Why writers need to value resilience over resolve
Depending on your tradition, New Year might come at various different dates but many of us take stock towards the end of December. And lots of us make resolutions, but the problem with these is that they often fade quickly, leaving us feeling flat or even like failures.
The problem with resolutions
Perhaps resolutions fail because we set ourselves so many that we don’t know where to start. We set off armed with willpower and good intentions, thinking we can resolve to achieve a hundred things a day (preferably before breakfast) but soon realise that willpower is an exhaustible trait and that overwhelming ourselves only leaves us achieving none of the resolutions on the list.
Perhaps it’s because we choose resolutions that out environments don’t nurture. Trying to lose weight in a house well-stocked with junk food or trying to write a novel at times when life is chaotic and demanding sets ourselves up to fail. And then we feel guilty until next New Year when we repeat the process.
Perhaps it’s because we set resolutions based on what we see as our failings. Rather than looking at how far we’ve come and thinking about the next positive step, we tend to think about how far we have to go and set goals based on feeling ‘not enough’. Having a huge ambition can be inspiring and motivating, but only if we take a step at a time and plan our quests accordingly.
Optimising your chances
There are certainly lots of strategies for giving ourselves more chance of success, whether the goal is to complete a poetry collection, journal regularly, or go for a walk every day.
1. Have a tightly focussed list
You don’t have to have twenty resolutions, or even five. How about a couple of big priorities or even one important project. When we feel overwhelmed we give up more easily. If you are determined to write that book this year and also need to get fitter, of course you can do both, but perhaps try making one of the goals the key priority for the first 90 days of the year to establish a rhythm before you put lots of energy into the other aim.
You could spend three months seriously overhauling your exercise routine whilst giving some time to planning the writing and doing some early drafting. Then, when you feel you’ve got a strong habit in place, gather your notes and drafts and focus on the creative project.
2. Consider how your environment can support you
If you are serious about creativity, having a routine that gets you into the right headspace is vital. It might be meditation, journalling or particular music. It might be eating protein first thing or sitting with a bowl of mint tea. It might be by walking to find the creative flow.
There are lots of ways to find the state of flow, but it’s unlikely to be from Internet surfing, checking your friends’ Facebook updates, or sending tweets. It’s unlikely to be sustainable if your phone is six inches away and constantly pinging to let you know you have a new message, a new text, or five apps that need updating. You need some uninterrupted, undistracted time in an environment that isn’t going to sabotage you before you begin.
3. Eliminate the distractions
Achieving goals takes time and energy. Focussing on a couple of important aims and creating an environment in which you won’t be distracted makes a huge difference, but you still need the time to give to your project. That book won’t write itself. A great way to make the time is by saying no to all those calls on our attention that don’t serve your purpose. If you’re a people-pleaser this can be hard but always being in reactive mode is draining, not only in time, but emotionally.
Look at how you use your time. Of course there will be important commitments to family or work or simple life processes, but there will also be lots of things we do that could be batched into one time-efficient block to stop them taking you over. Some meetings could be a quick phone call. Some of those calls could be short emails. Some emails can be simply deleted. We often feel this is impolite or unkind, but everything you say yes to is a decision to say no to something else. You can still be a compassionate person who says no.
4. Nurture yourself
It seems obvious, but a lot of busy, creative people forget to look after themselves. I’m not talking about being selfish, but if you don’t take care of mind, body and spirit, then the contribution you can make to your creativity, to those you love and to the world, will diminish.
If you don’t get enough sleep, if you can’t remember the last time you really laughed, if you haven’t done some relaxing activity for its own sake in the last week or month then achieving dreams is going to be so much harder.
5. Find a partner (or several) in resolution
Trying to goad ourselves forward through a major project or hit goals for a whole year is demanding and if we have only ourselves to account to, we’re more likely to give up.
You might find a mentor or just agree with a friend or small group that you will keep one another accountable. However you do it, make the promise to yourself bigger than your own willpower. And if you are looking for a mentoring or a group of fellow-travellers in a focussed writing community to support you along the way, take a look at working with me.
6. Break the big goal down into manageable steps
If you need to lose 40 pounds it’s going to take time. You have to have a lifestyle shift to a sustainable long-term diet, not simply starve yourself for a month. If you are going to write three interlocking novels, you need to think about what to do first. Are the kind of writer who starts with character studies or a seed for the story? Do you plan chapter outlines or dive in and restructure it later? Will the books need a lot of background research?
Having a quest broken down into small steps is so much more humane as well as more realistic. As Antoine de Saint Exupéry says:
A goal without a plan is just a wish.
It’s also realism with vision. You still have that big inspiring quest, but the process is no longer overwhelming. This week all you have to do is lose 1 pound or write one character sketch or …
7. Choose goals you care about
This may seem obvious, but in fact we often make resolutions based on things we ‘ought’ to do rather than feel intrinsically motivated to do. If you choose goals that you are enthusiastic about, then you are setting yourself up for success. Your goals should be your passion and, if they are, then it’s no longer a matter of forcing yourself on by dogged willpower.
