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.