Why Goals Are Important (Even If You Don’t Meet Them)

I saw someone say recently that “Goals are nothing but dreams with deadlines.” That resonated with me. So often, we put things off until tomorrow – paying bills, making that phone call, doing that thing that needs to be done – and constantly avoid committing or fail to put ourselves out there for fear of being rejected or let down. We think “If I don’t expect anything then I won’t be let down.” But, in the end, it isn’t the time you failed that you will regret; it’s the time you didn’t try.

From the outset, I’ve made a point of setting goals for my writing. I haven’t met all of those goals but, in the course of pursuing them, I continue to get closer and closer to my ultimate goal: publishing my first book. I participated in National Novel Writing Month last November. The goal (for everyone who participated) was 50,000 words. At the end of November, I had about 5,000 new words. At first, I was disappointed – I’d hardly dented the goal I’d set out to achieve. But, looking through a different lens, I realized that, though I hadn’t achieved the lofty goal I’d set out after, I had achieved something: 5,000 more words I didn’t have at the beginning of the month and my most productive month writing since the beginning of the year.

In January, I set another goal for myself: 10,000 words. I didn’t make that either but the (approximately) 7,000 words I wrote over the course of that month was another huge encouragement and achievement, in itself, and helped me to continue writing on a regular basis. With every day and every new word, I slowly chipped away. Two weeks ago, I got to see the fruits of that chipping when I finished my first draft (yay!). Though I know there’s still work to be done, it feels great to have the entire story. Yes, of course, I would prefer to be able to write full time and finish a first draft in six weeks or so but that’s just not the way it happened.

And, to be quite honest, that’s not usually the way anything happens. The sorrow of failure and the elation of success go hand-in-hand – without one, the other wouldn’t exist. This is the constant challenge we face: “How do I persevere when it seems hopeless?” Just keep going. Set goals – big ones (and smaller ones). Bite off more than you can chew. And don’t get down on yourself when you didn’t get everything you set out to. Instead, focus on what you do have, what you did get. Dream big… but don’t just dream. Put a deadline on that dream and keep your eyes on the goal.

My next goal? Publish by June 2015. Will I make it? I’m looking forward to finding out.

 

DISCLAIMER: this is not an April Fools joke. You can find a first chapter excerpt of my novel here.

I Did #NaNoWriMo

30 day method to writing a novel

Hey, there! I know, I know – it’s been a while. I’m sorry. And, yes… I’m still writing.

In case you were wondering, that’s the Twitter hashtag abbreviation for National Novel Writing Month. This writing challenge takes place in November and the goal is 50,000 words over the course of the month. I started with big goals. I hadn’t touched the novel in months and, quite honestly, hadn’t done any good amount of writing in a while.

Even so, I had lofty ambitions of finishing (or nearly finishing) my book. Well, alas, when the end of the month hit, I had disappointed myself. Only 5,000 new words. I had only written ten percent of what I’d set out to. I wasn’t very happy. But, then, something funny happened – I started to write a little more every day. I was immersed back into the story and I started to feel it again.

It turns out November didn’t give me a finished novel but it did give me a push in the right direction. As of last Friday, I broke 20,000 words and am full steam ahead! The last month and a half have seen me almost double my word count and I can’t wait to see what I can do in January. I’ve realized in the last few months that time is our most valuable asset – you can’t get more of it or get it back. At this point, I’m just thankful for what time I do have.

As they say, “nothing worth having is easy” and I’ve come to embrace this fact. Sometimes, when other priorities, whether personal or professional, demand your attention, you start to feel like you’ll never reach the end, you’ll never be able to devote enough time for you to be able to finish. This is a lie – don’t listen. Look that doubt in the face and tell it to go screw itself because, damn it, you’re going to accomplish whatever you please, no matter what. Just remember this: you cannot fail if you do not stop.

No matter how small the progress, if you determine to trudge forward day after day you will reach your destination or goal, regardless of what it is. It is the will to continue on in the face of defeat or failure that separates dreams from reality. It’s that simple. So, go do what you want to. Make it happen. Make something great; cause that’s sure as hell what I’m going to do.

Write to Change the World

communist-party-house

One of the things I have found to be true is that many people have a limited scope of experience with the world — more aptly, the many different “worlds” that exist within our society. Now, in no way do I claim to have experienced everything the world has to offer; far from it. However, I do believe I have a unique experience that merits sharing.

Growing up in the “city”, I was, as a child and adolescent, exposed to many things that most of the people I know were not. There are many who would call my neighborhood “unsafe”. Yes, there is the occasional break-in or theft and one of my good friends was held up for his bike when he was 10 years old. But a little bit of “insecurity” is a small price to pay for perspective.

