For writers, the new year often ushers in a barrage of self-imposed writing plans ranging from the hyper-specific (“I’ll write 2000 words a day from 4-6 AM using only a quill and parchment while facing east and burning jasmine incense and sipping Kona coffee pressed with one finger of steamed skim milk…”) to the supremely ill-defined (“Uh, Imma get me a book deal”), all lumped under the banner of New Year’s Resolutions. Cue the trumpets!
Writing-specific resolutions, when realistic and manageable, can be great motivators. But because publication can be such a long and challenging process (for aspiring writers as well as those already published), fraught with uncertainty and disappointment and emo-coasterness, big resolutions can quickly become debilitating.
The moment we show up at the computer (or parchment, if you’re that guy at the party), even before we complete that first scene, our peanut gallery brains start with the running commentary:
Who are you kidding? This is the worst idea ever. No one is going to read it. And even if they do, it doesn’t matter, because you’re never going to finish. And even if you do, how are you going to find an agent or publisher? You’re not good enough to stand out against the competition. And even if you are, what’s the point? It’s not like you’re going to get a good advance or anything. And even if you did, you wouldn’t get another one after that, because your reviews are going to suck and sales are going to suck and you’ll be blacklisted by the publishing cabal and forced to burn all those unsold copies just to stay warm in your little hovel because you stupidly quit your day job thinking you could write when you clearly can’t and now you’ll probably starve…
Our frail human egos are easily crushed, and so we’re all, “yeah, you’re right. I guess I’ll go watch Cupcake Wars and forget about this crazy writing idea.”
I’ve gone toe to toe with the peanut gallery. Like, as recently as last night. And that’s why I don’t like making traditional “resolutions” (unless they involve eating cupcakes). They’re simply too big by nature, with too many opportunities for criticism and defeat. In the face of such mounting challenges, it’s easy to overwhelm ourselves into a state of complete inertia.
Speaking of which…
*Begin long-winded metaphor here*
Just Make the Bed
Shortly after the turn of the millennium (now that makes me sound old!), I was going through a major change, accompanied—as major changes often are—by upheaval, uncertainty, and fear. Everyone around me knew that I wasn’t handling things in a positive way, but I was so busy assuring them (and myself) that things were going “according to plan” that I didn’t realize that A) there was no plan anywhere in sight, and B) even if someone had given me a plan, in triplicate, I would’ve lost all three copies, and C) denial is an addictive and readily available—yet ultimately ineffective—medicine.
Denial only lasts for so long. And when the haze wore off, I finally noticed that everything was a mess, inside and out. Instead of trying to address the issues and do something about them, I saw them all at once as one ginormously insurmountable disaster. I became completely immobilized. I seriously couldn’t even clean my tiny bedroom.
Exhibits A and B:
No, this was not move-in day. This was like, 3 months after move-in day, still untouched. And yes, the stereo has probably been on the entire time because I couldn’t find the plug or reach the buttons. And yes, those are baskets full of… other baskets. What else would they be?
And below, yes, that is part of an un-walled living room in the background. You’d be amazed at what passes for a “2 bedroom apartment” in New York.
Even Curious George, who’d grown quite curious indeed as to the state of things, crawled out of the rubble and passed out on a pillow near the headboard, his hands and feel curled in defeat like so many dead things that probably lurked undetected under that very bed.
I was just one more basket full of basket-filled baskets away from my own episode of Hoarders: Buried Alive. I needed major help. Like a house elf. Or Pet Monster (who was only just my boyfriend then, and who had pretty much no idea what he was signing up for with me, poor little monster). Dobby wasn’t available, so Pet Monster came over in his stead, surveyed the mess, and formulated a Grand Master Plan (not to be confused with his Funkmaster Plan, which can’t really fix a messy bedroom or neglected finances, but does involve some pretty sweet dance moves).
“Just make the bed,” he said. “That’s all you have to do right now.”
