Happiness

31 days: Writing Goals, how to achieve them & what if you don’t

This series of articles running through January will explore ways of keeping our head above water in physical, mental, emotional and creative areas. There will be creative challenges, competitions and giveaways. For the full background see here.

To receive all the 31 posts, sign up for email notification on the sidebar. On twitter it’s at @31HAW or @alisonwells. Hashtag  #31haw and #headabovewater.

Aims and intentions – direction but not dictatorship.

There are many blogposts across the internet about setting goals this January but the emphasis I want to put on this post is yes, on achieving goals but not beating yourself up in the process! Speaking from experience I know how we can scupper ourselves by getting frantic, confused and guilty so this is what I’ve done that helps me.

1: Write a desire manifesto
Write what you want to do/achieve most of all. Under that write your lesser aims. You will know what’s most important to you and what you need to put ahead of everything else.

2: Be optimistic

There is tremendous energy in intention itself. I talk about intention in this post and how Orna Ross says that aims are not about ‘should’ but come from a more positive position. So set out what you would love to achieve in the coming months. We want to give ourselves parameters within which we can organise our life, we’re not talking sticks and sadness. We want to get away from a vague sense of dissatisfaction and see what kinds of activities and achievements will give us energy and makes us happier. At this stage jot down your wildest dreams.

3: Be realistic and specific

We’ve all heard about making aims SMART, specific, measurable, achieveable, realistic and timebound. Again, we need to set the parameters. It would be marvellous if we could write 3 novels in a month but it probably won’t happen. Subject your wildest dreams and aims to a reality test. Could you finish your novel draft by next month? Do you hope to start your next project by March. Do you need to fit in smaller projects along the way? Can you assign specific time slots to these?

Note: This is not set in stone! Your projects will take longer or less time than you think, family issues will occur. You DO NOT NEED TO FEEL YOU HAVE FAILED OR SHOULD BE GUILTY. So what if you’re 20 years too late to be considered for the 30 under 30 prize, is that really what you wanted anyway? And what would you be happy with instead?

4: Keep a ‘to do’ journal and track progress and achievement (this is magic!)

Get an A4 book into which you write your monthly, weekly and daily aims. Each day or week tick off what you’ve done (a big enthusiastic tick). If something is left undone add it in to the following week. Periodically (monthly, quarterly) write a list of achievements such as submissions made or pieces accepted, words written, ideas gathered. (There’s more on this below!)

What I find so good about this practice is that it gets everything out of my head, my to do list is not circulating in my mind and causing anxiety, I can clearly see what I want to do, what I have done and what I need to do to finish what I set out to do.

3: Regig your schedule regularly.

Based on the information you discover see where you need to add effort, prioritize or take away goals altogether. Again this is a rational and clever thing to do. There is no shame in not achieving everything. (Even superheroes have to send their costumes to the dry cleaners every so often!)

4: Set both tiny goals and marvellous ones

If you set tiny goals you can build on them. If you aim to write 500 words a day you will energise yourself by your success rather than disheartening yourself by your aim to do 2000. The energy of your achievement and it’s confidence will make it more likely that you can achieve 2000 words. Didn’t you know you had wings and could fly?

But equally big goals like the 50,000 word writing challenge Nanowrimo can work. If you see yourself by steady progression scaling the heights of such a challenge (through effort and camaraderie) you will forever know what you are capable of and that is a certainty that cannot be taken away from you.

5: Write an achievement manifesto

When I arrive at the pages where I write my quarterly summary of successes I am always surprised. It’s so easy to forget what you have achieved, even if it’s something quite significant. We often have a tendency to underplay success and focus on what we haven’t done yet. So writing down what we have achieved from solving family squabbles to winning the local poetry competition to writing your first flash fiction to winning the Booker prize is very important. We can take some time to see how these achievements reflect what we set out to do or whether some of the things we did took us in new directions that turned out to be rather wonderful. You can even go a bit crazy and write compliments to yourself on this page. I’ll be talking about Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques to help stop negative thoughts more fully in a future post and the positive feedback we can give ourselves in this achievement manifesto is an important part of that. This is our feelgood CV, imagine listing your achievements for a job, you can make yourself sound very impressive!

And what if you don’t succeed?

Psychology and Weiner’s attribution theory tells us that we attribute our own success to our efforts and other people’s success to luck. Failure works round the other way. I’m not so sure that those of us who feel responsible for everything, don’t attribute our success to chance and our failure to ourselves. There are those of us who set such high standards that we are bound to fail.

