4 Life-Changing New Year’s Lessons for Writers

4 Life-Changing New Year's Lessons for WritersIt’s weird, but I actually don’t like goals. Why does someone like me, who has always thrived on productivity, schedules, and forward momentum, not like goals? This morning, I realized it’s because the word “goal,” is associated with ideas of “yikes, that’ll be hard,” “probably won’t happen,” “doesn’t sound fun,” and “this isn’t really something I have much control over anyway.”

Sure, I have plans for every new year. But I’ve never considered them “goals.” Write 50-100 blog posts, record 50+ podcasts, write a book, publish a book, work out five days a week. I don’t look at any of these things as goals. They’re more like… future realities. Insofar as they are in my power and barring unforeseen events, they will happen.

Goals, on the other hand, have always been things like “be happy,” “don’t gain any weight,” “stay healthy,” “be nicer.” They’re things that are a little harder to control—and therefore always seem like setups for failure.

Instead of goals, this year I’d like to focus your attention on something else. Instead of good, but vague, wishes for the future—or even quantifiable plans for things you want to get done—what I want to focus on is the lessons of the past year, and how we can move forward in building upon their foundation.

What Did You Learn Last Year?

The major problem with most New Year’s goals is that they have no foundation. We’d all like to be smarter, healthier, prettier, kinder, and richer this year. But without some of kind of meaningful foundation of life experience and understanding, these are just birthday wishes—gone in the puff of a pink candle.

As Mater says in Pixar’s Cars,

Can’t know where you’re going until you’ve seen where you’ve been.

Focusing on the lessons you learned in the last year will show you the obvious next step for the new year.

For me, the last year and a half has been a watershed period of personal epiphanies and life changes. So many things I’ve always taken for granted about life, the world, and myself were challenged. Some mistaken ideas were shattered in painful but liberating ways. Others were reaffirmed.

None of this was even on my radar as a goal. It just happened. But it now gives me the opportunity to step forward into the new year, not with more goals, but with my life pack full of new ideas and experiences.

In a minute, I’m going to share some of my specific lessons from the last year, but for now, take a moment to consider what the last year taught you. Instead of looking back and judging the goals you might or might not have accomplished, consider what gifts you’ve picked up along the way during your adventures this year.

  • How are you different this January 1st from who you were last January 1st?
  • How is your life different?
  • What have you lost?
  • What have you gained?
  • What would you never want to trade from this past year’s experiences—whether it’s something beautiful or painful, or both?
  • What mindsets have served you particularly well this year?
  • What mindsets have failed you?
  • What answers do you feel you have found?
  • What questions are you still left with?

Plans for the future are great, but I’d venture that the answers you’ll glean from these questions will serve you far more valuably in shaping a fruitful new year.

4 Life Lessons That Should Be New Year’s Goals for Writers

As you’ve probably gathered by this point, this is not going to be one of those posts that tells you to commit yourself to writing two hours a day every day, or finishing at least one first draft this year, or putting aside four hours every week for social media, or trying to get at least one reviewer for your book every week. Or, or, or—that list could go on and on.

What I’m talking about here are life lessons more than writing lessons. But can you really have one without the other? Productive, centered writing habits grow out of productive, centered lifestyles. But, even more than that, the lessons of our lives are the very stuff of fiction. We can have nothing of worth to share with readers unless we are, first and foremost, focused on living the lives of seekers.

As writers, we must be people who are committed to seeking understanding in our own lives, being honest about the good and the bad, and embracing the little truths so we can move forward toward the larger Truths.

To that end, I want to share the four major “lessons” I feel I’ve learned this year. None of them are revolutionary. We’ve all heard them before, time and again. We all nod at them sagely: “Yeah, yeah, carpe diem, man!” But I’m here to tell you there’s a vast difference between agreeing with these ideas and getting them. This is the first year I feel I’ve gotten them. Every single one of them is beautiful, liberating, and empowering—all the more so because I’ve spent so many years unconsciously (and stubbornly) fighting them. Now, I can’t wait to see where they lead in the next year.