My first response came with its usual melodrama: whining and naysaying, thrashing about, a rather unsubtle rolling of the eyes. “But everything is such a mess. I can’t even—”
“Just make the bed.” He repeated it about ten times, never losing patience. By the eleventh time, I think I was full-blown crying. Then Pet Monster, who probably wanted to smack me in the mouth with the stuffed monkey, took my hand and led me over to the bed to start the process (one of us more grudgingly than the other, not naming names, but her initials are ME). Together, we cleared off the mess, tightened up the sheets, tucked everything in, smoothed out the comforter, and neatly arranged the pillows and poor Curious George, who got a good dusting and some CPR and still looked a bit weary from his ordeal.
We took a step back. The bed was made. It looked nice. Homey. My heart warmed a little (not enough to inspire me to take a picture of the clean version of things. I mean, the internet barely existed back then, and I had a… are you ready for this? A film camera! Clearly I didn’t foresee needing so much photographic evidence to help me carry this giant-stretch-of-a-metaphor ten years later). Suddenly, after completing that one little task, the insurmountable mess didn’t seem so daunting. I relaxed. Took a few deep breaths. Stopped complaining (out loud, anyway).
Then Pet Monster said, “Now all we have to do is unpack that one box. That’s it. One box.” Thirty boxes is impossible, but one box isn’t, I reasoned. I could handle it. After all, I’d just made the bed—a feat only moments earlier I didn’t think I could achieve. So we unpacked the one box, putting everything in its right place. And then tackled another box. And another. Then I folded laundry. Arranged my bookshelves. Dusted. Swept. Filed files. And eventually, what was once an uninhabitable disaster area transformed into a bedroom again.
Not too long after that, I started putting the rest of my life back together, too, one manageable step at a time. Pet Monster stood by my side through it all, reminding me to “just make the bed” whenever I started getting myself all worked up and overwhelmed, and eventually he married me, despite my tendency toward melodrama and my inability to properly clean my room and my special obsession with long-winded metaphoric blog posts. But neither of us ever forgot that day, that one seemingly small moment that became such a turning point in my life—something I would grow to look back on in the face of any challenge: writing, publishing, or otherwise.
One Writers’ Resolution To Rule Them All: Make the Freaking Bed
The journey to publication (and what comes after) is long and fraught with many stresses. Depending on how far we want to push this messy bedroom metaphor thing, one could say the path is littered with half-unpacked boxes, mateless socks, baskets upon baskets of yet more baskets, rabid dust bunnies and the confused stuffed monkeys desperate to escape them… (I think authors are the monkeys in this scenario, and Goodreads has some connection to the baskets, but beyond that, it kind of breaks down into something much less discernible…)
The point is, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, to fret about the what-ifs of what may or may not lie ahead and to give up—sometimes before we’ve finished our first novels or even the first chapters. But of all the crazy ups and downs, book trends and new formats, publishing industry turnover, blog posts and articles and Tweets lamenting the end of reading as we know it, confusing or infuriating reviews, competition for agents and shelf space, celebrity book deals, only one thing is certain in this business: You can do your best work and still, you might not find an agent / get published / create an ebook / become a best seller / insert your big writing resolution dream thingy here. But if you don’t write that first sentence, if you don’t finish that book, you definitely won’t ever find an agent or achieve any of those other dreams.
As you face the challenges of a new year, whenever you sit down to type that first sentence, or that last sentence on your work-in-progress, or that query letter, or that proposal, or that marketing plan, remember: In that moment, that’s your bed. And making it is all you need to worry about. You’re writing one sentence or one scene, not a book. You’re writing a query letter, not obsessing about whether you’ll ever find an agent or a publisher. You’re brainstorming a new idea, not making yourself sick over how the best seller lists work or who got a movie deal or how many one- or five-star reviews you’ll get (there will be a time when those are your beds, and then you’ll be fretting so hardcore about how to stop fretting over such things that you’ll work yourself up into a nervous breakdown from which only copious amounts of chocolate cupcakey goodness can save you… *looks at self pointedly*).
