Writer Wednesday: Goals

Watch your step (at the Cliffs of Moher)

Goals: something to aim for to keep you from falling off the path.

There’s an art to choosing them. We have a tendency — when trying to change our lives, and that’s what writing’s all about anyway, right? Changing our lives and maybe just changing the world a little bit — to want to make grand gestures:

“I’ll write a MILLION words this year!”

“I’ll write a novel in THREE DAYS!”

“I’ll write five thousand words every day!”

These goals are fine. But they may not be suitable for your life write now. Be fair to yourself. If you’re just starting off on this writing lark, don’t be embarrassed to begin with modest steps. A schedule you can maintain is a lot better than burning yourself out in two weeks. You’ll feel frustrated to no good end. Don’t set yourself up to fail. Prepare to succeed.

What’s an achievable goal?

It all comes back to γνῶθι σεαυτόν or as we say in modern English, “Know yourself.” As the folks in the Delphic temple figured out, that’s the real starting point of any endeavour. They carved it in stone to make sure they would remember. Know yourself — not as you aspire to be, not as you fear to be, but frankly as you are. Base your goals on what you aspire to be, by all means! But begin where you are.

How much time were you able to whittle out for your writing? Are you interested in prose, drama or poetry? Ten words in poetry is a lot more work than ten words of prose, so take that into consideration. Be kind to yourself, but have some ambition, too.

I’m using Anne Lamott’s fun book Bird by Bird in my prose writing course. She talks about using short assignments. There’s a one inch wide picture frame on her desk, so she imagines just writing about as much as could fill that frame. That’s the way to do it. Focus on short assignments on the way to your bigger goal. You want to write a novel? Break down the goal into shorter goals. If you can plan it without hyperventilating, mark out your goal as chapters. If that’s still too big, begin with the first paragraph of chapter one, or with a key paragraph where something happens that made you want to write the story. When you have that done, figure out what’s the next piece you can do.

Lamott refers to a great quote I love about novel writing from E. L. Doctorow: It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

Just keep recording what the headlights show, don’t worry about getting to the end of the journey. Bit by bit, bird by bird, word by word. Write down your goals — but reassess them periodically. They’re not set in stone, but they are serious — or should be.

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