1. Stop Equating Productivity With Success

A few Christmases ago, while watching Scrooge fling his window open upon a bright new Christmas morning, I found myself asking: But was his life still a failure since his revelation didn’t come until the end?

I think it’s safe to say that anyone who has every read or watched this classic tale of redemption would respond with an adamant no. Indeed, the whole point of Scrooge’s story is that it’s never too late.

And yet, we are obsessed with the idea of earning success (in essence, buying salvation through works). I’ve talked before about how the revelation that equating productivity with success is an utterly wrongheaded, soul-sucking, ultimately self-defeating idea.

For me, this idea was probably the most life-changing in a life-changing year. It has changed everything about how I look at my life: from work to art to relationships. Instead of chasing after ideas of success that were largely self-imposed (and usually impossibly vague and ever-changing), I am now focusing on stepping back from the chronic diseases of over-achievement, perfectionism, and workaholicism—and their inherent symptoms of fear (what if I’m not good enough?) and guilt (I’m not good enough).

Takeaway: Instead of focusing on goals (and feeling like a failure when you don’t achieve them), focus on staying centered in each day and each moment. Life is not made up of checkmarks on your to-do list. It’s not even made up of landmark events, such as book releases. It’s made up of moments. Successful moments create successful lives.

2. Say “No”

My journey to saying “no” was kind of backwards. I started out as a bossy, blunt, aggressive oldest child. I had to work at being nice. I had to learn to be generous. I had to practice being patient, choosing the right words, avoiding hurting people’s feelings. And, honestly, I got pretty good at it. But it also got to a point where I was constantly overcompensating. In my 20s, I forgot how to say “no”—or, when I did, I felt terrible about it, like I was an incredibly selfish person.

The result was, inevitably, that I took on too much, said “yes” inauthentically, and started to go into pain-reflexed flinches whenever I could sense requests coming on. (But, hey, at least I was nice, right?)

Partly as an outgrowth of my new view of productivity (I don’t have to take advantage of every opportunity that passes in front of me) and partly as a result of a better understanding of boundaries (thanks in no small part to this fantastic book), I have slowly been saying “no” more and more often this year.

And I have never felt freer. It’s as if a huge burden has lifted off my shoulders. Now when I say “yes,” I’m doing it from a place of joy rather than guilt.

Takeaway: What saying “no” really means is saying “no” to yourself. You can’t protect your personal boundaries from the demands of others until you’re first willing to protect them from yourself. Evaluate the reasons you feel compelled to say “yes” even when your heart isn’t in it. What you find may not be pretty, but addressing it is the first step to a freer, happier, more empowered life.

3. Follow Your Bliss

I think, deep down, I’ve always embraced this masochistic idea that if something wasn’t hurting, just a little bit, then I was doing it wrong. If I wasn’t giving it 110%, then I was a weakling or a coward who was wimping out.

The result of that pretty little idea was that by the time I hit 30, I was basically a mess of repressed emotions, frazzled nerves, and just general befuddlement about what I was doing and why I was doing it. But then life did what it does best—it knocked some sense into me.

Why on earth would I think it was a good idea to spend my life doing stuff that made me miserable? I went through a couple months last year where I just didn’t have the energy—mentally or physically—to do much more than lie in a hammock and read. And by the time I got my legs back under me, I found myself looking around and going: “Hey, this is actually really nice. The world didn’t implode just because I wasn’t working like a maniac—and, would you look at that, there’s actually life beyond the desk.”

For a while now, I’ve been interested in the 80-20 rule (the idea that 80% of your results come from 20% of your effort), but I was never brave enough to really start implementing (what if, after all, I stop doing the wrong 80%?). But relinquishing my death grip on the importance of “success” has given me the courage to step back and start figuring out which things in my life are really important to me.

Takeaway: Turns out all the 80-20 rule really means is “following your bliss.” Yep, who knew, right? Basically, if you like doing it—if it makes you happy—do it. If you don’t like doing it—if it’s a burden on your soul—then that’s a sign you need to step back and figure out what it would really mean if you just stopped doing it. Chances are good not much would happen. If, however, there are sizable consequences, then it’s time to stretch that writer’s imagination of yours and start looking for alternative solutions.

