A long time ago, when I was single and much more carefree (but much less happy), I set a writing goal of eight hours each week. My schedule was three hours on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and two hours sometime over the weekend. I kept it up for a year and at the end of that time had a short story published for the first time. For the curious, the story was “Homefield,” published in the summer, 1997 volume of The South Carolina Review.
As a result of this small success, I am a big believer in writing goals.
The flip side of this success story is that “Homefield” is not just the first short story I ever published, it’s also the last. About a month before the acceptance letter came I had given up writing fiction as a waste of time. By the time the letter came, I’d had a month for discouragement and laziness to set in and that was that. I’m rather ashamed of throwing in the towel, but there it is.
As a result of that fumble and later reflection on it, I am a big believer in not giving up. Make that a lot of later reflection. Make that a lot of later reflection and a spate of writing later on, after which I also gave up.
Now I’m writing again and I’m a shade wiser than I was before. I think. I hope.
I still believe in having production goals for writing, but I think now that each writer has to set his or her own type, be it a certain amount of time devoted, a number of words written, a certain project milestone reached on time, or whatever else might suit. For me, it’s time. If I hit my five hours a week, I’m happy.
I’m also a huge believer in flexibility and non-attachment for goals. If your goals just aren’t going to work with the more important priorities in your life one week, make up for it next week or simply let it go altogether. I know this thought might be nearly sacrilegious to some, but if I didn’t take this approach I wouldn’t be able to write at all—I’d be too uptight.
I have also come to see that a writer mustn’t give up. Nobody ever got readers by not writing anything. I have three things that keep me going.
For one thing, I told people I was going to write a novel and started posting chapters of the rough draft on my blog. If I give up somewhere along the way, I’m going to look pretty stupid and I’m as opposed to embarrassment as the next guy.
Making peace with the possibility of stopping once again helps me keep going. If I burn out, yes, I’ll be embarrassed, but the world won’t end and there will still be plenty of love and fun in my life. Having the freedom to fail helps keep the bung out of my creative keg.
Lastly (is that really a word?), although I would love to have readers (witness the excerpts posted every Friday in this space) I am doing the writing just to tell myself the story and to see if I can master the challenge of just finishing. The joy of sitting down to see what happens next keeps me coming back to the old keyboard.
I don’t know if this philosophy will work for every writer, but it’s working for me so far. Back in the days of yore, there was a band called .38 Special, as in the pistol. They had a hit song with the lyrics “hold on loosely, but don’t let go.” Maybe that, in a nutshell, is the best way to have writing goals without them making you crazy.