I’ve never been a big believer in all the New Year’s hubbub. As a kid I couldn’t wait to stay up until midnight and watch the ball drop; mostly because I assumed that meant seeing a giant crystal orb plummet hundreds of feet to the ground. When I finally deemed old enough to stay awake with the grown-ups, it was only to find out that “watching the ball drop” actually meant “watching the ball descend serenely to the ground like a deflating blimp.” Talk about a rite of passage. New Year’s has kind of been a let-down ever since that revelation.
Even the idea of taking stock and making resolutions rubs me wrong. Why wait until a new year? It’s not like throwing out the old calendar is going to banish the productivity-eating demons back to the hell dimension they sprung from (you gotta burn the calendar for that. Come on guys, that’s demon-fighting 101). I’ve always believed that if you want to change something, start now.
But you know what? Over the past couple months I’ve realized that there are a lot of things in my life that I want to change, and done approximately nothing to actually change them. So since being both a New Year’s Scrooge and a hypocrite isn’t a great look for anyone, I’m gonna give this a shot. Taking stock, making resolutions, and hopefully seeing a path to the future. And on that note…
What the hell happened in 2016?
Like, as a general question. But specifically, what did I do?
I guess living in a minivan for four and a half months is a big one. I also worked retail for the first (and hopefully last) time, got my second tattoo, started this blog/website, and finished up the year having written a total of 612,734 words. But despite all that, when I look back on the previous year, the word that comes to mind is aimlessness. Both in my physical wanderings across North America, and in my general state of mind.
This year marked the first 12-month stretch of my life that I spent without being in school. There was no familiar pattern of terms starting and ending, midterms and finals and the breaks in between, the knowing of exactly where I’d be and what I’d be doing in the future. Whenever someone asked me what I did, the answer was always easy: I was a student. Now, what could I say? What arbitrary piece of my identity could I slap on myself as a label?
Well, “writer”, of course. That’s what I’ve always been. But the idea of calling myself a writer always felt like faking it; oh, sure I wrote stuff, but come on, anyone can do that. What made me so special that I could take that sacred mantle and wrap it around myself like a terrycloth bathrobe? I needed proof, validation, a sign that I could point to, for my own benefit as much as anyone else’s, to say: Yes. I am a writer. Maybe I do other stuff as well, but those things are not me. Above all else, I am that one particular noun.
This year, I got that validation. In March I started submitting to magazines and contests for the first time in my life; in mid-April, I got my first acceptance. By the end of this year, I got to hold a physical anthology in my own hands and read my name on the back cover. But the full import of that didn’t sink in until I ran into my third-grade teacher in a CVS a couple days before Christmas.
I hadn’t seen her in almost a decade, but recognized her instantly—she was one of my favorite elementary school teachers. Although ironically, my most vivid memory from her class is the one time that I got in trouble for acting out and had to do the walk of shame to the front of the room to turn my behavior card from orange to red. Thanks for holding onto that one, brain.
After the usual catching up, she surprised me with a question.
“So, are you still keeping up with your writing?”
I was amazed she remembered I had been interested in writing after all this time. After a bit of stammering, I admitted that I’d had my first piece of writing accepted for publication this year. My teacher’s face lit up, and she pulled me into a hug and said she was proud of me.
It was like the universe itself had sent me a sign. I saw the girl I’d been in third grade, weird and friendless and constantly daydreaming about dinosaurs. I saw myself from my teacher’s eyes, the mixture of hope and hopelessness that all adults must feel towards children who dream—because how many of them actually make those dreams a reality?
But I was doing it. And I could see in my teacher’s eyes that it really meant something. Sorry, this is all super corny. But hey, it was Christmastime.
I realized two things that day. One: that it was okay to call myself a writer now. Two: that it always had been. Because being a writer is not an accomplishment; it’s not even something you are.
When you call yourself a writer, you’re making a promise to yourself. A promise that you aren’t just a person who has written something; you’re a person who’s gonna do it again. A writer, past present and future. That’s a promise worth working to keep.
But this year wasn’t defined by success, any more than it was defined by failure. In many ways, 2016 has been one of my hardest years yet. I’ve struggled a lot with my own mind. The presidential election results fundamentally shifted my perception of my own country and the world. Personal events have upset the course I thought my life would take next year; I find myself facing similar challenges, but knowing that this time I will be facing them alone. Right now, my life is mostly defined by uncertainty.
Without the promise of a new school year to give me direction, the question I find myself asking at the start of the new year is simple: what do I want? It’s not a question I’m used to asking myself; in the past, the path was always laid out before me. All I had to do was follow it, and face what challenges came along the way. Now it’s like I’m standing in the middle of a massive plain, and the only path is the one which brought me here. I could go anywhere. Honestly, it’s a little terrifying.
But no matter what happens, where I end up, or what I end up doing, there are two things I know I’ll bring along anywhere: my writing, and myself. And those two things are what I want to focus on this year.
No more second-guessing. No more putting myself down. No more nauseous fear whenever I have to hold a simple conversation. No more assuming that I’m always doing something wrong. No more apologizing when I haven’t done anything wrong. No more negative emotions that serve only to sap my strength, rather than teach me how to be a better person. If this coming year is going to be full of movement and change, there’s a lot of things about myself I can stand to leave by the side of the road.
And once I’ve curb-stomped all my negative emotional compulsions, that just leaves the word-stuff. Those goals are a bit easier to quantify:
- Write another 600,000 words.
- Read 100 books.
- Every month, submit at least two short stories to magazines or contests.
- Complete one polished draft of a novel-length piece of fiction.
- Give self-publishing a try.
At least those five goals will be a good place to start.
I don’t know if 2017 will be a good year. Honestly, from where I stand, it’s not looking like it. But I plan on going in swinging. And button-mashing. Zero skill and 100% effort, that’s my motto. And if I look back at this post at the end of 2017 and realize I’ve accomplished none of the things I set out to do—well, I guess that’s the risk of making promises. But that’s why we do it, right?
What about you, dear reader? What promises are you making yourself this year, and how do you plan to keep them?