4. Live in the Moment

You’re probably beginning to realize all these lessons are directly connected. Certainly, the whole carpe-diem thing is directly tied into the idea of following your bliss.

For me, I wasn’t able to fully understand or inhabit the concept of living in the moment until I had integrated the previous three lessons. But, really, what they were all about was getting to the place where I could grasp what it meant to live in the moment.

There are so many aspects to this—from just being aware of your body to coming to peace with past bitternesses to rejecting unreasonable fears of the future. But the aspect that has been most meaningful and powerful for me has been the realization that I needed to stop putting my life on hold.

That sounds like a huge statement—like what I really mean is “sell everything you own and go on a backpacking trip around the world.” Honestly, that’s what I always thought that meant, which is probably one of the reasons it took me so long to embrace it.

What I’ve found,  however, is that this idea of “living my life now” is really all about the little things. It’s about being the person you want to be now instead of tomorrow. For me, this took on some external manifestations. I don’t think it’s any kind of coincidence that this was the year I remodeled half the house, donated truckload after truckload of stuff to Goodwill, and, for literally the first time in my life, paid more than passing attention to the style of clothes I was wearing.

Takeaway: If something you’re doing is making you miserable now, then why are you doing it? If the person you look at in the mirror seems like a stranger, then ask yourself why there’s this disconnect between how you feel and who you are. Finding the “center of life” will be different for all of us. Some of us need to stop doing the wrong things. Some of need to start doing the right things. Or both. Neither are easy, but they will lead us onto the path of a regret-free life.

***

This year, I encourage you to step back from the all the New Year’s goals for writers. By all means, make plans. Create schedules and outlines that will generate the future realities you desire. But instead of focusing on the intangible “should-dos,” focus instead on what the last year has taught you, as both a writer and a person, and how those lessons can become stepping stones to even more lessons next year.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What was your greatest takeaway from 2017? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Kate Johnston says:

    Happy New Year! Great post. I have a lot of takeaways from 2017. One is that I am in more control of my time than I thought I was. As a mom, it is hard for me to say “No” especially when it comes to helping with homework, listening to the day’s events, shuffling kids back and forth to wherever it is they need to be, making extra trips to the grocery store, etc. These are all important for motherhood but truly suck time from writerhood!

    However, it got to the point where I saw ways to streamline some of these interruptions so that I can have more writing time. Doesn’t always make the other person happy, but it’s for a good cause, right? 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      “I am in more control of my time than I thought I was.” I think this is a profound realization that applies to almost all of us.

  2. Joseph Merboth says:

    Last year I scared myself by realizing I love thinking about writing but hate the actual act of it. I’m one of those writers. And that makes it complicated to try following my bliss, because 70% of the time when I’m sitting down to pound out my book, it feels like uncertainty or this achy feeling in my chest. I’d rather be doing anything else.

    But maybe that’s just my beginner’s blood, or perfectionism, or not enough outlining. There are plenty of things I can try to fix it. And I want to, because there is no moment more blissful than getting caught up in a good book or a good movie and letting it spin thoughts and emotions through me. I love storytelling (like many of you), and that’s not something I will give up without a fight.

    2017 did teach me: 1) my current book isn’t a silver bullet. If it doesn’t turn out, my hopes haven’t been dashed because I can always write another. 2) I don’t need to keep up NaNoWriMo’s pace all year. The book will get done if I work at it regularly, even slowly. 3) I can finish. I can do it. My 2017 novel testifies for itself.

    I can’t guarantee I’ll keep writing forever, but in the meantime I want to find joy in it. I may currently revile typing out words, but there’s no greater satisfaction than seeing the finished product before you and sharing it with those who have been waiting.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I’ll be honest with you: writing the book isn’t my favorite part either. It’s hard. Sometimes it’s heart-rendingly hard. I’m often tempted to quit and just go do something more fun… like outline the next one. But I keep at it because, for me, I think everything else in my life would lose color if I quit. So even though it’s sometimes painful in the moment, it’s worth it in the long run.