In fact, in America we put such a high premium on security that sometimes it’s hard to imagine that the majority of the world (and even many people in our own country) live every day in fear. Fear that their children won’t be able to do any better than they could, fear that they might not be able to eat or feed their family and, yes, fear that they might die or be killed. These are the realities that many people live with on a daily basis, yet we often choose to ignore.

I was home-schooled (surprise!) until high school, which allowed me to read and read and read. Fortunately, I had parents who cared enough to teach me. Unfortunately, literacy is still the largest deciding factor in whether or not children will be successful, so much so that local governments could reasonably project prison budgets from third-grade reading scores — it’s that important. I, then, attended public high school. Yes, you heard that right: public (boogie, boogie) high school where I was, as a white male, a minority for, most likely, one of the only times in my life.

From there, I had the fantastic opportunity to attend Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, the top school of its kind in the country. At Northwestern, I was surrounded by many very smart, driven, talented people who, for the most part, had one thing in common: they were decidedly well-off. It was a different world, for me — something I had, truly, never experienced before.

The thing that really impressed itself upon me is the gulf of experience between the rungs of society.  First, there is the issue of expectations and how a parent’s station in life and their prodding can, almost singlehandedly, determine that child’s aspirations in terms of schooling and education. And, then, it was the general lack-of-understanding of what it is like to live a different life than the one you’re given. This fact was even further impressed after I left school. I realized that many people do not “know” the realities of the world — not only in terms of economic inequality but inequality, in general. Put bluntly, this inherent difference in people’s lives is something no one can really understand. But we can try…and experience is, I believe, the best lens through which to view those things we do not know, ourselves.

I believe that inequality and the dearth of empathy (or sympathy) is the great disease that plagues our world. When will we be rid of it? The answer is both encouraging and disheartening. We could be rid of it next year…or tomorrow…or in the next moment if we would only step back and say “I’m like everyone else and everyone else is like me”. Alright, alright, we’re not all the same but, as humans, we all have the same desires: to be loved, to be treated fairly and with kindness, to be able to determine what our life will be and to have that same hope for our children. Yes, we are all different but, in the end, we really aren’t that different.

Am I arrogant to think that my experiences can help people (or help people to change their minds)? Maybe. But, I also think that many of us have valuable experiences to share, that each and every one of us have experienced something our fellow human beings have not. These are the things we need to share because if they are not known they cannot be understood and I believe a little bit of understanding can go a long way. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: nothing that hasn’t been written down has ever changed the world. So, write. Tell us about you. Regardless of how you do it — through prose, through poety, through journalism or through journaling — just write. And, who knows, maybe you’ll change some minds; maybe you’ll change the world.

As a note, I’ll be blogging on the Huffington Post about many of the issues surrounding inequality. I will continue to write about and share my fiction here but if you would like to hear some of my more political commentary, please feel free to follow me there, as well.

Don’t Be Afraid, Just Write

journal-hero

So you want to write, huh? Alright. Now that we have that settled, where do you start? It’s, honestly, quite a difficult question to answer – and one that almost everyone will have a different answer to. But, first, you need to ask “why?”, “why do I want to write?” Whether you’re writing simply for pleasure, writing as a pastime or whether you’d like to don the revered title of “writer”, the motivation is what’s most important – it’s what will help push you through the hard times and will keep you writing regardless of all the reasons you “shouldn’t”.

In a 1938 response letter to family friend and hopeful author Frances Turnbull, F. Scott Fitzgerald critques her work (a short story) saying, “You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions, not the little minor things that only touch you lightly”. He essentially goes on to question if Turnbull has the dedication to make a career out of what Fitzgerald calls, “one of those professions that wants the ‘works.’”

Though he isn’t “brutal”, Fitzgerald conveys honestly what he believes to be the defining trait (or undertaking) of a writer. It is that fullness of feeling, that dedication to your craft and the wholly all-encompassing nature of “writing” that defines the professional from the amateur. And, though he doesn’t say it, Fitzgerald hints at the idea that a “writer” is one who has honed their craft. In spite of this, however, I believe that he would agree with my assertion that “wisdom” or “experience”, per se, isn’t necessary in order to write – all that is necessary is the ability to feel deeply and to convey that same feeling to your reader.

Recently, I was actually involved in a twitter debate with someone over this very question. When asked “where should I start?” by an adoring follower this man responded saying, essentially, that you should live first, experience first, and then you will be able to write. Here’s where I had to chime in. Why wait? Yes, I’m sure he’s right that more experience – both in interacting with people and, just generally, with the world around you – will give you a better grasp on the idea of “conveying feeling” but is it necessary to write? Do you have to, in a way, earn your chops as a writer by living before you write? I say not.

