‘This is the year I’ll write my novel’: new year’s resolutions and the creative mind

Follow your joy rather than pursue certain goals just because you feel you ought to

New years presents a fresh slate. The distractions of Christmas have passed, and the promise of longer days lies ahead. It won’t be long before we awake to sunlight creeping in under the curtains.

We set our New Year’s resolutions: we’ll write that novel, we’ll get numerous stories or poems submitted, or we’ll do that creative writing course. We make action lists. We set daily, weekly and monthly targets. We plan to give up each of our distractions, be they television, alcohol or social media. This year, we say to ourselves, writing will be the central focus of our lives.

The problem is, of course, that these promising goals become burdensome. Inevitably, life gets in the way and we get distracted. We miss the targets. Some months later, when we read over our beautiful list of resolutions, it no longer fills us with joy. Instead it has transformed into an emotional “stick” with which we hit ourselves.

The problem with goal-setting, in my view, is that it implies there is something inherently wrong with right now. That what you are, in the present moment, is not good enough. Lists tend to based on “shoulds” rather than wants.

So, before you write down any creative goal, figure out if it is something you want to do. Is the process of achieving the goal as life-enhancing as the outcome? Because attaining a goal, if you don’t enjoy the process of achieving it, is a “should”. It will be a miserable journey getting the desired outcome (if you get it at all).

Make creative goals from questions like; 'What excites me?' 'What do I want to investigate?' 'What do I feel compelled to write today?'

When I think of my own compulsion to write, I have grown aware of two entangled forces. I sense the pure force which seeks that trancelike state of creativity, that place outside of time where writing is instinctive. Dorothea Brande, in her seminal book Becoming a Writer, refers to this dissociated state as the “alter ego”, the “other self” or (my favourite term) “the higher self”. This, for me, is what makes writing a compulsion. I’m addicted to being in that egoless state. It is not linked to outcome. It is the pure joy of being creative.

I’ve spoken to visual artists, actors and singers who all seek this higher state. My partner, who is a carpenter, likewise creates his best bespoke furniture when he is “in the zone”. When you are in that trance, you aren’t creating – work is being created through you.

However, there is a secondary, darker force that runs through my desire to write. For innumerable reasons, not least that I am a human and it seems a state inherent to all of us, I have a deep sense that I’m “not good enough”, which feeds out and poisons every area of my life: how I eat, how much exercise I take, what clothes I wear, how much money I have or how I compare to others on social media.

Worst of all, it can poison this pure intention to write. It demands outcomes, publication and awards, so that for brief flashes of time when a desired outcome occurs I can experience relief from the feeling of not good enough. Of course, the feeling returns before long, unabated, looking for further validation.

This belief has, on occasions, meant that my writing, which should come from the treasured “higher self”, is polluted by the desire for results. It has led to my rushing work, sending manuscripts to editors before they are ready, and refreshing my emails in vain, waiting for responses. It leads to a general begging of validation from those around me. This work is never my best and does not get enthusiastic reactions from those I submit it to.

So, I recommend something different for 2021 goals. Make resolutions without outcomes. Follow your joy. As you can see from my case, being hung up on outcomes usually has the opposite effect of preventing them from being realised. After all, outcomes are not in your control. You cannot know if one person or a million people will like your work; you can only be sure that you enjoyed creating it.

Make creative goals from questions like; “What excites me?” “What do I want to investigate?” “What do I feel compelled to write today?”

“How can I contribute in a way that doesn’t feel like sacrifice?”

Sit quietly with each resolution and see if you feel a tightness and shrinking as you contemplate it, or do you feel your chest expanding as you inhale with excitement.

These feelings are at the crux of it. Focus on the journey. Outcomes work out best when they are left alone.

Jamie O'Connell's debut novel, Diving for Pearls, will be published in May by Doubleday