(cross-posted from my December 2016 newsletter)
New Year’s Resolutions often feel like genie’s wishes to me: outsized, made under stress, and requiring supernatural effort to fulfill. So I make annual To-Do Lists instead — ten to fifteen specific items that I know I can accomplish in a year, if I keep the goals in mind and create the right long-term framework for the actions. While I haven’t written out these lists every year I’ve lived in New York, in the years when I have, I usually organize the items in three categories: Read, Practice, and Experience. Under “Read” I set out a list of three or four novels I’vealways meant to read and never got around to: The Brothers Karamazov, Midnight’s Children, Villette. Under “Practice,” I put things like “Cook dinner for a friend once a month,” “Eat four servings of fruits and vegetables a day,” and “Floss.” And under “Experience” went items like “Walk all the bridges connected to Manhattan,” “Eat at Momofuku,” “Go to the Whitney Museum,” or “Run a half-marathon” — trying to push myself out of my everyday life and work absorption toward special moments or more challenging goals. When I lived alone, I posted the list on the back of my apartment door, so I saw it every day, and as I completed each item on the list, I’d write in the date of completion next to it. I don’t think I ever finished the entire list in a year —Moby-Dick and Infinite Jest remain unread — but the “Practices” especially pushed me to make better choices: When I hesitated over the bathroom sink late at night, torn between the annoyance of flossing and the allurement of bed, the list would say, gently but firmly, “FLOSS.” And then I would.
So I offer this as a technique that might be useful to you as you contemplate the writing and publishing you wish to do in 2017 — both the making of the list, and the categories to break it down. Perhaps you want to create a “Draft” category for your dream projects, “Revise” for those already in progress, or “Submit” for those you’ve been fiddling with for too long. Maybe your “Practice” could be to write every day, or to write a chapter a fortnight, or to draft a picture book a month, or to keep a reading journal to reflect on and learn from the books you admire (or loathe). “Experiences” could include “Getting ten rejections” — because that would mean you had the bravery to send your work out ten times, and survived it — or developing a new school-visit presentation, or trying a different form or genre of writing, or attending a national SCBWI conference. And perhaps you want to “Read” some books that might help or inspire you; I’ll offer a brief list of suggestions below.
If you like the idea of this list, start by thinking through what you want your writing and publishing lives to look like in 2017, and identifying the goals and practices that will help you create those lives. This in turn leads us back to those big questions: Who are you? What do you most want? What do you most need? And what kind of changes or sacrifices are you willing to make so you can get those things? Whatever goals you set out, remember to frame them as actions within your control: You can’t control whether your book will make the New York Times bestseller list or you’ll get an agent; you can control how you shape your marketing efforts and the quality of your first ten pages. Try to make your list in a spirit of love and not punishment, as it should offer your writing and the best parts of yourself more space, more joy, more depth, honor, and time in your life, not be designed to starve you in any way. (Keep in mind the wisdom of the excellent pastrix Nadia Bolz-Weber: “Nothing you resolve to change about yourself will make you more worthy of being loved.”) And do write or type the list out, and post it somewhere that you can see it regularly, to stay in touch with your to-dos through the next year.
2017 promises to be a remarkably tumultuous year on the world stage, and its noise and need for action could reach deep into our lives. I wish all of us good fortune in finding the answers, and setting the goals, that will help us stay focused and do great work through this new year.