So writers, please forget about the sweeping resolutions this year. All you have to do is walk over to your bed. Tighten the sheets. Pull up the comforter. Arrange the pillows and stuffed animals. And take a deep breath. You’re fine. You can do this.
I can’t write without two fingers of steamed milk, myself… 😉
Great post. I am so there.
Great post! I’d like to add that it’s easier to help make beds that don’t belong to you, but that’s just a distraction that keeps you from tackling your own. Wait, what? :p
This.is.awesome.! And just what I needed!
Excellent post. I was just getting myself all worked up over my resolution to finish my novel. I said, “Self, we need a plan of attack. 1000 words a day!! NO exceptions! I’m only a month or so away from finishing the first draft if I do that!” And Self said, “But what about when you’re tired and mentally drained from writing and editing all day at work? How are you going to tackle THAT problem hmm?” And then the cycling you mentioned above commenced. Ha.
Just make the bed is going to be my new mantra.
Sarah this was beautiful. Simply beautiful. I loved your long-winded metaphor and I’d go so far as to say it works not just for writing but for all of life; but then again I’m not a writer myself. Thanks for sharing.
So true. Thanks for this post, I really needed it right now.
Just wrote the words “Just Make the Bed” in big, bright letters on the whiteboard in my office. And there they will stay. Thank you for this Sarah! Awesome post and brilliant long-winded metaphor!
The timing of this post couldn’t have been better. I’ve been stressing about my writing and life in general (this includes my own very messy bedroom). But yes. I’ll stop, take a deep breath, and then I’ll go and make the bed.
I ❤ you Sarah!
I’ve been dithering about whether to make any big writing resolutions this year (having failed most of last year’s spectacularly). This post helped me make up my mind, thank you!
Thanks for your open, insightful post. As usual, you are right-on with your advice. Quick question though. What do I do if I actually like to write while I’m in bed?
Thanks for thi spost. My life is in one of those upheavals, and my writing is getting lost somehow. This helped me realize that I need to make sure I just focus on the writing part right now.
I love this. And I needed this. Thanks, Sarah!
Right on, write on! Great post.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
If anyone is tempted by an entire website dedicated to slowly getting this philosophy into your head, try flylady.net. After several years, I’m still not entirely sure how helpful it is being nagged via email several times daily about making my bed and decluttering but it does start a slow creep at changing your thinking patterns away from procrastinating. Having said that, several years in, my room is currently still a total and utter tip (albeit with the bed made. Kinda.) ;o)
This is exactly what my mom says about cleaning, too – and I never thought to apply it to writing! Great post!
Love this post! You are made of awesome, Oh Sarah!
My mother, in desperation, made up the story of “The Little Girl Who Never Cleaned Up Her (*!@?#) Toys” when I was very young. (Ok, I added the part in parentheses. I can imagine she added it in her head too.) It taught essentially this same lesson. I am now 26, and I re-tell myself this story every. single, time. that I clean up anything.
Also, dibs on adapting that story into a book. It will sell millions. Zillions, even. Guess I should go make that bed, huh?
Love this! What an awesome Pet Monster you have. 😉 Thanks so much for giving me a big fat dose of inspiration today.
Reblogged this on Sneaking into Mr. McGregor's Garden and commented:
Wow. Sarah, this was exactly what I needed. Not five minutes ago, I was writing a post detailing my intimidation of the writing world and how I’ll never be good enough, blah, blah, blah. I realized what I was writing was ridiculous, so I cancelled it and started reading through blogs that I am following. I found this one, read it, and felt my moment of panic disappear as I realized I just needed to make my bed. Thank you, again.
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Thank you. I work in another creative industry, but one with much the same issues as yours. My personal/home life is just as chaotic as yours was. And I am overwhelmed at present with both and feel like I am a rabbit caught in the proverbial headlights. I can’t move, I can’t breathe, I can’t create. Your post resonated at many levels and has inspired me to get moving and make my own bed.
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Thanks for this. I feel inspired. 🙂