An Open Letter to Writers Making Resolutions

 

Dear Writer,

 

I know you. Maybe not personally, or even in passing, but I know the kind of person you are. We’re not that different, really.

Last year, you made a resolution—or, if not one resolution, a series of smaller promises working toward an end goal. Your goal was a noble one—produce more work, start a blog, get paid, finally finish something—and you were going to be serious about it. You printed it out and taped it above the space where you do your writing. You posted about it on social media to the delight of your followers. You told your friends and family because you knew they would “keep me accountable.” You worked as hard as you could.

But then you slipped. You might know exactly when it happened, or you might have woken up one morning and realized how far you had strayed from your goals. It might have hit you out of the clear blue, or you might not have realized it until that one relative asked you how the novel was coming over hors d’oeuvres at a holiday party. You put on a brave face, laughed about how “everyone breaks their resolutions” and that there’s always next year, but still felt that sinking, guilty feeling of believing that you’d failed.

Maybe this isn’t what I’m supposed to do. If I really love writing, I should have no problem writing 500 words a day. I should be able to put out two blog posts a week. Everything I read about being a good writer says that children/day jobs/chores/hobbies/sleeping aren’t excuses, but is it really possible to balance that time?

I’m not in a position where I can give you advice. Once again, at the end of last year, I made a writing-related resolution that I tried and failed to keep. No amount of “It’s ok, everyone breaks resolutions” will ever sound sincere or even true to me, which means that I’m also not in a position where I can tell you that it’s ok without sounding like I’m regurgitating empty platitudes or making excuses for you.

In true Gretchen fashion, though, that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try.

Writing resolutions seem to revolve around fear and conquering it. Write what scares you. Lean into fear. Show off your scars. Reveal yourself, naked and bleeding, on the page. While “write what scares you” is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever received, maybe this isn’t realistic for you. Maybe you’ve been told that your story is important, that you need to get it out there, that you have the responsibility or the obligation to put your experience on the page and share it with a world that needs to hear it… but you’re not ready. It’s too raw. You’re too close. It wouldn’t be fear as much as it would be utter, gut-wrenching terror that keeps you awake at night. Writing is your way to escape your fear, and you want it to stay safe for you, at least for now. Honesty has to work both ways: write true works for the world, but be truthful to yourself about whether or not you’re ready.

Write when you don’t feel like it? A good tip for procrastinators or those people who insist that they’ll write a novel someday without making any real moves. Sitting down and actually getting words on the page is important: there’s a time for thinking, researching, listening, and talking, and there’s a time for actually doing the dirty work. There’s a lot to be said for discipline and not making excuses, but there’s also a lot to be said for simply not being able to. Chronic illnesses, stressful day jobs, searching for day jobs, grief, and a number of other life factors can leave you trying to choose between writing and physically, mentally, and/or emotionally surviving until tomorrow, and that’s ok. Not everyone can do everything all the time. Take care of yourself first.

Get published this year? You have next to no control over that in traditional publishing, which by necessity relies on other people. Even if you’re planning on self-publishing, there’s still a lot that’s outside of your control. You don’t know what the market is going to do, how readers are going to react, whether or not another writer is putting out something similar at the time, or any of a number of other things. It’s important to get out there, but doing it at the right time is just as important. It will take more than 365 days to get there, and the only thing you’re going to feel is doubt when you don’t achieve something that you’ve done close to if not literally everything that you can about. It’s easier than ever to get out there, but it’s also much easier to really mess up. If you’re going to stress about publishing, worry more about getting it right than just getting it done as soon as possible.

There are countless other tips and writer’s resolution lists out there. They all come back to this idea that borders on cognitive dissonance: there’s no easy or quick route to being a successful writer, but these resolutions are almost wholly about doing more now to get there quicker and easier.

Time is everything in our business. I think, on some level, we all know that, but it’s good to actually say it. Writing does not operate on arbitrary 365-day periods. Publishing does not operate on arbitrary 365-day periods. Humans do not operate in any way except symbolically on arbitrary 365-day periods. Trying to set a goal based on another person’s definition of success will, if it’s not authentic to you, just bring you broken promises and guilt for no good reason. If you’re someone who works well with those kinds of goals, more power to you. For those of us that see what other people are planning and doubt our abilities, though, I don’t know that punishing ourselves for perceived failures on a near-annual basis is going to help.

That said, I do have something of a resolution for you. Kind of funny, isn’t it, having just gotten done saying that other people don’t know you well enough to make resolutions for you? You can take it or leave it, but at least look at it.

Call yourself a writer, would you? None of this “aspiring writer” stuff. If you have ever put words to a page for the sheer joy of telling a story, you are a writer. If you’ve written, even if you missed a day or didn’t hit your planned word count, you are a writer. If you’ve written something, even if it’s never seen the light of day, you are a writer. If you’ve written but haven’t gotten paid for it, you are a writer. If you’re doing anything more about your craft than daydreaming, then you are a writer.

I’m not sure if it comes as a surprise, but it took me a while to publicly say this and a seemingly disproportionate amount of courage. Somehow, I didn’t feel like a writer without some kind of external validation. But taking that step toward making it true for myself was a big turning point in my career, and I think it could help you, too.

It doesn’t matter what your ultimate goals are, how much you’ve written today, or what your process looks like. The only resolution that any of us, myself included, need to make is to embrace what we do, however we do it. We have an entire year ahead of us: let’s make our writing count, instead of counting the number of things we need in order to “succeed.”

Happy New Year!

 

With love,

Gretchen

 

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