BIG Goals Gone Wrong (and Right)

What to Do with Our Big Dreams and Terrible Predicaments

Not many people finish that book.

You may have heard it said that something like 70% of Americans hope to write a book some day (surely by this point in American history the number has dropped, no?).

In any case we know how that all turns out: very, very, very few people ever do it.

Why so few?

Well, you and I know why—it’s hard, and often inspiration flags when we must work on.

And it’s for this reason that the previous article I wrote on easily doable goals, the article that comes before this one, needs some follow up.

It’s absolutely essential that you learn to focus on specific, doable daily writing tasks to develop momentum. I explain what that does for you here.

But we still need our hopes and aspirations in the mix for the writing process to move.

We need our imagination to be lit up—we can’t suppress that. It’s the same well, ultimately, that we are drawing from for fueling our daily work.

The trick is, how to prevent our imagination from cooking up all kinds of terrible outcomes in the future, or experiencing what seem like terrible dramas in the present.

“The Giant Mess I Am In”

It can be great to have big dreams and aspirations for your writing and your academic career, but they have this way of back-firing on us.

This is true even of modest aspirations, things for us that are like getting a job or getting tenure. These might appear to us as monumental as writing “The Great Novel.”

The sense of the “bigness” to our dreams and goals is important to the writing life, but it’s dangerous.

The big goal seems like a big prison at some point, or at least a big mess.

Then we shut down under the weight of it, and…

if one is shut down, just trying to get by, maybe in a kind of survival mode…

there’s a big problem for writing because you are, in effect, shutting down the very thing you need to work—your imagination.

But one of the biggest sticking places for any writer is the jaws of this dilemma: using your imagination in your work is also, at the same time, unleashing your imagination for free play into other things like big fears and worries.

Meanwhile, as far as I can tell, you can’t ride your white unicorn around anywhere without trodding on a book that tells us to silence the inner critic or imagine the big future we want, to make it “manifest.”

That’s so annoying, both for me and my madrical wonderous creature.

The relation between the inner critical voice and our imagination is seldom pointed to. No one points out that imagination is a source of fuel for the inner critic, while it’s being touted as the solution to everything.

For instance, it might seem natural and normal to want to shoot for the stars—just set the bar really high, and then even if you don’t live up to it, at least you pushed yourself to the max. You know you’ve done your very best.

This makes sense to the thinking mind. After all, you want to do your best and squeeze the maximum amount of work out of yourself and not have to regret anything later, if things don’t work out, because you didn’t try your best.

But what shooting for the stars (or seeing only the big goal, like a book, as the aiming point) does to you is put you a constant state of coming up short. Most of the times you sit down to work you will not finish that book. You’ll never finish it as fast as you dream.

This might be bearable in short term situations– a kind of pick me up– but it’s not going to work out in long term. The state of disappointment with yourself will set in. You’ll live under this shadow, and the only option will be to retreat into shut-down mode.

So it may seem strange that today’s training will be about using your imagination and your big hopes and dreams. We still need that as fuel.

But we need to re-configure the relation of our imagination to our negative reactions.

If your dreams include in some way something like writing a book, getting tenure, getting a job, or writing a dissertation…

then they can haunt you more than inspire you.

When you fail to write a few pages one day, that becomes a betrayal of your dream—you’ve failed to write your dissertation today! But the truth is, you merely failed to write a few pages!

For this reason our imagination about the future needs to be held just right. On the day-to-day level, we don’t really need to think about the big situation much, and that’s why having your plan for each day’s writing is so important.

You need your day-to-day plan, and to know exactly what you are here to do, at almost every step, or you’ll get lost in distraction.

Why distraction?

This is extremely important to understand, because it’s not what it seems.

It might seem like distraction gets us because… well, these distractions are distracting us from writing.

But they are not taking us away from writing.

Distractions are taking us away from NOT-writing.

The state of not-writing, and knowing that we are not writing, is pain.

The state of “not-writing-your-dissertation” or “not-doing-what-you-need-to-get-tenure,” is more than pain, it’s agony.

While the state of being distracted from not-writing your book, is almost bearable.

Distractions help us to not face the pain of not writing.

That’s why discrete, easily doable, short goals are what your mind should have as its frame most of the time, because they don’t allow you to turn away from the truth of writing or not-writing, yet they are something you can, absolutely do.

