Perhaps, as faithful readers, you may recall a post from about this time last year—a post in which I declared my intent to write a book. First, I’d like to thank all of you for not asking how it’s going. Seriously.
Writing actually went reasonably well through the spring, although I would not say I was exactly flying through the pages. Then summer hit, and just when you’d think a teacher would have plenty of time for things like writing, it all seemed to disappear. (Time, that is.) Then, in August, my computer crashed, and all of my characters and plots and themes remained incarcerated inside a broken hard drive until just last week.
While they’re all celebrating the reappearance of their freedom in my new laptop, I have suddenly found myself without excuse for my continued shunning of their existence. There’s no reason not to keep writing now. Uh oh.
One of the things I have done during the last year, in an attempt to learn exactly how one does go about writing a novel, is to explore the world of author and writing blogs. I discovered that there are endless blogs out there about writing and publishing, and many of them are quite excellent. I adore reading these blogs! I have wondered in fact, if I don’t like reading about writing better than the actual act of writing itself.
One of the blogs I frequent is by author Alan Gratz, and I was recently quite taken with his post about “Goals, Discipline and Dr. Who.” Goals are something I can dwell on for endless hours, and discipline is a trait that I sorely lack but constantly strive to develop. (I know nothing at all about Dr. Who, but that turned out to be fairly inconsequential in terms of grasping the meat of the blog post.)
The biggest point I got from Alan’s post was something with which I closely identify. I have so many goals and plans for my life, that I have a hard time sticking to just a few and seeing them through. I am the queen of a million unfinished projects. Whether it’s knitting projects, new guitar songs, plans for the house, or the half-written writing pieces littering the folders on my computer, I think I have adult-onset ADD.
Alan shared his tips for narrowing his own goals, then having the discipline to stick with them. When he does school visits, he tells the kids to just “finish something.” And that, my friends, is exactly what I struggle with: finishing.
You may think this is silly. You may think I am this terribly disciplined ultrarunner. I’ll tell you a secret though: I am a lazy, undisciplined ultrarunner. I never run more than 65 miles a week, and I don’t even reach that distance for very many weeks in a row. I have no compunction about changing, or even cutting, a workout if need be. (I like to think of myself as “flexible,” but I'm pretty sure my high school guidance counselor termed it “undisciplined.”) Still, running is the one area where I feel relatively satisfied with the goals I set and achieve. It’s the rest of my life where I tend to run an inch deep and a mile wide.
Alan went on to share his actual goals for the next five years. I am not nearly so brave, but I will tell you that after reading his post, I do have big plans to finish something. I know that perhaps some things have to give, if I want to have real success at anything. The hard part will be deciding what exactly has to give, and then letting it go. (I’m thinking laundry and dishes should be first. I can totally let those go.)
It was shortly after these revelations that I came upon Andrew in our living room, watching a video online of an attractive woman with a British accent.
“Ooh,” my eyes widened, “J.K. Rowling!” I immediately snuggled in next to him on the sofa to watch.
She was giving the commencement address to the graduating class of 2008 at Harvard University. I wonder if it was perhaps my state-of-mind at that particular moment, but I felt quite certain that she was not, in fact, speaking to several hundred bright, well-educated 21-year-olds, but rather that she was looking out through the computer screen and speaking directly to me. From me, her words evoked both tears and laughter while I sat mesmerized, listening. And this seems to be typical of our relationship. She reaffirmed my faith in her total brilliance.
The title of her speech was “The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination.” If you watch the video below (which I strongly encourage you to do—it’s 20 minutes, but so worth your time!) you’ll see exactly how her words relate to my own thoughts here. In case you don’t have time to watch it, here is a quote from her speech that discusses one of its two central themes:
"So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default."
Jo Rowling found the discipline to focus on her life’s work after everything else had been stripped away. It gave her the clarity to see who she truly was.
I certainly hope that I will not have to experience her level of failure in order to achieve my goals in life, although, I don’t actually aspire to achieve her level of success either. I have to agree though, that living too cautiously is failure by default.
When I sat down last week, for the first time in six months, to read through the progress of my novel to date, I experienced a small surprise: It wasn't the complete and utter tripe I had recalled it to be! Of course, it was far from good, and I am still at the beginning, but there's potential there. Actual potential.
I am truly struggling with the idea of letting some dreams go so that I can focus on, and perhaps achieve, others--how to stop pretending to myself that I am something other than what I truly am. We'll see how this all plays out.
What about you? Do you have a few, focused goals, or a wide array? How do you discipline yourself to achieve the ones that are most important?