I’ve never been a fan of New Year’s resolutions. In part this is due to my fondness for seeing autumn, with its ‘back to school new notebook’ vibe (and the fact that my birthday is in September) as a much more natural fresh start, in part because in a normal year my work schedule tends to be frantic from November to March, leaving little time for reflection, and in part just because January is a bloody miserable month anyway without the pressure to transform into some shiny new version of yourself and stay sober while you’re at it. But god, this year? I’m definitely not in the mood for it.
Because this year the pressure is on, right? 2020 for most people was an absolute fucker of a century. Even if you personally had some good things happen – and plenty people did, and it’s OK to feel proud and pleased with yourself if you number among them – it was in the shadow of a pandemic that impacted us all.
Many people did little more than survive the year, and are dragging themselves to its end by their fingernails, while looking around in dazed astonishment at peers who seem to be faring much better, achieving much more, and somehow coming out of this hellscape having written that novel, got that new gig, successfully pivoted to digital, or at the very least learned to make a good sourdough.
(Some advice: it’s easy to get grumpy, resentful and ‘it’s alright for you’-ish at people posting their ‘here are my top achievements’ lists. Just remember many of them are doing it solely for their own mental health, to salvage some sense of achievement from a car crash year: they aren’t putting it out there to shame or belittle those who haven’t managed as much. (I mean, some people probably are, but fuck those people). I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – because it’s easier than coming up with new material – don’t Grinch other people’s happiness. It gets you nothing and just makes you miserable. If you need to step away from social media / high achieving friends for a while for your sanity, do so, but let them cope how they need to cope.)
So it’s not unnatural to start thinking, well, 2020 was a write off – I’m gonna make 2021 my year! But… you could not do that. I mean, for a start, why tempt fate? I feel like every year since 2016’s cull of the famous we’ve been saying ‘next year can’t get any worse!’ and the universe has taken it as a challenge. So maybe sneaking into 2021 quietly is a much better approach. And let’s face it, while the idea of a fresh page in a new diary is appealing, the reality is for most of us, 2021 is gonna start shitty. Many of us will be in whatever tier the government pulls out of a hat that morning, uncertainty over corona / Brexit/ the economy still looms, and it’s clearly going to take a few months for things to get anywhere approaching normal. Imagining all those worries will somehow disappear when the clock strikes midnight is just setting yourself up for disappointment.
Which is not to say you shouldn’t want or aim for better things. It’s totally possible that 2021 might be your year, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t take steps to make that happen. Just be kind to yourself on the journey, is all, and don’t blame yourself if things seem a little rockier than they should be. You got through 2020! That’s an achievement in itself.
Anyway, with those caveats – I’m sharing some tips that might help.
Read lots, do little
This time of year, you can find a million pieces of advice online about making this the year you write that novel, finish that screenplay, Become A Writer or whatever, and lots of that advice is really useful. But not all of it will work for you – and nothing will crash your good intentions faster than trying to implement a rigorous schedule of multiple new habits all at once. Pick a few small changes to start with – you’re more likely to stick with them and see results. You can always add more later.
Pick the bits that work…
Just because a whole programme or course doesn’t suit you, that doesn’t mean it’s useless. I’ve done The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron several times during my life, and always find it a useful jumpstart to stalled creativity. But I’ve never managed to complete the ‘no reading’ part of it successfully and one of the main components, the morning pages (where you journal at the very start of your day), has never worked for me. While I have learned that journaling is a useful tool, I’ve also realised that, as a chronic insomniac, an extra half hour in bed does me more good than any early morning creative exercises.
But be open to what that might be...
One of the reasons I like books about writing is they often throw up ideas or exercises that I wouldn’t ever think of – and, more than that, that I would normally run a mile from doing. But while you ultimately need to find techniques and habits that suit you, it’s worth at least trying things that might not initially appeal, whether it’s reading your work aloud, or going on an ‘artist’s date’ – the very act of stepping outside your comfort zone can be useful in itself.
Ignore any rules about ‘real writers’ (yes, even these)
‘Real writers write every day’ is probably the most common (and I have written why this particular bit of ‘wisdom’ needs to be thrown in the sea), but these come in many hues. ‘Real writers can’t stop writing’, ‘real writers will always find time to write’, blah, blah, blah. When in fact plenty of ‘real’ writers (if you are judging ‘realness’ in terms of success, which is pernicious in itself) only write for part of the year, or take long breaks between books, or find that life occasionally derails them just as much as it does other people. One of the easiest ways to set yourself up for failure is to adhere to a definition of success that automatically excludes you from ever achieving it – for instance, thinking Real Writers Write Every Day, when you have a job or family circumstances or health issues (OR YOU ARE LIVING THROUGH A GLOBAL PANDEMIC) that virtually guarantee you won’t be able to do that. Set goals, by all means, and utilise advice to help you achieve them, but don’t let other people define what success or progress should look like for you.
