I’ve written a bit lately about my (excellent) decision to enroll in a writing workshop at the beginning of this year, and I’m delighted to report that it’s paid off in a big way — a few weeks ago I celebrated the completion of the first draft of my novel.
While my impulse is to talk about all the ways that it’s not that big of a deal — the 2nd draft is going to be a lot of work, I have so many continuity errors to fix, the whole thing needs restructuring — the truth is that it feels like a huge accomplishment. I’m really proud of myself.
Chasing Audacious Goals
I’m guessing that a tiny portion of you reading this right now are aspiring novelists. But I’m willing to bet that many of you have something that takes up a novel-sized portion of your life. Some quiet (or loud) aspiration. Some work that feels important but still a lifetime away. Maybe you’re stuck in the murky middle, or stalling on the way to the finish line.
I’ve reflected on the experience and realized that I’ve learned a few things about myself, about the processes that work for me, and about the highs and lows of chasing big audacious dreams. On the off chance that you’re anything like me, I hope that I can inspire you to stay on the path toward reaching your goals.
Invest in What’s Important
I’ll admit that I had a bit of sticker shock for the cost of the workshop when I first considered signing up. It was tough to swing in my budget. I had the nagging feeling that it would be worth it, so I figured out a way to make it work.
When it comes to the things that really matter, I’ve found that paying for it helps. Yes, I could hypothetically work out in the park on my own. But a gym membership fee coming out of my account each month helps motivate me to get a return on my investment. Sure, in theory, I could motivate myself to get home from work every day, put on a record, and get to work on my novel. But the cost of the workshop and the accountability of meeting a group was the push I needed to get to it. Obviously, don’t go breaking your budget — but if there’s something important to you, paying for it can be the push you need to get started.
You’re Going to Get Bored
I keep a running journal open while I’m writing. It’s a place to dump my thoughts, doubts, ideas, and tangents that don’t fit in my current project. I scanned the document from these past six months recently. The most common recurring statement is, “I’m bored. This isn’t working. I’ll sit with it for a few more minutes.”
Some of the best work I did came after those moments of boredom. When I resisted the urge to do anything else — scroll Twitter, reorganize the bookshelves, or in my most desperate moment when I even considered scrubbing the bathroom — it felt heroic. It was not all sunshine, inspiration, or the muse whispering in my ear. Sometimes I could get into a flow, and it was fun. Sometimes nothing worked, and it was downright torturous. But most of the time, it was a little boring, and the hardest work was keeping my ass in the seat.
Guilt and Shame Get in the Way
I was recently chatting with a few writer friends, and the topic of guilt came up. It turns out, we all feel some form of guilt or shame around our writing lives, and it can get in the way of the work. “I’m not writing enough these days.” “I feel bad for letting life get in the way.” Or my favorite, “It feels like I’m letting my characters down.” We’re a pretty neurotic group, us writers.
The problem is that this guilt gets in the way. When the story that we tell about ourselves is “I’m not enough,” it’s easier to stop showing up at the page. We’ll never be enough, so why bother!
For me, working with a timer has helped this tremendously. Ok, I’m not enough, but I can sit here with my work for 25 minutes, and it will move forward at least a little.
Celebrate Your Highs
When you get somewhere you’ve been working toward, make sure you take the opportunity to really savor it. A few weeks before I reached the end of my draft, I bought a fancy bottle of whiskey as a treat for when I achieved my goal. Let me tell you; it was the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted. It paired beautifully with a couple of happy tears and the house-shaking volume of a dance party.
If you aren’t really enjoying your victories, then what’s the bother in pursuing them in the first place? I have a limited edition record to order, and a very delicious (and expensive) meal picked out to celebrate when I finish the next draft. It’s not so much about the stuff as it is about creating a memory around the occasion. Create those memories, and hold them close when you’re working hard for the next goal.
Be Prepared for Some Lows
I did not know that a book hangover was a thing. Apparently, it’s not uncommon to finish a project or achieve a goal, and then come crashing way down after. I spent a few days on top of the world. Then spent about a week and a half feeling exhausted, impatient, and a little bummed out. I was able to handle my day job no problem, but evenings and weekends (when I’d usually work on my book or freelance projects) were a total write-off. I fell behind on a big project and missed the deadline on a blog post.
I wish I would have communicated a bit more proactively during that time, but in hindsight, I can see that a bit of a crash was inevitable. I know better for next time. I think that the crash is a built-in part of the high. Now that I’ve reached this milestone, it’s time to set my sights on the next. That’s exciting, but it’s also a little sad. It’s time to let go of the dream that’s kept me motivated, and pick a new goal to work toward. I’m up for it, but I needed a few days of extra naps and mindless streaming TV to get there.
I’ve spent most of my life wanting to be a novelist. I’ve also spent the bulk of my time not doing the work that would get me there. Now that I’ve had this first taste of achieving my goal, there’s no going back to that life of inaction.
Whatever your equivalent is — the big or small goal that helps you shape your life and your identity in the world — it’s time to get to work. It’s a tough road, but it’s one I’m determined to walk.
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Chasing Audacious Goals: Dispatches from the End Zone