Among friends I’m known more for my propensity for list-making and owning several large planners that I always scribble in. If you know me, you know I love a good plan and there’s a good reason for that.
At the end of August 2015, I felt exhausted, overheated, and unmoored in my life. Somehow, I was both in extraordinary motion at the tails of a move in a still unfamiliar city, a complete first novel draft and consistent freelance gigs, and not moving in any direction. The novel had fully consumed me and I had barely a few stories on submission, and even though I worked at all hours, this didn’t significantly affect my income. I was expending a lot of energy and had little to show for it. As the cliché goes, something had to change.
As a freelancer, the easiest pitfall to fall into, and the most treacherous, is to allow the days to blur into a seamless, undulating temporal serpent that gobbles you up. Blink and it’s already a different season. Without care, you might find yourself a year older without having done any living and I was freefalling at terminal velocity down this serpent’s gullet.
Thankfully, the solution manifested itself within the pages of Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife. It’s a spectacular book on negotiating writing as an art form and as a career, while in concert with a fulfilling, well-rounded life. As a book on writing, it is unusual in the sense it doesn’t teach you how to write your life’s best work, but how to lay the groundwork to reach that place.
I think I bought my copy in 2010 and since been rereading it occasionally ever since without it ever disappointing. Booklife is a wise investment for writers earning their stripes in the age of social media, where the artist has to function as media persona and the biggest champion of their own work. Sure, some sections handling specific social media platforms are a bit dated as the online landscape changes, but as whole, it holds up nicely.
In its first chapter detailing building a public life as a writer, VanderMeer states it plain as day that goals matter and not just any goals – long-term, strategic goals. ‘Think strategically, not tactically.’ These words resonated deeply and I carry their impact to this day. VanderMeer is a strong advocate for five-year plans that govern all short- and mid-term decision making. This, he argues, gives your effort a structure and focus.
Encountering this idea for the first time, I rejected it as it sounded the least creative approach to writing. But I’d grown uprooted, adrift and aimless. Hence, the five-year plan.
It’s strange putting my private vision for my future on paper. Breaking it down in bullet points detailing accomplishment and then taping it over my desk so I can glance over it as the year progresses. Whenever I had guests come over, someone stops by my desk to read and then I’d answer questions about the practice and my goals. It gets less awkward each time.
Far from glamorous, but one year into it, planning works!
For the period September 2015 – August 2016, I had eight major goals, which I then broke to their component steps (I’m intentionally vague, yes). Out of the eight, thick black lines strike through five – the most crucial ones. Had I not suffered a prolonged burnout that lasted three months, I might have achieved all, but I’m not one to linger. Fact is – I got a sense of purpose and direction, and got galvanized into doing. Creating. Living with an eye out to engage with the world outside my apartment.
Heading into the second one-year plan, I’ve a longer list with goals stretching over other life aspects I’ve control over and a better understanding of my limitations as a human. While it’s important to have a plan, it’s equally important to know when you’re setting yourself up for a grand failure by putting too much pressure on yourself. Burnouts are not fun and not healthy.
In conclusion, there’s truth in the phrase ‘as it is written, so shall it be done.’