How to Meet Your Writing Goals in 2015
by Ethan Gilsdorf
"Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life," the screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan once said.
Sometimes being a writer feels like that. It can be hard to stay on track, and keep doing that homework so you can get your writing projects done, when you're up against life's challenges, scheduling difficulties, and other distractions.
Now it's the new year. There's no better time to commit (or re-commit) yourself to writing in 2015.
But how can you find success, and not be undermined by writing habits that seem to prevent you from getting s*** done? If you're like me, this is the issue that needs to be overcome.
You need to build into your writing life some mechanism to make sure you meet your goals, hit your deadlines, and devote the time needed to get your dozen poems, your short story collection, your novel, or your book proposal written. This is what I call accountability.
But before I get to accountability. To be sure, you also need to debunk and disempower the many prevalent and misguided ideas about writing, writers, creativity, and where writing comes from. These can be powerful myths that are hard to ignore -- ideas concerning romantic and tragic stereotypes of the struggle, torture, substance abuse, and deprivation needed to fire your work and drive you forward (and drive you nuts). There's also all kinds of hokum about when and how the muse visits. (FYI: The muse doesn't visit. You just keep working.) Don't fall for all of these. Exorcise all those demons from your mind.
But more concretely, I think most writing struggles that keep writers from accomplishing goals -- from the psychological (fear, self-esteem, taking oneself seriously as a writer) to the practical (time management, scheduling, money), also known as "writer's block" -- really stem from poor work habits. My fears about the blank page, about whether what I am writing is any good, usually disappear once I'm actually writing.
So how to make sure you log the hours at your desk? This brings us back to accountability.
Think of accountability working in tandem with incentives. If you're fearful, lazy, unconfident, scattered, or unmotivated, make sure there's a stake in you completing that goal, then insert an incentive to make sure that you meet it.
This might be taking a class where you must make deadlines for your workshop; that peer pressure also makes sure you do your part. This might be agreeing to share your work with a writing partner. This might be buying a weekend at a cheap hotel in a boring destination so you can knock out that draft.
Or it might be simply telling your spouse, "I need a night (or day) away at a cafe or library. Can you please watch the kids?" You'd be amazed at what you can accomplish in a three or four hour block, if you eliminate those kinds of responsibilities and temptations.
You might also try rewarding yourself at the end of your writing session. You want to watch that garbage TV show or movie, or have a bowl of ice cream. Agree to wait till you're done writing before you treat yourself with that figurative or literal junk food.
Or: Tell someone else your writing plans, agree to write for two hours first, then tell that person how it went. Simple.
In short, be accountable to someone, something. Think in terms of small steps and achievable goals. Break up goals into specific deadlines and accountabilities. Give yourself some incentives. Then do it.
A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and he is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D. Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and is also the instructor of GrubStreet's 8-month Essay Incubator program and serves as coordinator of GrubStreet's Providence program. He’s also the lead instructor for the Westerly (RI) Memoir Project. He has led writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations and also teaches writing and Dungeons & Dragons classes for younger students, in schools, libraries and community centers. He had also served on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and as a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.See other articles by Ethan Gilsdorf