Hello and welcome to the 100 Day Writing Challenge, Day 50.
Now I realise that technically, Day 51 is the halfway point through a 100 Day Challenge, but we started on Day 0, if you remember, the day without an exercise, so today is officially the hinge, the pivot point, the crux, fulcrum, acute angle, winch, rack and pinion, jour du change, coeur de nuit, halfway house, demi-barn, crossover shed, midnight in the garden of good and evil, regional transport hub of the course.
Every day, every moment, every word from this point onwards no longer represents a desperate trudge up the mountain but a triumphant gallop back down the other side. After today you will have more work behind you, more work banked from this course than you have left to complete. In purely teleological terms you’re merely wiping round the edge of your soup bowl with a bit of bread, mopping up the last flavoursome dribbles of literary goodness before… uh, before… before… Well. Before what?
And that’s what we’re going to talk about today. Because although I called this course the 100 Day Writing Challenge, as if it were an obstacle to be overcome, and then, well done, you’ve defeated the big pedagogical writing ogre, the village is safe, enjoy your retirement, actually I hope you’re coming to see that what we’re about here is much more than a lone victory isolated in time that you can stick on your shelf and forget about.
A lot of talk around writing, especially in ‘how to’ books or on the internet, revolves around goal-setting. What are your targets? What word counts do you want to hit? What do you want to achieve?
So here’s the thing. And you might find what I’m about to say a bit controversial, you might not agree with me, that’s fine. I’m not going to brainwash you. We can still continue this relationship if you disagree with me on this, but I just want to lay out a proposition for you based on conclusions I’ve come to after a long time thinking on this and observing it in the dozens of authors who’ve I’ve had the privilege of talking to.
Jam doesn’t exist. It’s a conspiracy. No I’m joking that’s not the controversial thing.
Goals are a poor way to motivate yourself. They generate a lot of stress, a lot of dissatisfaction where you compare how you are now to this putative future state you want to achieve. Ah, you might say, what about how when they inspire us, when we think of them and go ooooooohhh and we feel all warm and want to float towards them?
Well, even then we’re still being taken out of the pleasures available to us in the moment, our attention is being drawn away from the opportunities of the now, towards an imagined, far-off future. Actually, picturing the beautiful finished story and the benefits we might reap from having written it is likely to give you a real jolt when you come back to the blank page, or the scrappy first draft, or difficult questions about what comes next. It creates a pretty stark contrast between the cartoonish pornography of our imagined victory and the imperfect, lumpy humanity of being a writer, today, now, working on this sentence.
There’s a famous quotation commonly attributed to Dorothy Parker (although there’s no evidence she ever said it) that goes: ‘I hate writing, but I love having written.’
A lot of writers repeat words to the same effect, I think under the impression that in doing so, and in feeling that way, they’re more authentic writers. You know, like look at me, I’m having a horrible time just like everyone else.
I don’t believe I have to say this, and I think it shows how poisoned the culture around writing has become, but if you hate writing, something has gone wrong. If you love writing, it will be easier. You will do more of it. And because you do more of it, you’ll gain more experience. And because you gain more experience, your writing will be better.
If you hate writing, something has gone wrong. That is not a condition to just snowplough through. I’m having a horrible time. Well, fuck my feelings, the book comes first. How well do you think that’s going to work? Declaring war on yourself. Treating yourself like your own shitty low-paid disposable employee. Uh, excuse me, you say, I’m hating doing this.
Well, you say back, that’s because you’re an awful, lazy, wretched, incompetent person. So how about this? Do the task, and do it to an exceptional standard, otherwise you’re of no value and all your dreams will be taken away. Okay?
How does that sound even remotely like the best strategy available to us when we sit down to write?
But oh, you say, surely when I reach my goals, then I’ll find peace? Well, my response is to ask you my classic question: how’s that working out for you so far?
The instant you complete a goal, it moves into the past. You’ve trained yourself to attend to unfinished things, right? To stuff undone. Well, that becomes a habit, and the moment a goal is no longer a goal, either your motivation collapses, or your attention moves to the next one. And the pain and the dissatisfaction starts all over again.
Of course there may also be a voice inside you that says why bother. What, really, are the chances of your achieving that far-off lofty goal? And is the effort worth it? Is the gamble worth it? Because it is a gamble, right? If your focus is that end state, let’s say publication, you don’t have absolute control over that. You have some influence, sure. But there are a series of choices along the way that simply aren’t yours to make.
And I want to suggest to you that the goals we choose – and I think even a word like ‘choose’ implies too much agency a lot of the time – a lot of the goals we latch onto won’t get us the things we actually deeply need. Goals are often driven by a desire for social approval or to paper over some lack of self-acceptance deep inside. They’re finite and rigid – that in itself is going to generate a lot of anxiety.
