The other day, a writer friend of mine and I were talking about our goals. She is a fiction writer, and has actively been working on her writing for more years than me. In fact, she’s finished two manuscripts and is in the process of editing one of them. I on the other hand have a handful of articles in the local city paper, a few finished essays, and a lot of incomplete, yet buzzing ideas. Do you have any goals for the next year? she asked me.
“Well, it’s a stretch right now, but I want to be published in Bitter Southerner,” I said. “Maybe in 2019.”
“That’s a great dream, but that’s not really a realistic goal,” my friend replied. “You can’t control whether or not you get published in Bitter Southerner. A goal should be something that you can control.”
“Maybe your goal,” she continued, “could be to submit an essay to Bitter Southerner.”
I felt a little wounded–was this just a way to lower my expectations and avoid the pain of rejection? But I knew my friend was right. She shared with me that her goal was to finish the edits on her manuscript, not to get a book published.
I felt a weight lifted off my shoulders. My goals shouldn’t require divine intervention. They should be realistic, under my control, achievable. Achievable goals are not a lowering of expectations. They are the stepping stones to achieving the larger big picture dream. For me, that dream is to get an essay published in Bitter Southerner, which in itself is part of a larger fantasy of my future writing career.
And here’s the thing, dreams and fantasies have nothing to do with THE WORK. My fantasy future self has a cool edgy hair cut and stylish, cohesive wardrobe. My first book is about to be published–it’s a compilation of essays that critics are calling “triumphant, breathtaking…” I have a beach house where I spend the summers with my husband. There’s a tidy desk in front of a window that overlooks the water. This is where I drink coffee and spend my mornings writing.
As a person with an active imagination, it’s hard not to let my mind drift into the whimsical land of dreams. But, ironically, dreams don’t motivate me. The idea of myself as a toned marathoner doesn’t get me to the gym in the mornings. Just as the dream of being published in the Bitter Southerner or The New Yorker doesn’t give me a roadmap for how to get there. To become a better writer, I need actionable goals. And, to counteract my tendency for over-achiever burnout, these goals need to start small. They need to be achievable.
Dreams are useful in that they help us to know ourselves better. They stretch our imaginations. They inspire us. But dreams and fantasies are good servants and bad masters. So for now, I’m reigning myself in. In two weeks, I start my MFA program. My goal is to get the most of the program by writing to the best of my ability, reading the assigned books, and participating fully in workshops. Once classes start, I plan to solidify these goals into bite size chunks.
Have you ever conflated goals and dreams? How do you create actionable goals to achieve your writerly dreams?