Happy New Year!
For me, the turning of the year is certainly a time of examining habits, renewing intentions, and creating plans. But more than setting goals for the coming year, I prefer to think about the lessons I have learned from the year that has passed.
In my experience, goals all but just happen when their required foundations are in place. When that foundation is lacking, then even a great amount of energy and application cannot achieve the desired result. And so when the New Year rolls around, I like to look back at the foundations that have been laid in the past twelve months. What has the year taught me? And how can I build on what I have been given?
This past year was a year like no other. This is clearly true on a global level, and I daresay it is true for each of us in small and subjective ways. Certainly, it has been true for me. Aside from all the big impacts to the world “out there,” my own year and particularly my year as a writer has also been a year like no other. Even in comparison to other recent years, it was a year that deeply challenged almost all the beliefs and identities I have carried around my writing.
It was not a year of deep productivity in an external sense. It was probably the year in which I wrote less fiction than I ever have since my pre-teen years. Largely due to this, it was an unsettling year for me as a writer. It has made me ask questions and face fears.
In many ways, for obvious reasons, it was one of the hardest years ever. But also in many ways, for me personally, I am surprised that it has given me some of the greatest gifts I have ever received. Most of the reason I can say that is directly related to the lessons this past year has taught me about myself as a person and as a writer.
Today, I would like to share seven of the writing lessons I feel I learned (or at least started learning) in 2020, in hopes that they will inspire, ground, and encourage you in contemplating your own foundation for moving forward into the wide new frontier of 2021.
7 Writing Lessons to Build On in the New Year
1. Don’t Be So Serious (Play More)
Don’t take life so serious…. It ain’t no how permanent.–Walt Kelly
When did writing become such super-serious business? I look back on general advice I internalized as a young writer starting out, and while I recognize that it helped me build a career, I also realize that such gems as the following also created a pretty grim outlook:
“Treat writing like a job.”
“If you don’t take your writing seriously, no one else will either.”
“If writing doesn’t pay, it’s not worth doing.”
“If you aren’t writing something readers will love, you’re not a real writer.”
I’m not saying there isn’t a measure of truth and value in those statements. But where’s the fun? Where’s the joy of creation for creation’s sake? After all, storytelling is an inherently childlike act. Entertainment is all about having fun.
Mostly, I recognize that this super-serious outlook has less to do with my writing and more to do with me as a grown-up human grappling with what admittedly seems a pretty serious world. In this year when I wrote almost no fiction, I have realized that if my writing doesn’t seem as much fun as it used to, it’s because the act of telling stories has grown separate from the simple joy of creation that prompted it when I was young.
Building on the Lesson: And so I plan to play more in 2021. More “artist’s dates” with my inner child such as Julia Cameron suggests in The Artist’s Way. No more sitting at the desk and demanding I write something about which I have little enthusiasm. No more self-flagellation for not writing. Writing, as we all know deep down and as Jeff VanderMeer points out (in this wonderful article which one of you shared in the comments section of the post “What Is Dreamzoning? (7 Steps to Finding New Story Ideas)“) is far more about not writing that it is the actual writing.
2. Remember Why You’re Here (How It All Started)
That brings me back to the reason I started writing in the first place. What was yours? Do you remember?
I think I rather lost mine for a while, amidst all the very serious work of becoming a capital-letter Writer. But here’s my reason—here’s why I’m here, talking to you, writing this blog every week—here’s why I’ve spent the better part of my life typing away at the keyboard, why I’ve published five novels and why any of this matters to me at all.
I didn’t start out as a writer. I started out as a kid who loved to tell and play stories. At a certain point I decided I would write one down—because I loved it and its characters so much that I didn’t ever want to forget it. I started writing because of the way it made me feel—like there was a infinite world of possibilities out there.
In short, I don’t write because I’m a writer or even because I love writing (although I do). I write because I love my stories so much I want never to forget them.
Building on the Lesson: Maybe I will never find that same childlike passion again. Maybe adults must write for other reasons. But I don’t really believe that. At any rate, I’m committed to giving myself a chance to find that again—to find another story I love so much I must write it down if only so I will never forget it. In practicality, I think there are two steps to this.
One, I must learn to listen again. And two, I must be willing not to write, not to keep flogging the brain. I think that is perhaps the scariest thing of all. Indeed, even as I write this, there is a part of me that isn’t sure I can consciously commit to not at least trying to write for a while. But the very fact that it scares the spit out of me tells me it’s probably exactly the right step forward.
3. Find Your Inspiration (What Do You Want to Say?)
I’ve spent a lot of time in the dreamzone so far this winter, trying to see if there is a story ready to be written. What I’ve realized is that part of what I’m searching for is something new to say. I used to believe we each have one story to tell and we just go on telling it in different ways all our lives. I still think there’s truth to that, but I’m also coming to realize that perhaps I have finished telling the story I was given to tell in the First Act of my life. Now, as I enter the Second Act, I am too different a person. Much as I love the early stories, they are stories that belong to my younger self, not the Me that now is.
