Ten days into the new year and I’ve already broken the resolutions I didn’t make, missing a day of exercise, eating a dessert I’d sworn off, and skipping a day at my desk. Back in the years when I made resolutions, these deviations from perfection would send me into a tailspin of failure: If I missed a day of exercise, I’d give up exercising all together; if I ate a piece of cake, I might as well eat the whole thing; if I missed a day of writing, I’d better just accept my amateur status and throw in the pen. But I really don’t make resolutions any more. Now, I set goals.
Resolutions are predicated on the false idea of perfection, which would be boring even if it were achievable. Mostly, resolutions are recipes for failure. Setting and meeting goals, on the other hand, are steps to success. So while many of us vowed to undertake big, bold projects this year, the daily nitty-gritty of showing up, sitting down, and putting pixels to the screen is what matters. In her wonderful book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott tells the story behind the title:
“…my older brother . . .was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write . . . due the next day. . .he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
So grand, big, writing goals are terrific, but the way to reach them is one word at a time. Lamott suggests “short assignments” and “shitty first drafts,” which I think are two good ideas.
Short assignments are achievable: a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, even a page of notes. After a while, these pieces accumulate and form the skeleton of a body of work. With permission to write “shitty first drafts” there’s hope for an improved second draft, a good third draft, and the possibility of achieving excellence in the fourth or fifth. It’s dedication that matters, not improbable resolutions.
Yes, I’ve set myself one big goal to draft a new novel this year. But that’s not what I think about when I show up at my desk in the morning. Instead, I write five hundred to two thousand word bits, giving myself permission to write junk. I’m not writing about birds, but about invented characters who act, react and change in a fictive world of my own creation. I’m not yet clear exactly who, where or how these characters and events come together, but I know if I keep showing up day by day, I’ll figure it out, word-by-word.
Deborah Lee Luskin is the author of the award-winning novel, Into The Wilderness, “a fiercely intelligent love story” set in Vermont in 1964. She is a regular Commentator on Vermont Public Radio and teaches for the Vermont Humanities Council. Learn more at her website: www.deborahleeluskin.com