    • Joseph, I’m right there with you. I’ve often heard and agreed with the quote, “I love having written, I hate writing.”
      I can tell you it does get better over time as you get better at writing. I enjoy writing more now than ever before. I think one of the key lessons, as you’re discovering, is to learn how to let go.

    • Joseph Merboth says:

      Thanks for the sympathy and the encouragement! Katie, you make it look easy. But being good at something will do that. It’s comforting to hear that even for a practiced author it’s not. And like you said, there’s something about the endurance it requires of us that makes the art and the artist. Each hard-earned milestone means so much more.

  3. Wonderful post Katie. Enjoyed what you said about learning life lessons in 2017. I’ve had some similar experiences myself last year. Bit off more than I could chew without having the physical or mental energy for most of it.

    I’m very happy for you! You’ve had some key realizations. Let’s see what happens this year 🙂

  4. Thank you so much for your posts. It’s great that you’re writing about enjoying life rather than chasing accomplishments. I’ve met many writers who have made themselves miserable because they beat themselves up for perceived failures, and its really sad. I myself have had to stop feeling bad about myself for not writing as fast as others. As a young writer who is just now beginning my career in self-publishing, I’ve been trying to find a balance between dreaming big and having realistic expectations.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sounds like you’re right at the start of the journey–and already with your head on straight and your expectations realistic. Good for you! 🙂

  5. Ms. Albina says:

    Good post. I plan on cutting my on my sugar intake and also do smaller portions to eat. I am currently writing a journal about my mermaid princess who lives on a fictional planet.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Good for you! I believe health is important to creativity.

      • Ms. Albina says:

        Thank you. My current WIP is a journal written in the first person by the mermaid princess who is one of the main characters in the story which is about her adventures and when she becomes a mermaid goddess and has children of her own.

  6. Wow…I think you captured MY takeaways from last year too. I hated to prune the things in my life I thought God wanted me to be doing. The result? I’m finally following my bliss instead of what others thought my bliss was. I used to lead a praise band, choose the music, of course keep up with my writing and teaching job, focus on my family and grandsons etc. It was all great stuff, but some of it had to go. I didn’t truly enjoy learning music, researching new songs, and singing, especially when there were constant complaints or conflicts around it. Now I am free to become the writer I want to become, a stronger grandfather, brother, husband, and ultimately a person. Thanks for sharing a piece of your heart. Keep following your bliss!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Glad to hear it! I think, too, there’s a time and a season for certain things. Things we loved and found fruitful at one time in our lives won’t always bear the same fruit in later seasons.

  7. One thing I learned this year is that I can write every day and still have a life. I was afraid I’d have to sacrifice too much, but somehow all the things that fell away were things I guess I didn’t really care about anyway. The other take away for me this year was making writing a priority for me. Because it’s never been a money-maker for me, I’ve never felt like I can say no to other things for the sake of my writing. It’s always felt selfish. But the stage of life that I’m in has prompted me to change my thinking about it. If I want to go ahead and call myself a writer and make space for it in my life, then I’m darn well gonna do it! 🙂 Thanks for all your resources and Happy New Year!

  8. I just wanted to comment and say that I’m new to your books but in the last few months have read Story Structure, Outlining Your Novel, and Character Arc and absolutely was blown away with the wealth of information I found. I’ve read several books on writing including Stephen King’s and Dean Koontz’s but I found your books to be the most detailed and organized. Who knew structure could be such a tool of freedom and help me not to feel so overwhelmed when I sit down to write? I have a long way to go, but your books have given me hope that I can do it. I’ll not only be re-reading all of these but recently ordered Behold the Dawn which I’m looking forward to. My daily habit during lunch has been to read your blog posts and I’m never disappointed. Thank you for all the information you share!! The Lord has truly blessed you with a gift to educate and encourage writers.

  9. Katie Briggs says:

    Awesome! Thank you :).

Trackbacks

  1. […] Four Life Changing New Year’s Lessons for Writers […]

  2. […] Jami Gold says to celebrate the New Year by leaving guilt behind, K.M. Weiland shares 4 life-changing New Year’s lessons for writers, and Grant Faulkner has writing tips to fortify your writing […]

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