It might be the end of 2016 when this article is published, but this is not, I assure you, one of those “X Ways To Y In 2017” posts. The web will be full enough of those in the days and weeks to come; no need for me to add to that noise.
Besides, anything you read in those posts, any path they send you down, like most new year’s resolutions, will be abandoned around the same time you finally stop writing last year on new checks (as if you still wrote checks… I know, I know).
And rather than a flatter stomach or fatter bank account, you’ll be left with a vague and smallish sense of shame. Smallish, because a quiet and comfortably resistant part you knows full well that built into the new year’s resolutions ritual is the certainty that no one actually expects you to observe them with any measure of… resolve.
All the same, if you’re at all introspective (and as a writer and artistically creative person, you’d better be), you’re probably thinking of ways you’d like to advance and improve. And it’s perfectly natural (if arbitrary) for that inclination to be especially strong around the end of the year.
What to do?
Resolutely, No Resolutions
I know this much: I’m sure as hell not making any new year’s resolutions.
I’m not even setting any tangible goals. At least, not directly.
I don’t want you to make any new year’s resolutions, either.
I don’t want you setting any goals.
No “lose fifteen pounds.” No “Ten-x my income.”
Especially no to that last one. Not because I don’t want you to make any money; sure I do. Honestly, it’s because I really, really want certain people in certain circles to stop using that “ten-x” term. Just say “no” to made-up verbs.
The Big Scratchy Question
Although I want to advance and improve in the coming year, and I want that for you, too, let’s not worry about the specific things we want to achieve in 2017.
Rather, take a close look at yourself — especially in the context of where you are in your life at the end of this year — and ask yourself the following question:
“Am I who I want to be?”
Again: this isn’t about what you should have achieved in 2016, or what you hope to achieve in 2017. Get that out of your head.
Rather, I’m asking if your vision of who you are — the holistic mental selfie of your whole (physical / emotional / creative) self — matches the reality of who you are.
Oh, and if that question doesn’t make you squirm?
You’re doing it wrong.
Dig deeper. Take your time… but you know what? You probably don’t need that much time. Once you feel a little queasy, or nervous, or even resentful or angry at the very idea of such a question… the answer is probably, “No, my vision of myself does not match reality.”
At the very least, your vision and your reality have drifted out of sync.
At worst… you’re far afield, my friend.
When your reality and your personal vision are out of whack, there are negative consequences for your mental, emotional, and physical health, to say nothing of your creativity. Wondering why you’ve felt stuck? Frustrated? Angry? Sad?
This could be a big part of your problem.
So. Let’s see what we can do to fix you up.
Integrating Vision and Reality
Your vision of who you want to be, of how you want to be positioned in your life, should be clearly (if uncomfortably) clear in your mind by now.
Next comes the question of what you can do (or stop doing) to align real life with that vision.
Maybe you need to change some practices. Break some habits. Acquire new habits.
Maybe you need to edit and prune the people you hang around with, or at least adjust your behavior when you’re with them.
I need you to be honest with yourself about this. If you are, it’s likely the answers that emerge will be scary, disruptive, and seemingly impossible to achieve.
However, you’re talking about your life, here, and it’s the only one you get. So. It’s absolutely essential that you make a decision to choose yourself, as James Altucher would say, and get yourself the life you want, not settle indefinitely for the life you have.
Just Like Building A Character
It might make it easier to imagine the whole scenario a step removed: pretend, just enough to get you there, that it’s not really you you’re thinking about, but a character in a story very, very much like your own story.
After all, the “you” in your vision isn’t actually… you.
Acting On It
Once you’ve thought about what you can do / stop doing right now to get yourself there… take action. Do something every day that gets you at least 1% closer to alignment with your vision.
Yes, you have responsibilities beyond yourself. But until you attend to your own well being, you cannot effectively and honestly serve others. Or as RuPaul says, “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”
Not everyone in your life will see things this way.
That’s their problem, not yours.
I know that might sound cold, but it’s the truth. They have their own vision / reality alignment issues to deal with.
If you do feel like other people’s opinions are your problem, maybe those people are actually part of your vision… or, hey, maybe you’re allowing their resistance to distract you from the hard work ahead.
Figure that out. Dig deeper. Accept the possibility that you’ve been living according to external expectations, not your own truth… and act accordingly.
Be aware of this:
Throughout the process, you will likely offend, anger, and disappoint.
So be it. The people that remain after ninety days… these people are your tribe. The resultant distilled community is your community. All others are irrelevant, or worse, impediments.