If you have the inclination to write, I’ll bet you’ve got some experience to draw on. If you’re aching to put your thoughts down on paper, I’m betting you have something to say. Why wait? Just write. Just do it. Writing as much as you possibly can will make you that much better at writing. Some people like to say that everyone has a certain amount of bad words in them…you just have to get them out. So, how are you going to get those bad words out, how are you going to get better if you never practice and are just waiting for the time when you’re “worthy” of being a writer?

Writing doesn’t wait for anyone. Yes, as Fitzgerald points out, you absolutely need talent. In any profession (if that’s your aim), talent is the prerequisite, if you will. But a close, close second is hard work and determination. No one gets good at something by hoping they will be. You only improve at those things for which you work the hardest. Again, I do believe Fitzgerald would deny some people the title of “writer”. However, I believe he would reserve that lack-of-distinction only for those who have not put in the time and effort, not because you “haven’t lived enough to be a writer yet”. Better yet, do your living while you’re writing (or vice-versa). Live (and read) and write and, who knows, you might just get where you want to go.

I’ll leave you with this: don’t be afraid to write, because the world needs to hear what you have to say. Yes, that’s right, the world needs what you have to say. I have found that, in writing, you write because you need to get those ideas you have out onto paper… and there are others (no matter how large or small your audience) who need to read what you have to say. Don’t be afraid. It might not be perfect. It might never be perfect. But I tell you with absolute certainty that no idea that hasn’t been written down has ever changed the world. So, go. Change the world – or, at least, change your world.

Portrait of a Family

This is a short piece I wrote for my friend Berni Xiong and her project Letters to He, which she launched in order to raise awareness for Parent Alienation by spreading personal stories of those affected by family strife. The piece was previously published on her site.

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Original Illustration by Rashid Faraj

Original Illustration by Rashid Faraj

“Okay, class; time to pull out your drawing pads,” Ms. Brackens said as the children settled into their seats.

This was David’s favorite part of the day. He just loved when they got to draw. People were always asking him what he wanted to be “when he grew up” – well, he didn’t know what he “wanted to be” but, as long as he could draw, he didn’t really care.

He reached into the canvas backpack on his lap and pulled out the sketchpad he’d gotten from his father the last time they were together. It had been almost three months – just before his eleventh birthday. They’d gone to Milly’s for a burger and ice cream the Wednesday before; it was their favorite place. David liked it because, no matter what was going on, they could always just sit there on the stone steps outside and enjoy each other’s company.

Sometimes they talked. Sometimes they didn’t need to say anything. Those times, all you could hear was David slurping up the rest of his water or his dad licking the cone obnoxiously. David knew they didn’t always look the most “normal” but, no matter what kind of night it was, it was always exactly what they needed.

David’s father was especially quiet that night. He knew his mom and dad got on each other’s nerves sometimes. His dad tried not to show it when he would see him but David knew when his parents weren’t getting along. He hadn’t even had to do any guessing this time – he’d heard the muffled yelling when his dad came to pick him up that night. They were at it again. But he told himself that as long as it didn’t turn into the middle-of-the-street yelling match they’d had a couple summers ago he’d be okay.

Actually, David had found that if he closed his bedroom door and put on his headphones he could hardly hear them. It was really the “afterwards” that was the worst: dad was quiet and mom complained – David knew more than he should, more than he could forget. So, even though he and his dad didn’t always talk too much, it was nice to be able to simply be with him and sit. They liked the silence.

“Alright, if everyone has their pads out, we can begin, now,” Ms. Brackens’ voice brought David back from his daydream. “Today, we’ll be depicting our families. Yes, you heard that right, you get to create a piece that describes or, somehow, explains your family. I know many of you have different situations, different experiences so please be creative.”

David looked to his left and then his right. Bobby Graham and Julie Hill were already opening their pads. Bobby went straight for the colored pencils. Of course he would, David thought. David resented how bright and cheery Bobby’s drawings always were. He knew that life wasn’t always “sunshine and butterflies”, as his grandmother said, and he couldn’t bear the naïveté that accompanied constant gratification. Julie was also already at work. David could see the crisp lines of a family forming around a proper fireplace, wisps of lace and satin adorning the idyllic image. It was so clean, so perfect, and her hand was the definition of steadiness; he envied it.

