c. Elissa Field
It’s the 12th day of 2014. I’m sitting on the couch, surrounded in both directions with the binders, books, papers and plans from yesterday’s work: reviewing curriculum for the rest of the spring.
I sat down with my laptop to finish what I was working on — but first ended up re-reading comments from author Gae Polisner in response to an excerpt from my novel draft that I had posted on her Friday Feedback column. The comments from her and other readers had me re-opening the novel draft for Wake. I scanned past the excerpt I had shared, getting lost in the voice of a new piece I’d written during the holidays.
There are times in life when you are staring down the barrel of multiple to-do items. And there are times you see your life revealed with remarkable clarity.
Last Year’s January Challenge
One year ago, I was teaching writing part-time. I loved the job and the students, and it gave me time with my two sons, but it perplexes me how I kept them fed (or tuition paid at their school) with how little I was being paid. On the upside, I would drop the boys at school in the morning, come home and write for 2-3 hours, go teach for the afternoon, pick them up and come home. I finished research for Wake. I finished the novel draft and made it through first revision rounds.
I reached goals. Every single day, I faced those free hours by asking myself, “What one (or 5) thing(s) could I do right now that will make my life better tomorrow?” and I tried, every single day, to that first.
What puts my life in perfect clarity right now is that one year ago I hosted the January Challenge here to use just that kind of strategy to tackle competing goals and make real progress. (Don’t check it out now; I’ll put links at the bottom.)
One of those things that would “make my life better tomorrow” was the writing: get the novel polished enough to query by end of summer. Some of them were personal, like resolving my divorce and where the boys and I wanted to live. But one big goal was that wanted to be hired to teach full time. I love teaching in a way that is similar to my love of writing: I love the in-the-trenches intensity of it, the creativity, the constant demand for solutions, the perspective that working with middle schoolers gives me, the way both professions continually re-examine the world.
It’s interesting that New Year’s hit this year and I felt no temptation to set resolutions, because I really did follow the strategies I wrote about, and made a ton of progress last year. I had kept my novel writing goals and tripled my blog traffic. I made money off my site. I expanded my writing about education. I made progress with the family goals. And one big fat accomplishment: I was hired as a full time teacher, tripling my income from the previous year and satisfying my hunger to grow into a more challenging professional role.
The “Day Job” Challenge for Writers
I’ve written before (link below) about how most writers balance their time for writing against the demands of a day job, whatever it may be, calling it the “time-money-credit trifecta.” For anyone new to the term, it’s not a pejorative but recognition of a writer’s job other than writing. The day job could be literary agent, partner at a law firm, teacher or professor, full-time parent, journalist or night clerk at a hotel. Even the time published writers spend in lecturing or attending book signings is work that takes time away from writing.
The truth is, no matter the drive to complete a novel, it is important for writers to have an income that allows them to be housed, fed and healthy, and not worried about supporting their families. I can’t downplay how important it is to my family that I succeeded in teaching this past year, nor the opportunity for growth and “street cred” that teaching has offered my writing.
Success as Hurdle to Motivation
I sat on the cusp of 2014 completely unworried. My goals this year related to continuing in success, not creating it. Sure, I was short on time and behind my target date of getting the novel done, but I still have the coming summer. Things were going well. There were still some family goals to focus on and plenty of demands for me to address in teaching, so why worry about the writing?
Let Hunger be Your Fuel
I wonder if other writers would relate to this same moment: what made me go back to setting goals this morning was the hunger that it awoke in me, to have shared an excerpt of my novel draft with another writer and to read her feedback.
“Keep going,” Gae said at the end of her comments.
She had questioned certain things, praised others and wondered about context. I went back to the full draft and, reading my own work, heard my characters’ voices and saw things to fix. The hunger was there to get back to it. I wanted to do just what she said: keep going.
And other goals came alive, too: to follow through with the grad school applications I’d started or registration for workshops/conferences I wanted to attend. To light the fire that would keep me moving forward, not just continue.
During the school year, I focus 1,000% on my students, my sons and the amazing work being done at the genuinely fabulous school where I teach. If I stop to write, it’s often new teaching materials or an article on what went well in class. I like that I teach in a demanding environment, where it feels like competing at the Olympic level. And yes, I still work on the novel when I can. What I am experiencing now is the success I worked for last year. It’s awesome.
But current success was hiding the hunger that had compelled me to grow. I needed to re-find that hunger.
Do First the 1 Thing That Helps You Grow
The hunger this morning recognized that I have dropped my own rules for continuing to grow.
Yes, I will get back to what I need to do to continue my current success. But I need to remember not to skip that step beforehand: to do, first, one thing that will continue to move my goals forward.
Both as a teacher and as a writer, I have goals I still need to work toward. Whether it is spending an hour on the novel or finding the number of the professor I need to call for a recommendation letter for grad school or… the small steps done each day are what get us closer to reaching our goals.
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Are you looking for motivation or working on writing goals?
Does any of this ring true with you? Feel free to share your own goals, successes, or blocks in the comments below. If you wrote about a similar theme, feel free to share a link to your blog post.
I’ll re-share links to the January Challenge, below. It was a popular series, as the strategies shared are particularly helpful to writers, who are often challenged to keep motivated despite competing priorities.
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