Intentional Improvement Every Day For Three Months
Take action (or remove an obstacle / stop an action) every day for three months. Come at least one percent closer to the person you imagine yourself to be every day for ninety days, and at the end of ninety days your vision and your actual life will likely be nearly 100% aligned.
Practically speaking, I can’t tell you exactly what you need to do each day. It’s going to be different for everybody.
I can tell you that for me, the plan includes eliminating sources of negativity (human and otherwise), actively giving back (Scribtotum is a big part of that), taking time to rest body and mind and regularly push their limits, and finding ways to create experiences for myself and with people I love.
For me — and maybe for you, too — the next ninety days are going to include some very deliberate, intentional thought.
I’m not talking about some kind of “ask the universe for an apricot puggle” The Secret-style woo-woo.
I’m talking about the kind of fake-it-’til-you-make-it, directed, positive thinking supported by SCIENCE.
I’m talking about mindfulness.
I know that for some of you, phrases like “positive thinking” and “mindfulness” might raise alarms against metaphysics and quasi-mystical mumbo jumbo.
That’s why I provided the last two links. Take a moment to read up on this stuff We’re talking about changing your brain, gang. Taking control of the frightened lizard curled up deep in your skull. And there’s real research validating the effectiveness of these specific practices.
To be very clear: your thoughts won’t change the world, or “manifest” volcanic eruptions of abundance and fortune from the sidewalk.
Rather, after you’ve spent some time practicing intentional thought and mindfulness, you become better attuned to opportunities. You act on desire, rather than reacting against fear.
The end result is more confidence, less anxiety, and better health. And that, in turn, makes it easier for you to make the choices that will lead you to aligning your vision-self with your actual, flesh-and-blood, living life real self.
What’s This Have To Do With Being A Writer?
The process of deliberately aligning who you are with who you want to be has everything to do with self-awareness, vulnerability, honesty, conviction, emotional maturity, and mental and physical health.
All of those things are fundamental to growing and advancing as a writer or, indeed, a creative artist of any kind.
Heck, these are the central foci of Scribtotum, this very blog! It’s no accident this is the first post since the blog’s return.
Everything involved in the “ninety days to you” exercise will make you a better writer.
Throughout the process, I urge you, WRITE.
And no matter what you usually write, do not feel constrained by form, genre, storyworld, or even medium.
Get shit out: journal entries, free verse, plays, and sure, maybe fiction, too.
None of it is wasted; some of it may actually end up being publishable, but it does not matter if it is or not.
Don’t resist whatever comes through your fingers. Writing through the next ninety days, if you do so with a true commitment to honesty and utter vulnerability, will serve both as rudder and safety valve. And later… as a chronicle and resource if you need a little course adjustment down the line.
Bonus: unless there’s a very compelling reason preventing it (such as an chronic condition or disability), I urge you to write with pen and paper throughout the “ninety days to you.” The physical act of writing is a form of directed thought and a way to practice mindfulness; it’s all to do with the way our brains light up when we connect directed thought (the mental side of writing) with physical activity (the act of moving a pen across paper).
So use pen and paper!
Let’s Do This Together
The idea of aligning the person we want to be with the person we actually are is certainly appealing.
The practice? No lie, if you’re really doing it, it’s kind of scary, and it’s probably going to be tough. I know I’m intimidated and nervous about it, and this whole darn thing is my idea!
It would be nice to have a little support, wouldn’t it?
I’m setting up a chat community for that specific purpose. This will be a small group, initially, with a limited number of available slots open for a limited time. Participation is free, as is the software.
If you’re truly dedicated to the “90 days to you” exercise, click here to ask for an invitation to the community.
If you’re not sure you’re going to put in the work in the next ninety days or so, please don’t bother asking for an invitation. Save the slots for the people who really want it. Maybe just leave a comment.
What Are You Doing To Match Your Vision To Your Reality?
Are you in?
If this all seems too much for you… that’s okay. You might not be ready. You might not have the space in your life right now.
I still want to know what, if anything, you plan to do to to improve your mental, physical, and emotional health and, in turn, make yourself a more effective writer and creator.
Leave your thoughts (and anything else you might have to say regarding this post) in the comments, with my thanks.
I agree on the personal level. The alignment thing. What we are and/or what we think we are; what we want and/or what we think we (are supposed to) want… All of that can be messy – the kind of clutter that hobbles us mentally.
I’m not sure I agree that this mess/clutter necessarily stops us from writing well. Lots of great writers were not exactly poster boys/girls for the alignment calendar: Philip Dick, Sylvia Plath, F. Scott Fitzgerald, to name but a few.