This is both frightening and exciting, since I don’t yet know what story I have to tell in this new chapter of my life. I know I have things to say. I can feel them all but bursting inside of me: I just don’t know what they are yet.
Building on the Lesson: This, too, goes back to listening. I often think of Jo March’s statement in the 1994 adaptation of Little Women:
I want to do something different. I don’t know what it is yet, but I’m on the watch for it.
I foretell that one of the greatest challenges of this coming year will be, for me, sitting still, keeping my mouth shut, listening, and waiting. What is it I want to say in a new story? I don’t know yet. But I have always believed that if you know the question, you know the answer. At least I have the question now.
4. Keep Perspective (Writing Was Always Hard)
Somewhere within the last few years, I got this unspoken, mostly subconscious idea that writing wasn’t supposed to be hard. Sure, it required discipline. But agony, doubt, wasted hours, writer’s block? Nah.
It just so happened 2020 was the year in which I decided to re-read all my old journals, starting from when was I was thirteen. It’s a chronicle of all my writing years. And mostly it’s a chronicle of how hard writing has always been. I started and failed on so many more stories than I remembered. I took looooong breaks in between finished novels because I had no idea what to write.
In short, none of this is new. It’s been a welcome, humbling, and slightly humorous return to perspective.
Building on the Lesson: One of the great values in writing a journal (or a blog) is that we can return to remember insights from our former selves which we may have lost track of. So this year I will continue journaling, and I will continue reading my old journals—as letters from my much wiser younger self to my sometimes short-sighted current self. :p
5. Nothing Is Ever Wasted (Unexpected Gifts)
Like so many of us in our fast-moving society, I have a tendency to judge the value of my time based on what I accomplished. To finish a year without moving the needle on a work-in-progress is frustrating. But aside from the unseen productivity of lessons learned, I can also see how true it is that nothing is ever wasted.
I didn’t break through my writer’s block this year or finish my outline. But then I remember that in wrangling with that writer’s block this year and trying to figure out how to fix my story, I spent a great deal of time learning about and working with archetypal character arcs. I may not have gotten what I wanted—a Scrivener file full of outline notes for a novel—but I did get a Scrivener file full of outline notes for a new blog series that will perhaps eventually become a book in its own right. (Stay tuned for more on that in the upcoming weeks.)
Building on the Lesson: Really, this is exactly why I rather dislike goals. They tend to fixate us (me anyway) too much on one specific outcome—and if we don’t achieve that outcome, well then, what was the point?
What is true, I think, is that when we show up at the desk and put in the work, something always happens. It may not be what we expected. It may not even be tangible. But nothing is ever wasted.
6. Being a Writer Doesn’t Always Mean Writing (Word Count, Schmurd Count)
Speaking of narrow perspectives, it has come home to me more this year than any year that I have an extremely narrow definition of what it means to be a “writer.” When I talk about “my writing” or “writing time,” I am always talking about writing fiction. Only fiction. And only writing (i.e., not organizing notes, not daydreaming, not proofreading).
This was something the pandemic helped me recognize pretty early on last year when I wrote the post “15 Productive Tasks You Can Still Do Even When You Don’t Feel Like Writing.” More than that, I’ve realized how my fiction block these last few years has rather led me to discount the fact that I have been steadily writing all along—every week on this blog and that, indeed, I did publish a book this year.
Building on the Lesson: I have been so identified as a “writer” for so long that any threat to that identity is disturbing. But even more than realizing that I can be a “writer” in many different ways, I realize I must also be willing to broaden my definition of myself. I am not “a writer”; writing is just one of many ways in which I express myself and my creativity.
7. Be Present (You Can’t Repeat the Past or Plan the Future)
If there’s one thing 2020 has taught us it is that everything can change by the time you get to the end of the toilet paper roll. 2020 was what I think of as a “shatterpoint”: the world will never go back to the way it was before. Ironically, this proof of how irrevocably we are always divided from the past makes it more obvious that we cannot ever truly rely on future plans.
This offers a great deal of significance in so many areas of life, but in regards to my own struggles as a writer this year, it offers the reminder that the only thing I can do is be present. However much I may wish it, I can never return to or truly repeat the magic of my childhood relationship to stories. Nor can I decide what my future as a writer will be and demand that my creativity follow suit. I can only be present with what is and try to be as honest as possible in my perception of it.
Building on the Lesson: Really, it is about relinquishing control. Letting go of the past and letting go of the future. I sincerely doubt am totally positive I will not master that one this year. But in between the grief of letting go of the way things used to be and the yearning that the future should be all that we wish it, there is a centerpoint of peace to be found here in the present.
…all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.—Julian of Norwich
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What lessons did you learn as a writer from the adventures of 2020? Tell me in the comments!
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