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No Sure Things
Living with the uncertainty of writing
Happy New Year!
Today’s the day that a lot of us are getting back to a post-holiday normal, whether you’re going to leave your lights up until spring (like me) or you’ve already stored the decorations, recycled the cards, and tossed the leftovers.
I’ve always liked the symbolism of the change of the calendar, the metaphor of a clean slate, even while I know I’m not a different person than I was last week and that I can’t erase the effects of whatever I did or didn’t do last year.
I like daydreaming and journaling about my hopes for the future. I like setting intentions. I like setting goals.
Melody Beattie writes:
Goals give us direction. They put a powerful force into play on a universal, conscious, and subconscious level. … Remember, we aren’t controlling others with our goals—we are trying to give direction to our life.
This is a time of year I like to think about the direction I’m heading in, and if I need to change course to wind up where I want to be. I usually do!
Some of the goals I set have to do with my writing life and writing career, but the tricky, sticky truth of all that is there are no sure things when it comes to writing.
By now, you probably know that’s true about the publishing business. But it’s also true about the creative process itself. I’ve got over 80,000 words of something I worked on a couple of years ago thinking it would be a novel. It isn’t. Not yet. I’ve got a mass of notes on another project that I haven’t even started to put together yet because I don’t feel sure I have the skill to finish it. I invested a lot of time last year in things that turned out to be…not things.
I have goals for 2023 about what and how to write, but I have no idea what the outcomes will be or if I’ll even arrive at any outcomes at all.
I keep thinking about this article from J.P. Brammer, in which he answers a reader's question about burnout. Especially this:
What do you want art to give you? Do you want art to be your full-time job? Do you want people to appreciate your art? Do you want to feel the catharsis of expressing yourself with your art? Don’t think about the book you haven’t written or the drawing you haven’t sketched out. Think about what role you want art to play in your daily life. It will help determine what kind of artist you are.
These questions—what I want writing to give me, what role I want it to have in my life—are powerfully reframing when I get caught up worrying about the uncertainty of outcomes.
Of course, if the answer to “do you want it to be your full-time job” is yes, then there are other questions and concerns to deal with, and outcomes that matter. But we’ll always hit that bottom-line truth of not being able to control others—not how they receive our work, not how much money they might give us for it, not if they’ll talk about it on TikTok, not if an awards panel will like it, not if anyone will like it.
There are very few sure things.
One sure thing is that if we don’t show up to do the work, if we don’t care, there’s not even a chance anyone else will.
Back in November, I watched Stutz on Netflix and enjoyed it for a lot of reasons. It’s Jonah Hill’s documentary about his therapy and therapist, and one of the many things I jotted down while watching (and didn’t have to, because it’s all pretty much here) was this:
Pain, uncertainty, and constant work. These are the realities we all live with, saith Stutz, and if we can radically accept this reality, we may have a chance at moving forward and enjoying the process. I’ve experienced what happens and how I feel when I fight against those realities, and accepting them certainly can’t be any worse!
What if you could embrace the uncertainty of the writing process? What if you could think less about controlling it (and its outcomes) and think more about the role it plays in your life and what you want it to give you?
If “what you want it to give you” includes any version of security and comfort, fame or success, what if you could let it off the hook for that?
What if you could embrace uncertainty as a source of inspiration and growth? An opportunity to try new approaches, break out of a creative rut, and avoid stagnation?
Accepting uncertainty isn’t incongruous with setting goals, and doesn’t mean we abandon them and wander directionless. It means being flexible, willing to pivot as necessary, and not being attached to a category of outcomes that is out of our hands.
Current Stuff I Like
Nina LaCour’s Yerba Buena. I’m halfway through, and already wish I had ten more books like it to sink into when I’m done. It also happens to be the first physical book I’ve read in a while, and it feels good!
Detectorists season 3. We discovered this when season 1 was new in 2014, watched season 2, and somehow did not realize until last week that there was a season 3 back in 2017! I didn’t think it could get better, but the third season did. If you need something gentle and perfect, check it out. (There’s also apparently a Christmas special that’s a bit hard to find.)
Unmask Alice: LSD, Satanic Panic, and the Imposter Behind the World’s Most Notorious Diaries by Rick Emerson. This is an engagingly pulpy, tabloidy look at a pulpy, tabloidy writer (Beatrice Sparks, of Go Ask Alice infamy) and a whole bunch of other stuff particularly relevant to my generation. (And unexpectedly relevant to being in Utah.)
This Creative Life is a book, a newsletter, and a podcast from me, Sara Zarr, about reading between the lines of a writing life. The newsletter and podcast are free; buying the book (and leaving a great review!) helps support them and me. Sharing the newsletter is a big help, too!