In the modern day though we have this impression that everyone can succeed if they just try. There is truth to the idea that if we start off more optimistic we’ll be more alert to opportunities and we’ll try things, whether it’s enter competitions or self-publish, become entrepreneurs or apply for a job that’s a little too far out of our reach (or is it?) It’s also true however that even if we’ve written a brilliant book for example or have been writing solidly for 20 years, there is a chance we’ll be unlucky and just won’t make it or perhaps we’re not as good as we hoped.

BE CLEVER!

If we are not getting where we want to we might need to get some constructive criticism. We might have to decide whether the love of writing is enough beyond financial success. We might take joy from other aspects of our lives that can make a rich cloth in its entirety. We can hope for posthumous fame. We need to figure out what aspects of life make it just good enough, what small pleasures add up into a satisfying whole. There has to be balance between making our goals and dreams strong enough and big enough to make us work hard & commit to our own success and also realising that to make one ambition the be all and end all is to set ourselves up for misery.

YOU HAVE NOT FAILED!

We need to become good not beating ourselves up about not meeting targets. We need to be clever and reassess, not take it as failure.

What do you think, is there a way to maintain our optimism and intention while not beating ourselves up for the things we don’t manage to do?

Writing and Guilt

These days we call upon ourselves to be everything in perfection. In the wider world success and fame are seen to be a criterion for happiness. In all aspects of our existence, health, parenting, relationships, careers we have been assaulted by a multitude of ‘shoulds’. These have been substituted for common sense and instinct. Even if we are self-assured and confident people we still find ourselves,  through out networks, in contact with, aware of, and affected by the social norms and influences that run through the networks.

The voice of commonsense, of our mother’s perhaps (who we don’t want to listen to always) would tell us that we can’t do it all. We can’t blog, write an enormous amount of words a day, build our platform, take part in online writing communities, do reviews, interviews, take proper care of our loved ones, our children, hold down, perhaps, another job, keep the house clean, get a publishing deal and appear beautifully pristine in the local paper on the day of our launch, keep our partner, happy, ‘satisfied’, keep in regular contact with all our friends, keep fit, slim and win a Booker.

I often, in the social media channels see people apologising for not getting back to others, not doing #followfriday (where you recommend, on Twitter, good people to follow), not having a #fridayflash. I myself apologise for not getting back to people quickly, not doing a review I promised to do. I spend quite a bit of time thinking where I think I should have got to by now and getting annoyed with myself that I haven’t yet done what I hoped to do.

All this guilt. Sapping the energy out of our lives and our projects. Never mindfully living, concentrating on the experience or enjoyment of what we are doing at a particular moment.

It’s almost September. For many of us with children, it has a New Year feel about it. We want to organise and orient ourselves. Our lives feel cluttered. We can become overwhelmed and half-hearted about our lives and our writing. We can feel that we are not giving enough to either, that we are letting ourselves down in both spheres.For me, I’m pretty sure that the niggling feelings of guilt lead to LESS productivity, MORE stress and LESS satisfaction with life and my interactions and relationships with others.

In terms of writing, feelings of guilt may come from others if they do not appreciate the time spent on a ‘hobby’. We might feel guilty about taking time to do the thing we love when there are so many other pulls. Guilt might become a vicious cycle. We might try to write but it may take longer than we are happy with because we are not able to concentrate properly, because all the shoulds about where we should be now with our novel, what sort of book we should be writing, what we should be doing instead of this etc etc etc sap our energy and distract us from pure imagination and the joy of creating.

These are the ways that I am trying to move away from guilt both in writing and in life.

Give myself credit: Document each day what tasks, writing and otherwise I have accomplished, reflect on the pleasant activities or interactions I have had with family and friends. For writing specifically, review a monthly list of everything I have achieved in that time.

Outline my intentions: In a previous post I mentioned intention journaling, a method used by StudioMothers.com founder Miranda Hershey. She writes down every morning what she would like to achieve for the day. Writing them down clears our heads of our to do lists and allows us to check against them at the end. If short of time we can just jot down a short list in a diary and come back to it at the end of the day.

Outline small achieveable specific goals and check progress against them: This may be a daily wordcount that is highly achieveable (we can extend it more at a later point if we want). Realising that we have written 500 words a day, every day for the last month will show us that we are progressing.

