December has always been a reflective month for me. Blame the holidays. In the rush and chaos of upholding traditions--the gift-buying, the gift-wrapping, the gingerbread house-building--I find I cannot focus on writing. And once Christmas afternoon hits, once the presents are opened and the ham’s in the oven, then there’s nothing but a string of cozy, languid family get-togethers until New Year. By which time, it’s my birthday and I’m another year older. The shift of focus from work to family, followed by a period of lazy rest and the passing of another year (both the calendar and my own lifespan) naturally puts me in the reflective state of mind. And so, inevitably, I spend the bulk of December contemplating what I did in the past year and what I want to do in the next one.
This year, my process of reflecting started after Thanksgiving and continued up to… now, I suppose. And whereas normally I, very business-like, go to my list of stated goals I wrote the previous December and start grading all my tangible accomplishments, this time I didn’t. Because it didn’t matter. The important things of 2019 were not my accomplishments, but the mindsets I learned. It was a year of growing, not a year of completion.
This year, I learned how to take care of kids, how to drive a car, how to get stuff done without a plan or schedule, how to trust myself, and how to let go of the need for validation. For the past few years, I’ve had my ideas of how I should live and what it meant to succeed broken down and re-formed. Of course, I’ve done stuff this year, I’ve written well over a 1000 pages. But the pages are all over the place and the words haven’t yet coalesced into a solid thing, a thing I can show to others and be proud of. But that’s okay. Maybe next year.
So on to the next stage of the reflection process. Typically, after grimacing through all the things I didn’t do and trying to shore up my self-esteem with the numerical data of raw word counts, I move on to planning. What will I do in the year to come? I decide on my goals, break them down, and schedule them into next year’s calendar, a process which is as helpful as it is useless, because, quite honestly, I don't do anything according to schedule. I can’t.
There is this sense of trying to make myself into a machine, an engine of creative production: to churn out accomplishments, which feel like rewards and yet are not. I always knew they weren’t rewards, because accomplishing little tasks never felt any good; it felt hollow and exhausting. You work so hard for a dozen check marks on a list that goes in the trashcan as soon as it’s complete. Sure, I can write 100,000 words in a year--I can write that much in two months--but it doesn’t matter if those words go into the trashcan, too. It’s all meaningless.
But I still do it. I still break down the process and create a series of deadlines and overwhelm myself with the amount of work I need to do. And then, once I have it all written down, I put the word document in my "goals folder" and forget about it. I did it again this year. And the reason that I go through all this is because once I have it written down, I will remember it. Not consciously, perhaps. But what's important will stick.
Last year what stuck was absolutely none of my writing goals. I tossed them in the trash and never looked back. But when I looked at the ways I wanted to improve, those stuck, even though I’d forgotten them. I wanted to let myself write in a more organic, “gathering” way. I wanted to learn marketing. I wanted to communicate my thoughts and opinions more directly. I didn’t plan on how to do these things--but I did them anyway.
And what I have finally begun to learn is why some things stick and some things do not. I have been trying to plan out my whole year and that doesn't work, because you never know what will happen in the coming year. In trying to rigidly stick to my plans, I forced myself to ignore crises, opportunities, and regular life. Planning was a form of control, and I was supposed to be in control. But I wasn’t. I was scared and anxious and the only way I knew to deal with that anxiety was to over-plan--to keep out all the stuff that scared me, as much as I could. But now I know of another way--trusting that whatever happens, you’ll be able to get through it. You’re strong enough, you’re adaptable enough, and there is enough time to get… maybe not everything you want finished… but everything you need finished.
With that in mind, this year I’m narrowing down my tangible goals to exactly one. I want to complete, publish, and market Company by September 5, 2020, and sell 100 copies in the first month. It’s simple, specific, realistic--and incredibly frightening. I don’t have a completed manuscript. In fact, I’m behind. I don’t have cover art or a marketing plan or people to review my books or a thousand other things that experts tell me I ought to have. And they're probably right. But it doesn’t matter, because I’m going to do it. Somehow.
And this challenging goal would be fine, if it were the only thing going on in my life, if I knew I could focus on that and only that. But no. I’m going through a transition, and I have to figure out, once again, my housing, a job, and what I want to do with my life. Plus, there are other stories that will inevitably want to be written, that will press against my brain in the worst times. There will be lessons and crises and opportunities. Other things will happen. I just don’t know what they are.
This brings me to driving, one of those life skills I'd been heretofore avoiding.
Although I’ve had my driver’s license for many years, I’d never really used it. I was always afraid to drive on my own. I couldn’t get out of my head all the horrible things that could happen. What if I got in an accident? What if I caused an accident? What if the car broke down? What if, what if? I didn't know what to do in those situations and until I knew, until I had it all figured out and rehearsed in my mind, I didn't want to risk it. I was afraid of my own incompetence.
When I finally decided it was time to conquer this fear, that others depended on me to conquer my fear, I had think to myself, as I sat behind the wheel, “I am going to get us from Point A to Point B safely. I don’t care how long it takes or how well I do it, but it will get done.” The whole time I drove I was keenly aware of every imperfection, every mistake. I could practically feel all the other drivers on the road judging me, furiously adjusting to my incompetence, and I desperately wanted to apologize. Instead I told myself not to care. “Get from Point A to Point B safely. That’s all that matters.”
Driving felt, at first, like an act of faith, like a show of flagrantly false confidence. I had to sit there and know that I would get safely from Point A to Point B. I wouldn’t get into an accident. I wouldn’t get pulled over. Nothing would happen because I willed it not to happen. This act of faith was exhausting and left me jittery. But it worked. Nothing happened. Sure I missed turns, forgot to signal, and had to deal with setbacks--but I got from Point A to Point B safely. And that’s when I realized that, even though a thousand things could go wrong, normally they don’t. Which made it was possible to learn, to get the experience needed to figure out how to adapt to all the craziness out on the road.
This year, I have a goal. Point A to Point B. And believe it or not, I have more faith in my ability to finish writing and publish a book in 9 months than I do in my ability to drive to Walmart and back. I have no idea what setbacks I’ll face, but whatever they are, I’ll handle it. Maybe I won’t be perfect. Maybe everyone else will marvel at my incompetence. It doesn’t matter. What matters is getting from Point A to Point B, because people are depending on me. It seems strange to believe this, almost arrogant, that someone out there needs my writing. But if it’s not needed, what’s the point in putting it out there?
So this year… this decade… I’m going to stop looking passively out the window. I’m going to get in the driver’s seat, take a deep breath, set my destination… and drive.
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Writer. Critic. Dreamer.