It’s the season of Easter. Eggs and bunnies are everywhere. Whatever you might think about the origins of Easter, whether pagan or religious, it’s hard to escape. The motif of eggs is woven into the English language. Life is itself a curate’s egg, both good and bad in parts.
We avoid putting all our eggs in one basket, and so diversify risk. We argue in circles about the chicken and the egg. We walk on eggshells through tricky situations, and break eggs to make omelettes. This last saying is the most interesting, because it tells us that sometimes, breaking comes before making.
Easter eggs look so beautifully perfect that it’s tempting to keep them intact. But we know that treasures are hidden inside the colourful exterior, so we’re happy to smash them. (Of course, getting to eat the whole thing doesn’t hurt either.) People, lives, and relationships can have a shiny surface gloss, and yet when they’re broken, something even better may emerge.
It need not be one huge blow, it could be a tiny chipping away that eventually changes everything. Like the chick emerging from its shell one peck at a time, small actions add up over time to something larger.
This is also the month of Camp NaNoWriMo, where you set your own daily writing goal. After I failed NaNo two years in a row, I decided I absolutely could not write every day. It all felt too much for me. But I want to become more of a writer, so I decided on a smaller challenge, inspired by Shaunta Grimes and her concept of teeny, tiny goals.
My goal? Write 150 words every day.
Stupidly small and hardly worth the effort, right? Well, so far I have kept to it, even after a gruelling 13 hour day at work. It’s so very small, that I often exceed it. Then I get to award myself a pat on the back for over-performing! On the worst days, it’s still doable and there is small but measurable progress.
I track my journey, nothing too involved because I don’t have the energy. Just a Very Easy Tracking Plan™ (as discussed here ). All that’s required is minimal motivation and the idea that I could break out of my shell. I hope to build on a series of daily successes that will help me advance as a writer.
It’s the season of new beginnings.
What tiny, daily goal will you set, so you can escape a self-imposed jail of fixed expectations?
As each year draws to a close, we naturally think about taking stock. What did we do, what did we get, what are we still hoping for, good or bad. It’s been a hell of a year, on many levels. Sometimes the big picture is overwhelming, and we can only make sense of small things. Like tracking our own progress, footprints in the snow.
I recently read a Medium post by Dajana Bergmark, called Blueprint for a productive 2017 . I liked a lot in the post, especially the brain dump and the idea of prioritising your effort, because effort and time are finite resources. I never have enough, and I’m sure you’re the same. But the further I read, the less attractive it became, for me. I’m not good with organisers and ticking boxes, and forcing myself results only in abandoning the whole idea. I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Any system has to be customised to suit you. Take what you can use and leave the rest.
I’m a whole picture person who baulks at prescribed step-by-step plans in minute detail. Details matter, but at different levels for everyone. So, I look for a broad brush solution I can live with, then drill down only as far as I will actually implement. I wrote recently about making progress with writing, and seeing that at the level of a whole piece. This is about a closer look at how things are moving forward.
I mentioned before that I took up watercolour painting as a complete beginner. I devised a simple list which allowed me to track progress without it being a chore.
Attend a beginners’ class (weekly for 10 weeks)
Complete at least one painting every week – from the class or a book
Date each painting and write 2-3 comments about technique on the back
File paintings consecutively in a portfolio
Just dating each painting proved to be an incredibly powerful tool. It allowed me to see my progress over time, which was very motivating. Committing to one painting a week, thinking about the techniques and writing a comment helped me move fast, even when the classes were over.
I was able to join an improvers’ class after a few months. Granted, many of the artists there were much more experienced, but that also spurred me to learn more and raise my game. But without my portfolio behind me, I would never have had the courage to consider that class.
But what if I don’t want to paint/write, or don’t know what to paint/write?
Painter’s block, creative block, writer’s block all yield to action. What works for me is to step away from the emotion, and simply get to work. That might mean opening a random page in a magazine and painting whatever is there. It might mean going to a writing prompt website, picking one, and writing. It might mean creating something else; a poem, a meal, a garden, an ordered and tidy room.
If I want to improve, that means practising my art, just as an athlete practises before the big game or competition. I can’t afford to do only what I want, especially when time is precious.