Take breaks: We all have our own rhythms and after 40 mins on a particular task we begin to flag. It’s okay to take a break or to write in short bursts and the goals help us to do this because then we can work towards the goal and not just spend hours gluing ourselves to our writing chair hardly producing anything and feeling that we have ‘writer’s block’. Cut out distractions and stick with it but if you are overtired and it’s not working, go do one of the other tasks in your life, like sock pairing. Surely it’s time you spend some time on that!

Keep an eye on balance: Think about what you want in your life as well as writing.Good relationships, social outings, days out with family rest. Keep an eye on physical factors which hugely affect mood and energy, rest, good food, exercise. If some areas are flagging then make just take time to text, email or phone friends, have a regular family day out, take a daily walk, buy some delicious fresh fruit or ingredients for a delicious, healthy meal.

Kill two birds with one stone

The delicious meal can be prepared with your children, as a fun activiity, or you could do a writing course or visit an interesting venue with a friend.  Use your writing twice, exercise & find writing ideas as you walk.

Turn it all off

Sometimes it’s time to rest, to have fun, to turn off the computer, to go out of the house, to pick fruit, to mess about with boats or in the garden. You should not be writing your novel, you should not be keeping up to date with the forums or researching publishers, you should be out in the world living, filling up your energy and happiness for all your future endeavours, enjoying yourself just for sake of it.

Are you making plans to take the guilt out of your life and to organise yourself. Are there any things that you want to share that have worked for you?

#FridayFlash Ten Woebegones lie sleeping

This is my first #Fridayflash fiction. The Woebegone is a creature from my novel-in-progress Housewife with a Half-Life. This is a newly written spin-off. Enjoy!

Although they were quite commonly known in the alternates; it was many years before I came across a Woebegone. They were – as most things are in this cobbled together double helix DNA system we call life – paradoxical creatures. They looked as dumb as mumbo jumbo. They were lumbering, juddering creatures with great jowls and jelly legs. In manner they were as slow as the mud-stuck passage from the thick primordial soup, the swamp of not knowing. They were also possessed of a brain the size of a dinosaur – the proverbial pea – but for reasons still not uncovered (and we shall get to that later) they had a supercharged intelligence, a tightly wound coil of premium gold plated synapses that were said to be able to do any job under any circumstances. Woebegones were said to be the fount of all knowledge.

Founts they may have been purported to be but there was nothing springy or gushy about them. They sat Buddha-like in knolls or on sand dunes amidst the marram grass watching the sea rolling to its inevitable end.

It was in one of those places I found my Woebegone; back in the Middle Ages. There were nine other Woebegones laid down nearby like beached whales, snoozing in the weak sun. I sat down beside him – my long legs bent almost up to my chin, my steel toe caps disappearing into the sand – looking at the wide beach with sand like snow, the wide horizon, the grey sea, the seabirds brushstroked into the altitudes. The air was bright and briny, it settled on my lungs with a seaweed nonchalance. I breathed again. In. ‘What’s it all about then?’ Out.

They were Slow Thinkers. I left him there and went about my business for a human life span or several. It was a coincidence that I just happened to be in the area when I met up with him again eons later. By then the Woebegones were causing more of a furore. There was something of an epidemic of existential itchiness going about at that time and the usual quacks and charlatans were on the loose trying to fix on money spinning solutions. Now that the Worlds Wide Web had been woven so thickly by spider neurotics, the whole intellectual endeavour thing had become, shall we say Parasitic. The forums and message boards were infested with Threadworms searching for the Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth. The Woebegones – having once been a vague curiosity, had begun to receive, shall we say, focussed attention.

The Woebegone was still unperturbed. Well, it’s difficult to tell, but that was the sense I got. We sat in companionable silence once more and looked out at the landscape, quite different now that the sea had dried up and the reclaimed area had been developed into a theme park. The Theme was ‘A million kinds of pasta from around the alternates.’

I guess I wasn’t expecting anything from the Woebegone. He’s like your old granddad sitting in his comfy armchair making the odd pronouncement into moments of musty tranquillity. I was just chilled out, looking at the theme park, thinking about change and entropy, descending chaos or obfuscated order. Then he said:  ‘Nostalgia, Melancholy and Wurble* – That’s what it’s all about.’

I was flummoxed for a moment. It had been some time.

‘But that’s all about sadness.’ I said. ‘Past, present and future.’

