Stop Making Excuses: Why There’s Always Time to Follow Your Writing Dreams
Angela Brown on Finding Inspiration in Failed New Year’s Resolutions
Looking to reinvent yourself this year? Buy a notebook.
Mine is a Moleskin, ruled, hardcover, black, as classic as a cocktail dress. For years, it’s lived in my nightstand drawer—neighbors with hand lotions and lip balms and ballpoint pens that, despite all their associated good advertising, were ultimately tossed, never proving to stand the test of time like they’d promised.
But not my notebook.
As loyal as a close friend, as eye-opening as a therapist, and as revealing as a swathe of lace, it’s remained at my bedside. Unlike a diary, which reads like a sailor’s log—a daily record of the ins-and-outs of a given day, my notebook strictly contains one written page per year. On it? A list of five bullet-points—drafted out pre-cocktails every New Year’s Eve—which detail ways I hope to improve myself and my life in the next twelve months.My one big goal, the item penned at the very top of every single list, was still left unfulfilled.
New Year’s resolutions are, of course, nothing new. In the coming weeks, we’ll all be bombarded by advertisements, blog posts, and promo codes persuading us to make this the year we get our homes, our bodies, our minds, our careers—just everything—in tip-top shape. If anything, the concept is trite, worthy of an eye roll, about as overdone as a poorly cooked steak.
And yet, as the ball drops on one year, and we raise our champagne flutes to toast the next, many of us will create these short-lived vows with ourselves, even though by February they’ll have us clicking unsubscribe from the many disappointed emails we receive asking when we’ll be back.
This practice of mine probably isn’t a very surprising one for a writer. It checks all the boxes. An excuse to buy good stationary? Check. A reason to neatly organize the swirls of otherwise abstract thoughts in my head into something more coherent. Double check. But there’s also something else, an item I hadn’t originally intended to collect within those pages: an annual tally of my personal failures.
The idea of failure is pretty common territory for us writers. Sure, you hear stories from time to time about those magical wordsmiths who, practically minutes after they type out their first ever draft, become instant, overnight successes. I’m sure most of us can agree this is not the typical narrative. As a friend and I joked recently: are you even a writer if you don’t have a folder full of form rejections and at least one never-again-see-the-light-of-day manuscript shoved in a drawer?
These sorts of rejections—the ones we receive from editors and agents letting us know our work isn’t there quite yet—I’ve learned, are the good kind. Do they sting? Sure. However, they come with a silver lining. Just beyond those dreaded lines (Dear so-and-so, thank you for the opportunity to read your story. Unfortunately…) is the simple fact that you’ve moved beyond the daydreaming stage of creative work. You’ve actually committed to putting in the time to hone your craft and to produce something. You’ve taken a chance on yourself and sent your ideas out into the world. In short, you’re doing it.
Which brings me back to my trusty Moleskin, the one that not too long ago came to serve as a reminder that I very much was not doing it. Throughout my twenties and much of my thirties, no matter what life threw at me, I found myself writing the same goal at the top of each page year after year after year: finally carve out the time to sit down and fulfill my lifelong dream of writing a book.
It seemed like such a simple task when I boiled it down to a quick bullet point every December 31st. A year, after all, feels like a very long time when you’re right at the start of it. And yet, life happens, the days fill up, your precious uninterrupted stretches of writing time become more and more limited, and in a blink those twelve months that once felt practically infinite zip by—snap!—just like that.
Unlike all the form rejections I’d received for the various essays and articles I continued to submit, when it came to the sense of failure documented in my New Year’s Eve notebook, I couldn’t blame an editor I’d never met. I could only blame myself and my many excuses. Another year passed, and still no book to show for it.
It was on December 31st just a few years ago when I sat down with a paper cup of champagne and flipped open my notebook yet again. It was a moment meant for celebration and hope, yet, to be honest, I felt sort of embarrassed for myself. Page after page—year after year—and my one big goal, the item penned at the very top of every single list, was still left unfulfilled.
What a waste.
I was approaching my late thirties at the time, my milestone fortieth suddenly so close it felt like I could reach out a hand and touch it, and I still hadn’t kept my promise—the one I’d documented via bullet point on page after page for well over a decade. Although forty is certainly not old, it did feel old enough for me to finally accept my personal defeat, turn my back on my longtime goal, and simply chalk it up to nothing more than an officially abandoned childhood dream.
Unless…Instead of focusing exclusively on the uplifting bits, take a moment to consider all those rejections and failures, too.
What if I finally just stopped making excuses? Stopped waiting to create the perfect writing space or to attend the ideal writing retreat. Stopped searching for some out-there story idea. Stopped trying to create characters I didn’t really know. What if, instead, I flipped back through my little black New Year’s Eve notebook and gave myself the chance to view it as something else: an early draft for a story about a new character, one I (perhaps regrettably) knew rather well.
In my debut novel, Olivia Strauss is Running Out of Time, I created a protagonist who, just like me, is a middle-aged woman who thrives on creating lists that she hopes will lend to her own self-improvement, particularly as she approaches her milestone birthday.
That is, until she accidentally learns the date of her death—which is much sooner than she’d ever anticipated—and is forced to acknowledge that there may not be quite so many blank pages left for her to fill out in her notebook, thus providing her with a sense of urgency to finally stop organizing her life into bullet points and, regardless of her age, actually go after the things she really wants.
It’s easy, especially this time of year, to get wrapped up in all the (maybe a touch toxic) positivity here to remind us to reinvent and improve every aspect of our day-to-day selves. In the days to come, none of us will face a shortage of unsolicited pep talks and zealous posts meant to inspire us to focus exclusively on the plus-side as we work toward carving out a revised, perhaps better, version of our beings.
But as we all stand here on the precipice of a brand-new year of our lives, I propose something else: instead of focusing exclusively on the uplifting bits, take a moment to consider all those rejections and failures, too. Sometimes, they prove themselves to be more effective than any life coach, inspirational acquaintance or trendy wellness app. Maybe, if you read back through them, you’ll see there’s even a clever story idea—one to focus on in the New Year—hiding just beneath their surface.
Olivia Strauss Is Running Out of Time by Angela Brown is available from Little A.