The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.
In other words, inspiration comes after initiation. Get warmed up, then get going.
Tracking my journey as a writer
This is very important, yet it must be simple. For writing, my 2016 list looked like this:
Attend a writing group regularly and produce work for it
Submit to at least 10 competitions
Revise my novel to make it ready for submission
Read 2-3 craft books
Write a weekly blog post NaNoWriMo
Using a standard calendar that comes with Excel, I have noted what I wrote and when. For my blog, WordPress has analytics built-in. It is surprising how motivating it is to see a run of completed boxes. I guess the whole idea of star charts is not just for kids after all. I can see which months were better for writing than others. And I can course correct when necessary, which is why NaNo dropped off the list.
Yes, I achieved those goals. Feels good, too!
Each written piece is tagged and dated, and sometime soon I will compare the first and last, the group pieces with my other work, and so on. Now it’s time to think about next year’s goals, building on this year’s successes and challenges. I might build another layer of detail into my tracking, or commit to a number of words per week. I already know that writing every day is impossible with my current commitments, (because I tried it, and failed) so a weekly target is more realistic.
That which is measured, improves. That which is measured and reported, improves exponentially. Pearson’s law
As long as we don’t spend all our time reporting instead of producing work, this could be useful. Making a beautiful map is not a substitute for making the journey.
My Very Easy Tracking Plan™ boils down to this:
Find a system that you can commit to over a long period.
Track your work, no matter how simply.
Finish your stuff.
Enjoy your achievements.*
In the end, it is producing the work and growing as a creative that matters. Not blog views, competition wins, external validation of some sort. That may come, and of course we hope it will. But the work comes first. Always.
“I never look back, darling. It distracts from the now.”
Edna Mode, The Incredibles (Pixar)
This might be a surprising admission, but The Incredibles is one of my all-time favourite films. One of Pixar’s great feats of storytelling, it layers adolescent angst, adult bullying, loss of innocence, midlife despair, betrayal and redemption, with lovely retro-inspired graphics and some great jokes. And the quote above, from the diminutive costume designer who has some of the best lines in the film. Not to mention, it foreshadows Tony Stark’s assertion that “we create our own demons” in Iron Man 3.
We are on a journey as creators, one which tries to honour the past but look forward, always moving onward, upward. We see film-makers do this all the time lately, with their re-imaginings and reboots. Can we do the same as writers? Well, I just did this very thing.
I refashioned an old story, and it came out great.
For my writers’ group anthology, I dusted off an old story that had lain half-finished in my drafts for at least nine months. (The prompt that started it was even older.) I also looked at something I wrote during my first attempt at NaNoWriMo. I sent the second off for editing, and got to work finishing the first.
My NaNo story came back with numerous comments, and really needed a complete overhaul. My other story, Out of Time, showed a curious thing, one which my editor mentioned. The old half had many changes, but the second half had very few. It was as if they had been written by different people, my editor said. I thought about this, and concluded he was right.
I changed, so my writing changed. I had improved with time and practice.
We so often fall into despair, that things are not going our way and we are, in fact, frauds, failures, talentless hacks whose output has even less merit than that of a monkey bashing away at the keyboard. This story showed me that I am getting better. The NaNo story showed me that sometimes even major surgery can’t save the patient, and I withdrew it. Chalked up to experience, it forms part of my progress, even if it is ugly and misshapen. I still learned from writing and dissecting it.
Armed with better skills, I was able to see how Out of Time needed a nip here and a tuck there, so that the old now fits seamlessly with the new. The whole is something I am proud to put my name to.
So, why not review something you wrote a while ago? Critical examination and comparison with your current work will show you how far you have come; how you know now where the weak spots are, where it could be sharpened, made better. Or maybe it is the failed experiment that is like training miles logged before a marathon. It strengthened you, but wasn’t for public consumption.
We should celebrate our journey, as much as we march onwards to better things. We need the internal validation of recognising our own progress, and to map our progress we must see the distance we have travelled. Sometimes it’s good to look back, just for a moment, until we remember Neil Gaiman’s words.
Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.