Confession: I am a list person. A writer of goals. A keeper of resolutions. I have monthly and yearly plans that relate to my writing life, lists of personal achievement for each New Year, and a catalogue of intentions whose number matches each birthday—which is getting unwieldy as the odometer ticks on. I am positively swimming in ideas for upward progression at all times.
When I share this, some people cringe or blush with guilt, like they should have this same disorder as I do. Or they think I might judge them for not being as motivated. For what it’s worth, it’s just the way I live my life. Although, it does puzzle me when people can’t whip out a list of goals at any given moment—aren’t they obsessively thinking about their future like I do? (Gasp!) How will they know if they’re achieving what they want in life? How will they measure personal growth and success from year to year? Or know that they’re on the right track?
I had coffee with a colleague this week; because it’s the new year and her review is coming up, we were talking about goals. I teasingly said, “So, what do you want to do with your life?” It’s a ridiculously big question that, thankfully, people usually stop asking us after a certain point, but she is 31 and it’s fun to live vicariously through her. She laughed and threw up her hands, saying:
“I know I should have some sort of answer, but can’t life just be… like, being happy?”
Zing! I laughed, too. She looked flustered as she listed all the things that were pretty great about her life: she likes her job and her coworkers, she’s happily married, she has good friends and likes her apartment, although they’d like to buy a house some day, and she gets to travel. Does she need to “achieve” anything else right now? It’s a good question that I’ve been contemplating since.
I coasted into the end of 2017 on fumes. It was a huge year personally and professionally with overflowing busy-ness in work pressure, volume and travel, marriage and home buying, getting out of a lease with difficult landlords, and navigating a new neighborhood, routine and life. Aside from periodic stress and anxiety, most of my experiences were positive, yet collectively, it was a lot to handle. On New Year’s this year, I had to ask myself: do I want to make yet another list?
The answer was, shockingly, NO. For the first time since I started making lists—which was when I learned to write—I didn’t want to make a list. I barely recognized myself.
Lists have helped me immensely over the years. Every time I look back on an old list, I feel a thrill thinking of the fun and challenging tasks I set forth for myself (yes, I save my lists.) Reading each item reminds me of what I was doing at the time: the year I began practicing yoga or the year I walked a half-marathon or the year I climbed to the top of the REI climbing rock and rang the little bell. The year I traveled alone for the first time or the year I studied Italian. The year I took sewing lessons, the year I wrote fifteen essays and stories, the year I applied to and got into Tin House, the year I gave up television just to see if I could do it. This past New Year’s Eve, I realized that what I want most out of 2018 is the space to do what is really important, and for that, I don’t need a list.
At the end of 2017, I started writing a novel. I had been nervous about putting my eggs all in one creative basket, but I’ve quickly realized that, if I am to achieve this goal—write a full rough draft of a novel by the end of 2018—then I must clear away other initiatives to make space.
If opportunities arise that don’t align with this goal, then I will decline them. This will be difficult. I am not a person who enjoys saying no (read: FOMO) and I hate disappointing people. I want to help. I want experiences. I want to try things I’ve never done before, and I like to think I can do everything. It’s only a matter of scheduling, I tell myself, as I shoehorn just one more thing into my weekly lists of things to do. I’ve spread myself thin at work and at home by saying yes to everyone and everything.
Like giving up television (which I did not return to), I might discover that all of those random yesses were actually distractions. Where it felt like I was achieving things, I was dividing my energies in order to tick boxes. Maybe all those lists were an illusion of progress to some degree rather than progress itself. Did I really need to do everything that was on my “39 and 39” list that year? Because it’s never just a list. It’s a compulsive feeling of “should,” even with the fun things. An unchecked line item from last year’s list—Try snowshoeing—which I haven’t yet done is driving me crazy, which is crazy. In what universe does it matter if I have tried snowshoeing? Am I lesser person for it? What does trying snowshoeing have to do with my life in the grand scheme?
I was in Los Angeles for the turn of the New Year, which meant that I got a beach walk each morning. On New Year’s Day, with the fog just lifting, the beach was quiet, cool and unpopulated. Looking down from the strand sidewalk, I was met with a striking visual: an expanse of soft brown sand, the flat blue-green ocean and a grey-white bank of clouds that kissed the water and ran endlessly upwards. Big bands of space atop each other, making one. As the sun peeked out from behind the mist, I felt my heart beating pleasantly, the ocean spray on my makeup-less face and the lack of any agenda for the day. My god, there was such power in knowing that I didn’t have to do anything. No meetings. No deadlines. No lists. Two words floated into my vision in white capital letters: MAKE SPACE. Saying them in my mind felt like a deep inhale and exhale. So, that’s what I am going to do this year.
Most mornings, I wake up at 5 am either to exercise or write. On the days that I write for an hour before work, I find myself happily plugging along. The old me would be stressing over finishing pieces, editing pieces, numbering the pieces—Have I written what I said I was going to write this month?! The 2018-me thinks it’s more important to show up every day and just write. Sometimes writing means research or noodling, although most of the time it does mean adding new words to the page. I’m averaging 500 words a day, but the point is not word count, it’s showing up to practice. Writing this way—with patient persistence—feels like yoga, where the most important part is simply showing up to the mat, not striking the perfect pose. Words are like breath and, as one yoga teacher said last year, if you haven’t lost the breath, you haven’t lost anything. Wobbling need not be a distraction, nor does falling deter from or become the point.
From my existing lists, I will do what furthers the central goal of writing a novel: I will go to Breadloaf Sicily (YEAH!!) to workshop it; I will (hopefully) travel north from Sicily to Venice to conduct on-site research; I will dust off my Italian which I am using in the novel. But, mainly, I will (as The Rumpus says) write like a motherfucker. I won’t worry about volume, I will focus on the quality of the prose. I will stop counting, period, and let myself melt into this one single thing without judging or measuring it. I will make sure that my body gets to move a little every day so as to make space within my mind for new thoughts. I will read for pleasure, rather than count, to inspire and open my thoughts.
I’m beginning to see how it might be possible to have direction and purpose without fragmenting oneself into a 50-item list. Or, perhaps making space means arranging priorities so that the most important one remains, always, on top.