Happy New Year. Thanks for reading.
The new year is not a holiday that I find particularly inspiring. Yeah, sure, by some quirk of history, the annual calendric change of year has come, now, in the winter, instead of at any other time of year, but why? Other calendars have their new year at different times—there’s nothing special about this day—it's not marked by any celestial event (solstice, equinox, etc.), not marked by any notable historical event, etc.
But in thinking about what to write today, it occurred to me that the issue of celebration is one worth mentioning, especially because this time of year can be emotionally challenging for many people. Granted the holidays have mostly passed, so the emotional minefields relating to family and social gatherings have passed, but for many writers who are stuck, it can feel particularly distressing, as it’s entirely possible that weeks have passed without getting much work done while dealing with holiday travels, etc.
With a new term looming, this is a time of year that many dissertation writers are thinking that they need to get a lot done before they see their professors at the beginning of the term, which can be extremely stressful for those dealing with writer’s block.
When emotional burdens grow, it’s easy to become focused on difficulties. With an approaching term, it does make sense to focus on what you want to write, and all that needs to be done to get ready for a new term. At the same time, if you’re stuck—if you haven’t been making good progress in your writing—if you’re procrastinating or feeling lost—that pressure to focus on what you have to do can turn into a focus on all that you haven’t done, which is only a step away from the emotional torment of self-doubt and self-denigration. And that’s a pattern that you want to break.
Celebration helps break the pattern. It turns your attention away from the difficulties and away from a sense of failure. Focusing attention on positive things can have a positive impact on emotional state.
I’m writing this in the context of New Year’s celebrations, but what I’m really encouraging for the blocked writer is to celebrate little things that matter more: celebrate every bit of progress that you make. As the deadlines loom, and the period of unproductive efforts extends, celebrate every little accomplishment. If you write one word, celebrate that. One word may be far less than what you need to write every day, but, it’s infinitely more than nothing. Whatever you do, focus your attention on that little accomplishment. I’m not saying you should rest on your laurels after writing a single word, but if you haven’t been writing, you should celebrate that one word as improvement. Maybe you can write one more, and celebrate that. And maybe that becomes a series.
Focusing on and celebrating your accomplishments, even if small, focuses your attention on the task at hand—looking at what you have done is a valuable clue as to what to do next. It takes the focus off of you and off your perception of failures or regrets about what you could have done.
Habit plays a crucial role in writing. If your habit is to focus attention on what you wanted to do but didn't, that draws attention away from the tasks at hand and feels bad, too. If your habit is to focus on what you have accomplished—however little—it keeps your attention directed on the work that you still hope to accomplish and it feels better. Both habits—that of focusing on what you didn’t want to do and on what you did do—are equally true, in the sense that they both focus on your actual personal history. “I wrote 500 words! Whoohoo!” may be just as true as “I wanted to write 3000 words. Darn!” But, in terms of a writing process, which perspective is more likely to help you work tomorrow? Which directs your attention to issues that you need to write about?
To some extent, habits of mind are subject to conscious control. Humans definitely get stuck in habitual patterns that are hard to break, but what are you going to do about a habit that you dislike and that causes you difficulty? Isn’t it worth some effort to change the habit? A regular conscious effort to celebrate your accomplishments can become habitual, helping you write more easily. It requires practice, and change comes slowly, but practice eventually makes a positive difference.
As an exercise, write down what you did accomplish, and compare that to your worst days. “Today, I wrote one word, which is better than my worst day!” It’s an exercise, so it may require some effort. Do it, even if it feels ridiculous. Do it often. It only takes seconds to say "I wrote a sentence; I'm going to celebrate that as more than nothing." Change only comes with practice, so letting skepticism stop the practice will prevent the practice/habit from forming. People can develop positive habits through regular practice. It takes effort, but the effort pays off. Practice celebrating.