But… you still need to know where it’s going. Where it’s all leading, and it needs to be connected to your imagination in the right way because that’s ultimately the fire underneath everything you are doing.

You still need to be in a creative state, not shut-down, connected to a meaning and purpose, and yet not haunted by all that imagination can accuse you of and all the dangers it can constantly bring to mind.

You need to not have to wonder what’s going to happen when you sit down to work. That means having your doable goals, and also having resources and procedures that you know will work in any given situation along the way.

You should have a brainstorming process, an outlining process, a way to draft exploratory writing and draft text for the piece, and a revision process.

You should have specific doable goals that result in success almost every time you sit down to write.

And yes, you need long term goals and clear sense of where it’s going.

Your Vision of Your Ideal Writing Life

So here we go.

Now it is, actually, time to have a vision, safe in the knowledge that you know what it is for, and know that having a vision requires a certain kind of responsibility to taking daily defined steps- always watching for when the vision is driving you to distraction in order to assuage the wounds of not writing.

So here’s the exercise:

Just imagine your ideal life in 5 years, and write it down. Nothing works better than writing for writers. So write. And don’t worry, oh cynical academic, we are not going into naïve manifestation of your dreams mode—you know exactly why you are doing this – to give meaning to your daily actions– and what you are not going to do with this—worship it.

Set a timer for 20 minutes and have at it!

Or use about one page to describe what your life is like in 5 years if you finish the big writing work you want to do, and include in that vision what your writing life is like. Here we’re simply writing down and bringing to consciousness out in deliberate awareness what it is we really want.

Be realistic—but don’t be stingy! One thing to keep in mind is that while we tend to expect too much of ourselves in the short term, actually in the long term we don’t realize how much can be accomplished were we to get our head straight about it.

So go for it, as long as it is believable to you. Describe how you spend your days, what position you have, what works you have created 5 years from now and how they are received.

Create an image of who you want to be as a writer, and write it out. Imagine yourself in 5 years, and everything went really, really well. Not impossibly well, but about as great as you could imagine reasonably possible.

Use at least 20 minutes to write this out.

Then, do it again the next day, for three days in a row. It’s important to rub this vision in a bit and also to clarify it.

You can write it as a book blurb bio, with endorsements chiming in from major muckitymucks in your discipline. You can write it as an Amazon review of your book (you know, where the fan explains both your book and your whole writing life, situating you to a scholarly context, to potential readers). You can write it as a present tense first-person account, or as a magazine interview, whatever.

Put in the time to have a specific vision with specific details, being sure to harness the power of your attention and creativity and clarity.

You will find that simply the doing this exercise alone can boost your mood and energy. Take three days and get this boost for yourself.

The repetition is a very important part of it, because by framing our attention this way, including the important ingredient of engaging our imagination, our creative energy is funneled into something we want, while our awareness becomes increasingly clear about what that, exactly, is. Left to its own devices, attention goes to danger, worries, fears, and bad future outcomes to avoid– things we don’t want– while our imagination cooks it up extra nice and hot and scary.

How to Funnel the Imagination into Something Even More Productive

Of course, our imagination could also get unleashed in horrible directions when it doesn’t have a proper play-object—like when we don’t know what to write, which direction to go, when there’s so many possible literatures to read and apply, so many possible retorts and snobby criticisms of the very things we are working on in the moment.

And that’s where knowing exactly what we are going to do when we sit down on the daily basis to write becomes so important.

This has two important facets:

  1. Sketching out the major beats of our writing for the immediate writing session.
  2. Having techniques and tactics on hand for brainstorming, outlining, drafting, revision, etc.– when you have procedures that work for you, you can just get down to it and not have to struggle under the burden of not knowing what comes next. If you can confidently get started on each of the major writing tasks as they come along, then you can feel safe and focused on just what you are doing now without worrying “How am I going to revise this?” or “how am I going to connect this with the other part.” — You may not have the answer yet, but you know you have a procedure to get that answer when it’s time.

Having dependable writing processes for all the major moments in the writing process, especially the “cross-roads” moments when you are stepping into the next phase (like from brainstorming to outlining, or outlining to drafting, etc.)…

Well that’s just so important to connecting the short term goals to the big dreams.

So let’s talk about that in the next blogpost.

You can come back here in a few days and there will be a link when the next blog post comes out.

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