The New Year is a time to reflect and plan. It’s a time to reevaluate our priorities and our progress toward our goals. Midnight on December 31st marks the seam between the old and the new; it is the boundary between the past and the future – the threshold over which we must step in order to enter the next phase of our lives.
Damn. That’s a lot of pressure.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the idea of a fresh start. I also relish poring over the old year’s journal entries looking for thematic patterns in my thoughts and dreams. I love the creative process of finding the perfect word to embody my intentions for the year ahead, and the more arduous work of drilling down to discover exactly what those intentions might be. I love the myth and magic of the many New Year’s traditions that help us whisk away the old and ring in the new.
But, we all know that New Year’s resolutions rarely stick; and while I’m a big believer in cycles (especially creative ones), I doubt they conform to the constraints of the calendar. Our lives and our creativity exist on a continuum. They are not parsed out into 365-day units with hard stops and clean slates inserted at regular intervals. That would be too neat and predictable; and life and art are anything but neat and predictable.
With this in mind, I’m experimenting with a different approach to how I enter the New Year.
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The trouble I have with the usual New Year’s schtick is our tendency to devalue the past in favor of a presumably better, and more perfect future. Though I’ve spent most of the last week happily unplugged from the Internet, a few visits to my usual digital haunts left me with an overwhelming sense that most people are relieved to see the backside of 2015 in a don’t-let-the-door-hit-you-on-the-way-out/thank-the-gods-that’s-over kind of way.
I get it. From global warming and international terrorism to cultural racism and political insanity, 2015 threw a lot at us. Add to that any personal and creative challenges you may have experienced, and it’s natural that you’d be more than ready to slam and bolt the door on the last 365 days. But before you walk away with nary a backward glance, perhaps it’s worth a few moments to consider what the year has taught you – for better or for worse.
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Reflecting on the year gone by is an exercise that can quickly bring you down if you don’t keep your perspective. As human beings, we tend to be tough on ourselves. As writers, we can be downright merciless. Reviewing what you have accomplished inevitably leads to acknowledging what you have not accomplished, and those realizations can leave you feeling deflated, guilty, ashamed, and generally disappointed in yourself. Or, maybe that’s just me.
Each year, I stride into January with Big Dreams and High Hopes. A small voice in my head cheers the mantra, “This is the year! This is the year!” I can’t help but be swept up in the exhilarating annual revel of redemption and expectation. After all, who doesn’t love a second chance? For as long as I can remember, I have spent the end of December contemplating the same two creative/professional New Year’s goals: writing (and eventually publishing) fiction and developing a new business around my love of writing/reading/story/creativity (vs. around the marketing/copywriting that is my current bread-and-butter).
And, for as long as I can remember, I have so far “failed” to accomplish either of these two goals.
I say “failed” instead of FAILED because while I haven’t yet brought my visions of success and fulfillment to life, I haven’t given up either. Each year I take a few more baby steps in the direction of my goals, and – equally important – I endeavor to keep my perspective about my accomplishments. Even if I’m unable to check off any items in the Big Goals category, I try to remember the value of lesser achievements in the Learning From My Mistakes and Trials category.
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2015 served me more than my usual share of personal upheaval. For the first time in the seven years since my divorce, I returned to court to negotiate long overdue agreement updates with my still-hostile ex. I took on the daunting responsibility of home ownership, watched my impossibly grown-up daughter enter middle school, and learned a bit about being a grown up myself when my beau’s twenty-year-old daughter moved back in with him after seventeen years away. I had a minor (and, happily, short-lived) health scare that nevertheless made me think, and survived (barely) one of the busiest fourth quarters in my eight-year freelance writing career.
While all of this contributed to a general sense of sustained stress and tension for the year, it was a comparatively minor development in my writing life that brought me up short as I was preparing for the holidays: for the first time in my life, I was fired.
The details are immaterial. That the severing of relations was related to misunderstandings about scope and process rather than to the quality of my work didn’t soften the blow to my ego or lessen the negative effect on my income. One minute I was facing a Herculean writing task that would have forced me to work nights and weekends from mid-December right up until the holiday ( and would have resulted in a nice deposit in my bank account), and the next I was facing an empty calendar and an unexpected revenue deficit. The 180-degree about face gave me emotional whiplash and unleashed a flood of self doubt and anxiety.