There’s usually a lot of ‘if-then’ thinking around goals. ‘If I become a published author, then I’ll feel good about my writing.’ ‘If I write ten thousand words this week, then I’ll be able to relax.’ And that does a couple of things. One, it frames where you are now as somehow wrong, inadequate, incomplete. There’s a piece missing from your life. Something needs fixing. Two, it gives you this rigid, all-or-nothing task. One path to safety, to relief. Get the novel published. Write the ten thousand words.
Anything that threatens your achieving those goals – legitimate or not, you know, you have a cold, someone you find hugely attractive says hey do you want to come round mine for dinner, the unquiet dead rise gibbering from their graves and seek vengeance on the living. Anything that interrupts, delays or otherwise jeopardises those goals becomes a source of stress, of suffering, a trigger for thoughts about how life is unfair, and you are a bad person.
And so you mute it. Bury it. Turn away from those thoughts and the goals themselves because they make you feel like crap, right? So you just feel defeated, and bad, and you don’t write. Tell me I’m wrong.
All right Tim, I hear you cry. What’s the alternative? Let’s assume if you’re still here, listening to me hold forth on matters literary for fifty days straight, I’ve earned enough goodwill for you to at least entertain the possibility that I might have some helpful knowledge to pass on.
So I’m not going to hand down any absolutes to you today but I do have a short exercise I’m going to ask you to do which might help give you a few more options. You know, just help you step back from that cycle of chasing down goals, never feeling satisfied, avoiding work, guilt and burnout.
What we’re going to do a little work on today comes from a modality called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT. It’s well-evidenced, has plenty of research behind it, but I’m not a licensed therapist, I’m not your therapist, and what I’m doing here isn’t therapy per se, it’s just borrowing some of the framework as one way of slicing this particular pickle.
So one thing ACT does is emphasise the importance of values, over goals. Values aren’t finite, they’re not something you can achieve either, like ‘write a number one bestseller’. A value is more like a direction you travel in, like east. It’s something you move towards and never reach, or maybe it’s more like a state you embody. A value is something you can describe with verbs and adverbs – that is to say words that describe actions, and how we do those actions.
‘listening kindly’ – that could be a value. It’s not something you can complete – right, I’ve heard out a friend for five minutes, that’s me done, no more listening for me, let’s move on. It’s also something that’s sort of instantaneous. It happens in the how. Once you start doing it, you’re doing it.
I’ve also heard this summed up in the dictum ‘life is managed, not cured’. But what motivates you to manage it, what makes the management meaningful and directs the ways in which you manage it, are values.
Another way ACT describes this work is like tending a garden. There’s no absolute perfect place to start, no season that doesn’t have advantages and disadvantages, you just pick a patch of soil and get digging. You work with what you’ve got, where you are. It’s not always easy. There can be frustration in the moment, and setbacks, and distractions, and the work is neverending, but overall it offers satisfaction, because you’re choosing to participate in something that’s important to you.
I wonder, if you chose to approach your creative life like that, what it would feel like. In fact, perhaps you could take a moment to think of a time in your life when you felt really alive, really engaged. You were doing something and you might have felt excited, totally absorbed, even if the activity was difficult.
You were doing it not because you thought, maybe people will accept me if I do this. Not because you thought I should do this to prove I’m a worthwhile person. Not because you thought if I do this then sometime down the line in a month, or a year or two years from now I’ll be rewarded with money and recognition. You did it for intrinsic reasons, for the reward of the task itself.
When we set as a goal ‘finish a novel’ we place our focus on the activity’s end, rather than looking at ways we can enjoy and appreciate it while its still around. One of my favourite bits in The Honours is when Miss DeGroot says of Delphine’s father ‘He’s sulking because he’s realised his painting doesn’t need him anymore.’ Once the story’s done, you can’t play in that world anymore. It’s nice you’ve completed it, like a jigsaw, or like seeing your child through their teenage years and waving them off at university, but my goodness. To wake up every morning and make those things your goal. Rather than ‘playing without rush’ or ‘loving bravely and wholeheartedly’.
Even the most prolific literary career offers just a handful of ‘novel finished’ moments compared to a long, long life spent writing. So I ask you again. What do you value?
This is what I’d like you to spend the next ten minutes reflecting on, please. Here are some questions I’d like you to consider as you write your thoughts. What’s really important to you, in your writing? What actions would you want your creative life to embody, if it was going to feel meaningful, and fulfilling? Think about those verbs and adverbs, those values you can’t finish, but that exist as a compass point. Qualities you can step into, almost immediately.
What happens when your creative work manifests those qualities? What happens when it doesn’t? If your creative life and your writing were a journey based on values instead of goals, what would it look like? What might it feel like?
That’s it. You’ve got ten minutes to journal on this subject. Good luck.
And that’s it. That’s time. I don’t have anything to add today except that you might like, at some point, to read back through what you’ve written today, to reflect on it, to see if it feels true to you. It’s just something to consider.
Ok. Thank you for your work and commitment. I’ll see you tomorrow.