He was a Woebegone, what did I expect? But I still had to ask. ‘Where’s the happiness?’ I said. The question made me wurble. It made me look into my uncertain and rapidly decreasing future. I would probably be dead by the time he answered. I looked at him, a slab of sedentary serenity. He wouldn’t budge if I kicked him, he wouldn’t notice. Besides; he was asleep like the other nine. And snoring.

I was never a bounty hunter. But these things sometimes just happen. Sometimes the things that are under our noses are never obvious and although I couldn’t understand it, none of the pseudo scientists seemed to be able to locate the Woebegone. I didn’t think I was the sort for revenge but I guess I felt existentially aggrieved, although it may just have been something in the water. Ironically by the time I divulged his location for a large sum of disposable cash I had figured out where the happiness was.

As it turned out, they never got to the bottom of him. They were going on the scientific evidence that parts of the body have their own internal memory and they were pretty clued in on brain mapping but they couldn’t find the answers they were looking for. He just had too many layers, of skin, of blubber, of sinew, tissue, nerve, synapse, cell and enzyme. They should have just let him be. I should have left him sleeping with the nine other Woebegones at the shore of the former sea.

But the thing is: there’s life or there’s nothing. In between the nostalgia, melancholy and wurble, there’s a journey forward and back, there’s movement and that’s where the happiness is. You’ve got to do something. You’ve got to go where the impetus takes you.

*Wurble Burbling worry

Carved out satisfaction versus cut throat success

There’s a ‘wealth’ of information out there and particularly on-line about how to become a successful writer, how to write, pitch, blog, market yourself, build up a following, get a publisher, be known. Much of it is excellent advice. However what grates on me is the kind of ‘stop at nothing’ advice where you are meant to steam roller your way to the top by being relentlessly competitive with your contempories. Some will think I am naiive. You simply have to stand out to be noticed, you need to blog more, network more, tour more, promote more.

Absolutely. You need dedication. You need to lose the excuses not to write. You need to be aware of what’s going on in the market. You need to know who’s in the know and what they know! But what I object to is ambition in a vaccum, the one tracked mind to success that doesn’t consider other priorities like the people around you, your home and family life, your relationship with others and with the world.

Christina Katz, writer, woman, mother, powerhouse has asked people this week to blog about happiness. To me happiness can be joy, exquistic moments of enjoyment of the process of writing, of the gorgeous reality of my children and their funny moments, a perfect moment of spring blossom and sun. But that kind of happiness is not always available moment to moment. What is available is an overall satisfaction with your life and its choices, an understanding that you may not always get exactly what you want, when you want (like all the time you want to write) but that you are doing your absolute best to fulfill your ambition while maintaining equilibrium with other parts of your life. As a woman and mother, this reciprocity and balancing of your own needs with the needs of your children, family, extended family and the community as a whole is integral. I am not going to blog everyday if it means that I don’t do a jigsaw with my two year old or colour with my daughter, if I can’t listen to my friend who is going through a hard time, if I never have time for giving rather than just getting. On Benjamin Kanarek blog Isa Maisa said recently As our society today considers fame and fortune to be the Holy Grail of our sense of purpose, living a life in an attitude of a happy medium is hushed as insufficient and discusses Doris Lessing, Michael Jackson and Alexander McQueen’s relationship with success.

There are many people in the writing world I admire who are successful by building up a reciprocal and mutually satsifying relationship with their readers and with other writers.  They bring others up with them, provide others with opportunities for exposure and development. In particular I would like to mention Vanessa O’ Loughlin of Inkwell Writers. She writes, provides great quality writing classes and has created a network of writers who regularly receive her extremely useful newsletter. She uses the newsletter to promote other writers and has provided opportunities for other writers to be noticed. Christina Katz is an expert at platform building, becoming known in the publishing world, making the most of opportunities but she also promotes the careers of fellow writers and provides opportunities for them. The Year Zero collective is a group of writers who want to engage with and give back to readers. They develop a reciprocal relationship with readers by posting work regularly and getting feedback, by doing readings in intimate venues and by often giving away their work for free.

These are only a few examples. In terms of social media, there is, for the most part, a wonderful atmosphere on Twitter of reciprocal help, promotion and respect. Only occasionally do you find those whose own agenda of self-promotion comes ahead of their respect for others.

I want to be a writer first, I want to be a successful but also satisfied writer. But what that means to me is to develop a relationship with my readers and other writers first and foremost, to maintain a courteous, considerate and caring relationship with people in my personal and professional life. And after that, only after, will I count book sales and stats as a measure of happiness. What do you think?