The Reverse To-Do List
By Michelle Seaton
“How’s the writing going?” It’s the question I hear whenever I venture to an event where I see other writers. I ask this question, too, at every reading, book launch, conference, and party where I run into a friend or former student I haven’t seen in a while. The response is almost always the same: an awkward pause, a grimace, followed by an admission that it’s okay, or could be better, that it’s not that great. As a group, we writers are underwhelmed by our own efforts and achievements.
Perhaps we focus too much on everything we haven’t yet done. I have praised students for finishing great essays only to hear them say, “But I’m still unpublished.” I have congratulated students after their first published essay only to hear them say, “But I’ve never published in a big journal.” Or they say, “But I don’t have a book idea.” The list of things they have not accomplished is a weight that presses on them.
They are not alone. In our heads, we all keep a grandiose to-do list of that we need to achieve before we can consider ourselves successful. The trouble is that this list just keeps growing longer. It shames us, when it shouldn’t.
I’ve tried to combat this tendency in myself by writing a reverse to-do list. It’s the opposite of that list in my head; it contains everything that I have done.
Try it. Make a list of everything you have accomplished as a writer, and include everything you’ve done that you once thought would be impossible.
If you spent years telling yourself that you couldn’t take a class because that would be too much of an indulgence, and then you did take a class, that goes on the list.
1. I took a writing class.
If you had to go through a workshop, and you initially thought, “Oh no, I can’t do this. Everyone will hate my story. I’m going to die.” That goes on the list.
2. I was workshopped and didn’t die.
Include on this list all of your projects, finished and unfinished. Include the stories you’ve abandoned, the stories you loved that were universally rejected. They count because they attest to your commitment. Include the notebooks you’ve filled, the strange things you’ve done in the name of research, the cool characters you’ve met or created, the comments you’ve made on the work of others, the hours or afternoons or early mornings that you’ve spent working on a nearly hopeless draft while someone was nagging you to do something else instead, something fun, something more important. These are all accomplishments, and you have accumulated more of them than you probably thought possible.
If you can make this list, or even start one like it, you may find a way to appreciate your own hard work. And the next time someone asks you how the writing is going, you may allow yourself to say, “It’s going great.”
Michelle Seaton’s short fiction has appeared in One Story, Harvard Review, Sycamore Review, The Pushcart Anthology among others. Her journalism and essays have appeared in Robb Report, Bostonia, Yankee Magazine, The Pinch andLake Effect. Her essay, “How to Work a Locker Room” appeared in the 2009 edition of Best American Nonrequired Reading. She is the coauthor of the books The Way of Boys (William Morrow, 2009) and Living with Cancer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), and Change Your Schedule, Change Your Life (HarperWave, 2018). She has been an instructor with Grub Street since 2000 and is the lead instructor and created the curriculum for Grub Street's Memoir Project, a program that offers free memoir classes to senior citizens in Boston neighborhoods. The project has visited fourteen Boston neighborhoods and produced five anthologies.See other articles by Michelle Seaton