or English major. I was neither. I almost took a little pride in the fact that I enjoyed books without thinking I could write one. But a little part of me wished I could. Occasionally I'd journal or write down little scenes I made up in my head or come up with book ideas.

Then I had a really rough year. I went through a lot that left me feeling alone and confused and I desperately wished there was a book for what I was going through. I had always turned to books to be friends and guides and I didn't realize how much I relied on their help until there didn't seem to be one to help me. Then I read a quote by Toni Morrison.

If there is a book that you want to read, but it hasn't been written yet, you must be the one to write it.

I could do that. Even if I never got published, I could write the book that I needed. Just for me. So I bought a new notebook and started writing as often as I could. And through writing what I wish I could read, I found comfort in the creation. It helped me process so much and channel my sadness and frustrations in a healthy way. And it brought me back to fourth grade, the excitement of opening those little laptops and typing away, putting my imagination into a document. Don't worry, no young girls die in my stories. Not yet, anyway. 

But you know me and I know me. Next year I might be working on a completely new project and my writing will be stored away in some hidden files on my computer I'll never look at again. I won't profess that I've found my calling and will never stray again. But so far I'm loving it and it does feel like a calling, something natural to me that I've kept hidden away for too long. And maybe someday I'll be published. Maybe someday I'll have a finished product in hardcover with a jacket I didn't have to illustrate myself and I can send it to Mrs. Rushford and say, "Look. I did it. I've created a work of fiction, just like my ten-year-old self said she would." 

We'll see. In the meantime, thank you, Mrs. Rushford, for your encouragement that has stuck with me no matter what I've been working on over the years.