So the New Year has begun and at the moment I have a pugilist’s spirit towards it. So many years seem to slither out of my grasp and party off into the sunset. I feel it would be good if I could take a bit more of an active stance on this one, maybe get my own way four out of seven days in the week, perhaps. But at the same time, I used to get myself into chronic-fatigue-shaped trouble because of a tendency towards metaphorically rolling my sleeves up, moving into fifth gear and generally throwing bucket loads of energy at immovable problems. When I look out of the window I see an astringently cold, bleak January day. What exactly do I think I’m fighting?
This morning my husband declared that he wanted to make some New Year’s resolutions but he couldn’t quite pin down what they should be. Instead he segued seamlessly into an anecdote from one of the books I’d given him for Christmas. It was the story of the Cambridge Blues Rowing team’s journey to victory in the boat race in ’07. It’s always the case that more rowers train up for the race than there are places in the boat, and inevitably there are moments in the run up when athletes get shelved. In one winter camp, a rower named Jake was told he hadn’t made the grade. This was a bitter defeat for the American, but his response to the news was to train even harder, to have patience and to persist. Over the course of the next few months, things changed in the boat. Other rowers lost their form, got moved around, and so it turned out that Jake ended up back in the boat again as part of the winning crew. ‘So to return to the topic of resolutions,’ I said, once he’d finished, ‘what you’re saying is that you want more focus, determination and discipline this year.’ ‘All the things I lack,’ my husband said, grimly. But of course, like most people, my husband doesn’t lack those qualities, he just hasn’t found the working practice that gives him access to them.
When there’s something that we really want, there’s never any difficulty in marshalling the requisite drive force to go with it. But desire means distance, it depends on not-having, on being thwarted. Nothing looks so enticing as the project, or the person, that remains resolutely out of reach. Alas, once it’s landed in your lap, that selfsame proposition looks completely different. Maintaining enthusiasm, confidence, engagement and progress over lengthy periods of time on projects that absolutely nothing prevents you from tackling – well, that needs mensa level emotional intelligence. My old way was simply to force myself, and believe you me, I was good at that. But let me stand as a terrible warning here: this is not the solution to the problem. This year I have two main goals. First of all, and most importantly, I want to finish my academic book. Secondly, I want to practice my non-fiction writing. And both of these need to happen around my part-time work at the university. It ought to be possible, right?
So, bearing all this in mind, these are, not resolutions exactly, but things I’ve come to understand that I’d like to work on this year:
1. Routine. I tend to prefer writing in the afternoon, but at present, four out of five afternoons are booked up. I need to think about ways to make the morning a comfortable, pleasurable writing time. But I need to begin by prioritizing writing in that space, and not allow other jobs to creep in and squat in the time zone.
2. I’m still recovering from chronic fatigue. For the past year I’ve found it achievable to work in a two-hour block daily. This year, gently, I’d like to extend that to three hours. You can get through quite a lot in three hours.
3. Chronic fatiguers are advised to colour-code their daily activities, with red indicating those that take the most energy, and green those that represent restorative down time. This is actually an excellent life practice, and a good way to get lots of reading done, if I sandwich exertion between blocks of peaceful reading.
4. Timetabling each day is a good practice. I try always to assess how much energy I have every morning, to keep a rolling to-do list and to parcel up the day accordingly. This is a practice I’d like to refine. It means breaking all tasks down into their composite elements, which is also a very useful approach.
5. Beginning and ending the day with meditation is something I’d like to do with more regularity. I also know I need to get a little fitter. I’m intending to take up yoga in the next few weeks. My husband also bought me an exercise ball for Christmas – we’ll see how that goes.
6. The aim of any organization I do is to make the day feel spacious, manageable, and relatively efficient. I’ve found it’s better to get something actually done in an hour and then give myself the rest of the day off, rather than witter about all day trying to do something and allowing myself to be repeatedly distracted. Just trying to pack in as much as I can is a disaster – it squeezes the fun out of everything.
7. Blogging has encouraged me to think that it’s okay to have several books on the go at once. I want to read more French this year, which is simply a question of always have one French novel as part of that book selection. Ditto for motherhood books, of which I still have a ton to get through.
8. I feel much better if I maintain the right mindset. Which for me basically means not letting my gaze extend beyond the computer screen. While I’m just practicing a craft, all is well; when I start to think about achieving something tangible, it all goes horribly wrong. It’s the cue my inner critic is waiting for to leap out of the shadows and start berating me. The closer work gets to a state of meditation, the less energy it takes and the more rewarding it becomes.
9. I have to accept that some days are lost causes for getting anything much done, that life gets in the way, interruptions are par for the course, and not be discouraged by that.
10. Reading isn’t just a pleasure for me, it’s a way of altering my state of mind, motivating myself to write and generally perking up my spirits. I know there are periods when I just want to take things in and be replenished and uplifted. I need lots of comfort books, but I also need plenty of quality writing. On a slightly tangential final note, I’ve decided that I’m going to embark on another modern American classics selection that I’ve called ‘Richards and Johns’. I have to plan to pick up books by men as my instinct reaches for novels by women. Over the first half of the year I’m hoping to read:
John Updike – Rabbit, Run
John Cheever – The Wapshot Chronicles
John Barth – Chimera (if I can prise it out of my husband’s hands)
Jon(athon) Franzen – The Corrections
Richard Ford – The Sportswriter
Richard Powers – The Time of Our Singing
Richard Yates – Revolutionary Road
I think I’ll start with the Updike later this week. That’s the other part of any resolutions of course – ensuring you have achievable goals! At least that’s one I’m pretty sure I can manage.