But, as the hours passed, I found my spirits not only reviving, but rejoicing. I hadn’t realized how much the project had been coloring my outlook and mood. Even before I’d been fired, I’d been feeling like a failure. The impossible expectations were like a dark cloud hovering over me, siphoning off my confidence, self esteem, and energy. Once I was able to get past the initial sting of rejection, my heart and mind felt immeasurably lighter. Sure, I was out some cash, but the more I played the possible outcomes through in my head, the more I realized I’d dodged a bullet that would have ruined my holidays.
Ultimately, this unpleasant experience proved to me – in real-world, platitude-free terms – that time, happiness, and health are more valuable than money. The payment I would have earned could never have offset the price I would have paid working long hours that kept me from my loved ones and jeopardized my health.
Talk about a wake-up call.
In an interesting twist to the story, a few hours after I learned I’d been fired, I received an email from an editor at WordPress notifying me that my post Writing is My Real Job had been selected as a feature on Discover (formerly Freshly Pressed). I admit that it took me a little while to connect the dots, but once I stepped back to see the Big Picture – being fired off a lucrative job I wasn’t loving and then getting news that work I did for love was being recognized – I felt like the Universe had slapped me upside the head.
I couldn’t have wished for a more appropriate New Year’s gift.
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This is why instead of slamming the door on 2015, this New Year’s season finds me taking my leisurely leave of the past twelve months. I’m still looking forward to the year ahead. I’m still full of my usual Pollyanna-ish ambition, optimism, and hope. But I’m also more aware than ever before that I will be better off in 2016 if I can build on what I learned in 2015 rather than throwing the year’s experiences – good and especially bad – into the trash like a half-baked first draft.
As I look back over last year in the context of planning the year ahead, I am paying particular attention to how I interpret “good” and “bad.” Going back to court was hard, but I discovered an unexpected reserve of confidence and calm. Having our housing in jeopardy and then committing to the financial responsibility of owning property were both terrifying, but we now have a home to call our own. Being fired was a bummer, but it was probably the only way I was going to see – really see – what is most important to me, both personally and professionally.
Processing my New Year this way – looking both backward and forward, layering my hopes and plans for the New Year on top of the successes and missteps of the old one – forces me to take a longer view of things – to look at the “old” year and the new one not as distinct entities that must be judged against each other, but as interwoven pieces of an unbroken continuum.
Likewise, I no longer feel the need to reinvent myself on January first. Like my life and my creative journey, I am not a series of annual iterations. There is no 2015 Jamie vs. a 2016 Jamie. There’s just me. I will still strive to learn and grow. I will still work to improve my craft, increase my success, and explore my potential; but I will also try to remember that I’m not broken or half-baked. What I’ve done in years past is not less valuable than what I will do in the years to come, and vice versa. It’s all part of one life.
I’ve heard it said that we should live only in the present because focusing too much on the past tends to stirs regrets while focusing too much on the future feeds our worries. But, I believe that the present moment exists fully only in the context of both our past and our future. We are who we are right now because of what we’ve experienced in the past and what we hope for the future. Our lives do not exist in a vacuum. They are shaped, guided, and inspired by everything that has come before and everything that is yet to come.
And, as writers, it’s this Big Picture way of looking at things that gives us the ability to bring past, present, future, and all the possibilities contained therein to life in an almost magical way. It’s this willingness to embrace the bad with the good, the triumphant with the tragic that allows us to harness the beautiful imperfection of all our experiences so we can tell the stories that matter most to us.
Happy New Year!
Jamie Lee Wallace Hi. I’m Jamie. I am a content marketer and branding consultant, columnist, sometime feature writer, prolific blogger, and aspiring fiction writer. I’m a mom, a student of equestrian and aerial arts (not at the same time), and a nature lover. I believe in small kindnesses, daily chocolate, and happy endings. Introduce yourself on Facebook, twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest. I don’t bite … usually.