Discover more from Intimations: A Writer's Discourse
Losing things to time
And retrieving them with a goal and a deadline
Time passes without us truly noticing it. I just opened an email that gave an update on the reconstruction of a beloved spa that burned eight years ago. I went there regularly for years, so I couldn’t believe nearly a decade had passed. It re-opened several years ago, yet I’ve been too busy to go there. I keep thinking I’ll go—soon—but “soon” somehow hasn’t happened, and I’ve ceased doing this nourishing respite that I used to treat as a sacred mental and physical cleanse.
I mention this because it’s easy to not do the things that are important to us—to completely lose track of them—unless we formalize them.
One way to make sure we make time work for our priorities rather than bury them is to make a formal goal to do them—and set a deadline! Since National Novel Writing Month is approaching, I wanted to share this excerpt from my book Pep Talks for Writers, “Goal + Deadline = Creative Magic.”
If you’ve done National Novel Writing Month and learned just one thing, it’s the power of setting a goal and having a deadline to keep yourself accountable. A goal and a deadline serve as creative midwives, as we like to say at NaNoWriMo.
The words goal and deadline might not ring with any poetic allure, but these two words are perhaps the most important concepts in living the artistic life, ranking right up there with inspiration and imagination.
“A deadline is, simply put, optimism in its most ass-kicking form,” said NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty.
Here’s the rub, though. I think NaNoWriMo has spoiled many of us. It’s just a month—a short, condensed period of time—so despite achieving the gargantuan task of writing 50,000 words in a month, it’s only 30 days, a fiery burst, less than 10 percent of the year.
Many people awake on December 1, thrilled with their November achievement, and in their gasping breaths they determinedly make a pledge, “I’m going to finish this novel,” only to find themselves drifting aimlessly in a state of abeyance, and then making a vague promise to finish it someday (which we know is unlikely to come).
I’ve been one of those people. I’m an expert at fake productivity. I get trapped in an infinite task loop where I’m consistently accomplishing little actions, but making dubious progress toward completing a novel.
I do research. I tinker with the first sentence, the first paragraph, the first chapter. I go back and do more research. Or I get distracted by the glistening sheen of an entirely different writing project. (New novel ideas are always at their brightest before the writing begins.)
A goal and a deadline serve as creative midwives.
I’ve concocted these writing evasions—which feel like productive writing—because I don’t truly want to deal with the mess of the whole thing. My rough draft is like a toddler, just out of diapers, cavorting in glee, with crumbs of Pirate’s Booty on its lips and juice dripping onto its shirt. It’s knocking over things all over the place and yelling too loudly. I love my story’s exuberance, but I’m fatigued by the thought of teaching it to grow up.
“The road to hell is paved with works-in-progress,” Philip Roth said. I want to get out of this hell.
Present self vs. future self
So how to finish? The lessons of NaNoWriMo apply to creative projects year-round: Make a goal, set a deadline, and devise a plan of accountability.
Goals give us direction, but a goal without a deadline is like a class of students without a teacher—full of potential, but lacking structure. If I don’t give myself a deadline and track my progress, my novel will exist in a perpetual state of questionable movement. (I know because one of my novels took 10 years to finish.)
You don’t need to write 50,000 words each month, of course, but think about what you can do each day on a regular basis. Can you revise your novel for an hour each day? Okay, then set a goal of 30 hours of revision in a month and track yourself each day. Can you write 250 words a day? Okay, then set a goal of 7,500 words in a month.
Even a snail can travel a great distance if it moves forward each day.
The key thing is that you can’t set a vague goal. Without a clear goal, you’re likely to find a million ways of talking yourself out of committing to achievement. I think of this scene in Lewis Carrols’s Alice in Wonderland.
CAT: Where are you going?
ALICE: Which way should I go?
CAT: That depends on where you are going.
ALICE: I don’t know.
CAT: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.
Goals are the lighthouse that guides the boat to shore. They’re the north star we follow.
It’s all about designing your life around the things you rationally want to achieve instead of sinking into the powerful claws of more impulsive needs. We tend to be myopic creatures, preferring positive outcomes in the present at the expense of future outcomes. But our present self is doing a disservice to our future self, who will scream back into the dark hallows of the past: “Why didn’t you work on our novel?”
Think about how your present self can better serve your future self.
I look forward to seeing my novel finished, as if watching it like a proud parent at graduation. It will be polished, finely woven together, ready to be read by others. Hopefully, it will find a nice cover to wrap itself in, a bookshelf to live on, and will wish me luck on my next novel.
There’s always another story waiting.
Because a quote about mastering time
“A schedule can feel like self-imposed jail cells—but it’s also the opposite: whenever I plant in my creative path a time bomb, a reminder, a deadline, it frees me from Time. By reminding me that I can distort Time. The deadline feeds my impatience. And often because of that I find myself ahead!”
Because you can sign up for NaNoWriMo—and it’s free!
It’s this simple. Just decide that your story matters, and click on the button below to sign up.
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