Don’t wait until you have the time
All of that said, one of the biggest stumbling blocks to achievement is telling yourself that you will be a writer one day, just not now. You’ll do that first draft when you’re on holiday, or when you take a sabbatical, when work gets a bit easier, after we’re out of a pandemic. After I was first published, I wasted three years between books waiting for the ‘right time’: in the end, my next novel was written in 15-minute bursts, time snatched out of busy days in a hugely demanding job. Don’t feel like writing needs a lot of time and ceremony – you really don’t need to put aside hours and hours to do it. Sure, you might benefit from doing a writer’s class or going on a writing retreat (and you might be able to do both virtually, if no IRL option is allowed), but don’t keep waiting for the perfect set of circumstances to arrive – if 2020 taught us anything, it’s we don’t know what’s round the corner – or you might be a year down the line and still not have written a word.
Kill the comparisons
Another fast motivation killer is comparison. It can be helpful to have writing peers or buddies to urge you on and share your triumphs and frustrations, but few things will slow you down more than getting tangled up in comparing your achievements with other people’s. For a start, it’s hard to see through the smokescreen of social media to see what is actual success and what is just the equivalent of a wrinkle-removal filter. But also, because there will always be tons of people who genuinely are more successful than you, whether you measure that in productivity or plaudits. That’s just a fact of life. Some folk will get the gigs you wanted, the breaks you deserved, the opportunities you would kill for. Hell, some will just be flat out better at this shit than you are. And you are allowed, occasionally, to be envious of others’ talent or good fortune, to be angry at a system that is titled towards the privileged, or to feel demotivated by the sense that everyone else has got it all together and there’s no way you will ever catch up. But only occasionally. Then get back to your own damn work.
Build your village
Of all the creative industries, writing can be one of the loneliest, since much of the time it is just you, your laptop, and an endless supply of coffee and chocolate biscuits. And many writers like that just fine. But even the most antisocial of souls – why, yes, that would be me – needs some sort of support network. (This last year of enforced isolation has made even a grumpy old misanthrope like me realise I need human company!)
How that looks support network and how you create it will be individual to you. It could be anything from just roping in a supportive spouse / family members to handle more chores and childcare so you can carve out more writing time to taking a writing class to get feedback on your work in progress, going on a retreat (if you can, obvs) or joining an online network. And while I said above that you shouldn’t dwell in anger, you can harness it. We live in a country where all creative industries are dominated by the privileged, and that has been thrown into even sharper relief in 2020 – but people are tackling that inequality. Seeking out groups, mentors or fellow travellers who have faced the same kind of challenges you face can make you feel less isolated, give you useful contacts and even create a momentum for positive change. When this is all over we’ll need to rebuild the creative industries and how they exist in the world – what do you want that to look like, and how can you help bring it about?
Set realistic goals – but be open to change and opportunity
It’s good to have goals, but you need to be aware that what you want may change – and there’s no shame in that. Plenty of people who decide they want to write think “I’ll write a book!” not because they have a burning desire to do so, but because they want to write and they think that’s what writers do. But you may find as you go that the idea you are trying to wrestle into shape simply doesn’t want to be wrestled – that what you thought was a novel was really a short story, or might work better as a play, or might just not work at all. You might find that joining a writing class to get ahead on your book instead ignites a desire to explore poetry or journalism or, hell, white water rafting. You might actually realise this whole writing thing isn’t actually what you want to do after all, and you need a different outlet for your creativity. And that’s all fine.
You do need to be honest with yourself, though. Are you giving up when you shouldn’t – because it is pushing you out of your comfort zone, or it got a little difficult, when those are things you need to power through if you want to achieve anything (and not just in writing)? Or are you adapting to changing circumstances and desires in a way that might deliver results you hadn’t dreamed of?
So, go on – dream big. Set goals that scare you. Accept that you might have to work hard and push yourself to achieve them. But accept that sometimes – as with this year – life will derail you. Your ambitions might need to be adapted to an unexpected reality and you need to be kind to yourself when that happens. 2020 likely beat you up enough – you don’t need to do it yourself as well.
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