David looked back down at his empty paper and, all of a sudden, his mind went blank. He reached into his bag for a pencil and, sharpening it quickly, leaned over his canvas intently. He’d have to come up with something, he thought – this couldn’t be too hard. But after poring over the question of “family” for quite some time the only mark on David’s page was the spot where his pencil’s point had landed two minutes before.

Be creative, huh? That’s exactly what he’d have to do. He began slowly, stumbling slightly at first but, after a while, pretending became a little easier. As he began to hit his stride, David started to think more and more about the last three months – the last three months without his dad.

He remembered that day so clearly. The day of his birthday came. First thing in the morning, he jumped out of bed and bounded down the stairs. It was a Saturday and his mother was already in the kitchen cooking a big birthday breakfast for him.

“Good morning, honey,” she said as soon as he turned the corner from the staircase. “How about some cheddar eggs, sausage, bacon and pancakes for the birthday boy?”

“Yess,” David said, sustaining the final note through the rock-star-like, sock-glide he performed across the kitchen before hopping straight into his chair at the head of the table.

His mom left the eggs, which were still cooking on the stove, and brought a plate of pancakes over, fresh off the griddle. “Why don’t you start with these and the rest will be done soon.”

“Thanks, mom.” David dove in.

He wolfed down the three giant flapjacks just as his mom placed the main course in front of him.

“This is all so good,” David said in between bites. “I can’t wait to see what dad does with the cake, this year.”

A hobby of David’s father’s, it lent itself well to birthdays especially and was something David loved looking forward to. Variety was the name of the game – cheesecake one year, angel food the next and a German Chocolate Cake for good measure. Seven other cakes had been made (one for each year) and never, not once, did they disappoint.

“I don’t think there’s gonna be a cake this year, David,” his mom answered without looking up from the egg pan she was cleaning.

David swallowed the mouthful he had been working on and turned to look at his mother.

“I’m not getting a cake?”

“No, I mean…we just won’t have one of your father’s cakes here, this year,” she said. “He’s not coming to the party.”

At that moment, so many thoughts raced through David’s head he couldn’t keep track of them all. He’s not coming? Why isn’t he coming to my party? Does he not want to? Did she tell him not to come? Did I do something? He was dead silent, not knowing what to say first…or what to say at all. David felt like a deer in the headlights – he hadn’t expected this.

Finally, after a silence long enough to have been noticed, David was able to muster a response. All that came out was, “Why?”

“Your father, well, I’m not sure when you’ll see him next.” she said, still averting her eyes.

This just added fuel to the fire of David’s disbelief. Why not? Why is this happening? Completely blindsided, David was in shock; speechless. He felt like he was being crushed by an endless deluge of heaviness, the weight crushing him, making his breathing harder to come by. Now, he was seeing stars. Breathe, David, breathe, he had to remind himself.

He took a deep breath. His mother was still talking in the background – it was something about his dad “not being a good influence for you, anyway.” Sometimes he didn’t understand her and, right now, David was glad his mind was on other things because he didn’t have the will to try.

The fuzz had finally receded from the borders of David’s eyes and he could think clearly again. Well, as clearly as you could after just being told your father wouldn’t be at your eleventh birthday party. David knew he would never get a straight answer from his mother – he was on his own, with this one.

Back in the classroom, David’s drawing was shaping up nicely. He was surprised at how well he had been able to mask, on the paper, the uncertainty that plagued his thoughts. He glanced back over at Bobby and Julie’s pieces – they were putting on their finishing touches. Both were pristine and unapologetically pure.

David looked back down at his paper and was, suddenly, overcome with guilt. The pride that had accompanied his earlier assessment of success vanished into shame he had spent three months nursing. These feelings welled up in David until he could barely keep his mouth above the rising tide. Every day without his father, every day of pretending he was all right had finally gotten to him and, though he tried, he couldn’t see his way out. David reached at the surface, grasping for something, anything, but found nothing more than other questions.

He had lied so elegantly that many people would never be able to guess the scene he would have portrayed, had it been what he really felt. But he knew. And, because of this, the purity of his classmates’ pieces gnawed at David’s insides.

He still couldn’t explain why he hadn’t seen his father or why he hadn’t called – every time he tried to broach the subject with his mom, he got the same “he’s not good for you” line followed by a hasty change-of-subject. But the longer his dad was away the more David looked for him. He started seeing his face in others’. He heard his voice in the wind. He might have even seen his car parked on David’s street at night a couple of times.

It wasn’t fair but it was life, he’d learned. It was for this reason that, despite the temptation, David resisted his envy for the rose-colored lives of his classmates – existences that appeared so enviable and untarnished – for he knew too well that, often, no one knows the whole truth.