What is it that’s so important that you simply have to do it?
A shift in perspective
Resolve, in the sense of gritting our teeth and getting through, can be essential at some points in life. Sometimes we need a lot of resolve just to get through a particular day, but operating from this kind of resolve is stressful. It’s not a good long term strategy for our passions and quests.
For this we need a perspective shift, whether as writers or as human beings. We need a perspective shift because the biggest problem with resolutions is that they tend to frame our lives as products rather than processes.
It’s good to have vision. It’s great to break the vision down into steps we can take. It’s wonderful to have a passion that we want to see bearing fruit. But life is also unpredictable and creative life is perhaps the most unpredictable of all. Each of our lives is an act of creation and any creative project that we add to life makes our path more uncertain than it might have been.
I recently completed the first full draft of a novel that seemed to have more of a mind of its own than any I’d previously written. Writing it was an extraordinary process and felt vulnerable all the way to the end.
The artist, Ann Hamilton, puts it like this:
One doesn’t arrive — in words or in art — by necessarily knowing where one is going. In every work of art something appears that does not previously exist, and so, by default, you work from what you know to what you don’t know. … You may set out to make a sculpture and find that time is your material. You may pick up a paint brush and find that your making is not on canvas or wood but in relations between people. You may set out to walk across the room but getting to what is on the other side might take ten years. You have to be open to all possibilities and to all routes — circuitous or otherwise.
But not knowing, waiting and finding — though they may happen accidentally, aren’t accidents. They involve work and research. Not knowing isn’t ignorance. … Not knowing is a permissive and rigorous willingness to trust, leaving knowing in suspension, trusting in possibility without result, regarding as possible all manner of response.
A friend and novelist wrote to me recently about a huge perspective shift of this type. She let opportunities find her instead of chasing them and switched to a slower pace in a remote place in order to transform her writing journey, aware that this was a vital process rather than related to the next ‘product’.
It takes enormous courage to do this. So much of life is now predicated on productivity that to step aside and give creativity and the interior journey the space and depth it needs can seem strange to some onlookers. But not everything of value can be weighed and measured.
Deep creativity, which can look to the casual observer like nothing much is happening, doesn’t produce writing by the yard, but it does give the world creators who are brave and humane. Making that springs from existence itself gives the world witnesses and prophets and those who fashion the stories that nurture hope.
Deep and courageous creativity demands not simply that we have vision for our work but that we have the resilience to continue even when the world thinks we are not productive; when the world can’t weigh our efforts or when the next step is uncertain. Willa Cather puts it like this:
It’s so foolish to live (which is always trouble enough) and not to save your soul. It’s so foolish to lose your real pleasures for the supposed pleasures of the chase — or the stock exchange.
From courage to resilience
Over the last six months I’ve been doing courses in aromatherapy and herbalism. One of the most valuable lessons plants teach is that of resilience. The humble plantain will not be mowed down. The tencious bramble is not easily uprooted. Slender saplings grow through granite boulders. The Tibetan Buddhist nun, Pema Chödrön says:
Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us.
Plants know this. My novelist friend is living this out in a quiet yet powerful way. Living creative lives and living as creators demands that we often step into the unknown. But the truth is, no life has certainty. The more we are able to find vision and purpose in the most uncertain of worlds, the more we are able to make uncertainty our material, the deeper our creative lives will be.
This New Year, find a vision that thrills you in place of resolutions. Do all you can to follow your vision by throwing off distractions, nurturing yourself and making your environment as supportive as possible. Give your vision chance to flourish by making it focussed, breaking it into small steps and getting help.
But most of all, have the courage to embrace uncertainty, even when it meanders in the dark. Cultivate the resilience to value the journey to put creativity, wherever it takes you, above productivity and have the grace, with Emily Dickenson, to go on making, even in the dark:
We Grow Accustomed to the Dark
We grow accustomed to the Dark —
When Light is put away —
As when the Neighbor holds the
Lamp To witness her Good bye —
A Moment — We Uncertain step
For newness of the night —
Then — fit our Vision to the Dark —
And meet the Road — erect —
And so of larger — Darknesses —
Those Evenings of the Brain —
When not a Moon disclose a sign —
Or Star — come out — within —
The Bravest — grope a little —
And sometimes hit a Tree
Directly in the Forehead —
But as they learn to see —
Either the Darkness alters —
Or something in the sight
Adjusts itself to Midnight —
And Life steps almost straight.
Becoming a different story
Thank you for reading — sign up to my email list and I’ll send you a free PDF on writing and the writing life. While you’re on the site, take a look at the free courses available and at my forthcoming book, Writing Down Deep. I’ll be using the book as the core text for a community of writers next year and I’d love you to get involved — either through the highly accessible community track, or a mentoring track which will also involve one-to-one sessions and feedback on a writing project plus a residential.