This is not one of those boring ‘all artists are tortured souls’ arguments but it is nevertheless true that turmoil can be fertile ground for art.
For some writing may be their personal form of therapy. Making sense of the mess by holding it to the light. Which may not always means the kind of introspection that leads to a healthy realignment. There are enough writers whose work is deeply repetitive (in the sense that every story is a variation on the same mess.)
Some writers will learn to navigate their inner seas. They will not seek change but they will have made a certain peace with their demons.
If you look at things like drug use among successful artists, it is often claimed it was this (ab)use that enabled them to make their art. I’ve never fully bought into that argument. My response has always been, But we don’t know what they would have created without the benefit/handicap of a scrambled brain? Would Hendrix have been a lesser guitarist without dope? Perhaps. Would he have had the chance to grow (old) as an artist without drugs? Almost certainly.
So if we take ‘drugs’ and replace it with ‘psychological mess’, you could argue that realigned artists may make better art than when they were a mess – though I am not sure I totally buy that.
It’s not a very nice thing to say but happiness in art can be quite boring. Faulkner had a point, I think, when he wrote: ““The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” And you need turmoil for that. (Although, yes, it could be that you write better about turmoil when you are past that stage yourself.)
I don’t know. Me, I’m old school. As in, writers use everything – the good and the bad. If we’re polite we will change names but like Graham Greene said: “There’s a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.” So I guess I am one of those who have learned to work with whatever lives inside the skull. Though in truth, I’m not an introspective type of writer. I’m one of Jung’s children. I go to that old Story Well – the one that will never be dry. I only fuss about the craft side of writing, the editing wars and that one fixed aim: to write to the best of my abilities at the time of writing. That’s a whole different topic though, so enough already.
Matthew Wayne Selznick
Thanks for commenting, Jan, and so extensively!
I think it’s important to note that I didn’t write that disalignment stops us from writing well. Aligning one’s vision of one’s self with the version we actually live, I believe, will make us better writers.
I think understanding turmoil — personally and generally — can be a fertile ground for art, perhaps(?) moreso than simply being familiar with it. Living with turmoil without understanding? Hmm… Philip Dick was a drug abuser, Sylvia Plath committed suicide, and F. Scott Fitzgerald was an alcoholic.
That sounds like alignment to me. Understanding one’s self, perhaps, includes no longer trying to be something you’re not, or something that’s a construct of external expectations.
I agree… indeed, this is pretty much my point about the creative benefits of syncing who you want to be with who you actually are.
Of course. “Art” is, I think, the emotional (sometimes physical) response prompted by the direct experience with a particular work. Art = conflict, or at least disruption, however mild.
And in fiction? Conflict is integral and essential, at least in Western literary traditions.
But that doesn’t mean that unhappiness represented in art need be necessarily created by an unhappy artist. As you wrote, “…it could be that you write better about turmoil when you are past that stage yourself.”
I reckon that leads one to ask what’s in that well, and from whence flows the underground stream that fill it. Jung, if I recall, believed that stories (myths both cultural and personal) stemmed from the collective common experience (shades of Campbell, too). As we are dreaming, self-aware, social apes, introspection and internal conflict is a big part of that, I think.
As far as fussing about the craft of writing, and what’s included in “craft,” heck, I think that’s the seed for a future Scribtotum article… so thanks for that!
Going off on a tangent (or snark hunt), I don’t actually believe in a shared unconsciousness, something we go to in our dreams – but I like the image. I don’t know where stories come from and I don’t particularly care. It’s not like that story well is some kind of restaurant that can go out of business or that some day you’re not allowed to enter anymore because they changed the dress code.
If you have a story brain – and no, don’t ask me what that is exactly, or how to get one – stories & ideas will not run out*. It’s a bit like humming. If you can do that you won’t one day run out of ‘hums’ (until that final moment you’ll run out of breath, of course.)
*Whisper it but I don’t even particularly believe in writers’ block. That’s one of those strangely unhelpful labels – like schizophrenia was in the mid 20th century. People with all kinds of mental (or adjustment) problems got that nifty label stapled to their heads. It didn’t mean anything much and it certainly wasn’t of much use when it came to finding the correct treatment but it got the medical profession off the hook. Same with writers’ block – I think. There are all kinds of reasons that people will feel unable to write but to mythologise this problem is desperately unhelpful.
Matthew Wayne Selznick
Yeah, I don’t believe in writers’ block, either. Other than fear, plain and simple.