Instead of making resolutions or goals for a new year, I pick a word to guide me. Making one thing a priority allows me to be more consistent with my focus throughout the year instead of being disappointed by unmet expectations.
In 2015, I worked hard on my calligraphy business, and towards the end of the year, I realized it was no longer something I enjoyed or wanted to keep pursuing. I closed my business and put away all of my tools. I can confidently say I didn't miss doing calligraphy. What I did miss was being valued for creative work. If I would've continued with calligraphy, I'd still own a business and be working towards being self-employed. With calligraphy, I already had a path. Without it, I had no clue what I was doing next.
For 2016 I chose to focus on the word "sponge" because at the end of 2015, I felt empty. I was exhausted from comparing myself to others on the internet or viewing content I didn't enjoy or get value from. I was flicking through Instagram, mindlessly, just because it's there. Or reading a click-bait article about 90s throwback toys even though I lived in the 90s, and still have the memory of the toys. Why do we need to remember Furbys anyway? What's the point? What am I gaining from this? Instead of consuming with intention, I wasted time on content that grossly begged for my attention.
I felt uninspired and unhappy. I needed to change my behavior and set new intentions.
I cried a lot in 2016. (Didn't we all?) I felt like I was in the dark. I couldn't see the end. I didn't know how to move forward.
I searched for a new career, I looked at online classes and took a few, but mostly, I worried myself into panic attacks.
I'd start by innocently wondering what I was supposed to do each day. I wanted to be creative again and I had no outlet. What I was to do next in life? I need a plan! Tears would fill my eyes as I thought about when and where I had wronged myself. I'd think about when I was ambitious, had goals, had energy, and had confidence in myself. I let myself down. I'm only 24 and I'm going nowhere. What if my best successes were behind me?! What's my dream again? What if I die and I didn't attempt anything grand? I'll never be anyone worth anything! Shame-spiraling could've been my focus word for how often I would revisit it.
It wasn't helpful and it only kept me in the dark, but it is what I dealt with for months. So much of my mental energy had to keep my mind from going through these thoughts, and because of that I didn't have the energy to accomplish much. I didn't want to force myself either. I tried to practice patience. I hurt, but I didn't want to leap towards another creative outlet and risk hiding from my emotions by focusing on something new. I wanted to reflect, think, and consider what I needed to do.
"Sponge" meant I could focus on whatever form of art or content I wanted as long as I decided it was valuable. I let myself consume whatever my curiosity and interests led me to. I soaked in art exhibits, books, articles, papers, blogs, podcasts, Youtube, and some social media, but within these categories I had to discard anything that didn't get a clear yes if I asked the following questions:
1. Does this add value? Does it inform, teach, or deepen my thoughts?
2. Do I enjoy it? Does it make me feel good?
"If it isn't a clear yes, then it's a clear no." - Greg McKeown, Essentialism
In January, I stumbled upon Casey Neistat's Youtube channel. I discovered that in 2015 he began uploading a daily vlog. I watched a few, and I was hooked. I started at the beginning and in several weeks devoured them all. His vlogs were entertaining, but I was more interested in his combination of playful energy, excitement, and intense discipline and the knowledge he has of his craft. It was empowering to watch him relentlessly create, and have fun while doing it. The videos document his work, his travels, and his fight to do the creative work he loves. Every single morning, he pushed upload to share something he made. His work made me crave the same kind of energy and discipline for my craft, whatever it might be.
Around the same time, I started reading Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. I learned to "follow your curiosity, not your passion," which I used throughout the year to guide me to new content.
Weeks later, I found myself wandering a bookstore unsure of what to read. The literary magazines caught my attention, because the covers are usually well-designed. I would never pick one up, because I thought the contents weren't for me. I wrongly assumed literary magazines were for people more intelligent than me, or I wasn't qualified to read one because I didn't pursue a literature degree. Even if I had purchased one, there was no way I'd ever get through it! The Paris Review is a thick publication! But, I was curious.
I started picking up any magazine I wanted to flip through until I filled my arms. I sat on a nearby bench and dropped the stack on my left side. Then, I'd pick one off the top and read the letter from the editor. If I liked the letter, I'd flip through, stopping to read something which (turns out!) could be a poem, short story, essay, or sometimes an interview with a writer. Any publication I decided I liked and wanted to read more of, I put in a new stack to my right. It was a joy to bring three home - The Baffler, Slice, and TLR.
The literary magazine section is currently my favorite place to browse. My one hour of curiosity led me to discover that literary magazines are for me!
Reading was a large part of what I enjoyed and got value from this year. I read more books than I have in any year before. 12! My personal best! A full list of those books with short reviews will be posted soon. I read more articles online and in print this year. Wrestling with a New York Times on Saturday morning became a ritual — something I hadn't regularly done since college. For online reading, I narrowed my sources a lot. I stopped keeping up with most blogs I'd read for years because they were no longer enjoyable or valuable. I kept reading Seth Godin's blog, Patrick Rhone, Man Repeller, Into the Gloss, and a handful of others. I read more email newsletters on a daily and weekly basis (the daily Skimm, the NYT Morning Briefing, Austin Kleon's weekly, Ann Friedman's weekly and a few more). And, I read any article my boyfriend sent me. The combination of those last two sentences influenced us to start our own newsletter this year, Like-Minded!
Narrowing my focus helped me consume higher quality content. Reading a book could lead me to another book. A podcast could introduce me to a new website. An article could introduce me to a new writer and their brilliant body of work. The more I soaked in good things, the more it helped me feel whole and replenished again.
What I learned
I used my year to focus on the work of others and not to create anything of my own, but , without intention or force, I noticed that throughout the year I wrote because it is what I needed to do. I filled 11 Field Notes.
I wrote when I was pathless in the dark and panicking. I documented content I consumed and what I learned and thought about it. This year I finally wrote about my experience with a childhood disease and how I feel about it as an adult. In the summer, I wrote and published for 78 consecutive days as a way to cope with a stress fracture caused by my disease. I wrote about my experiences and the things that have helped me throughout this year.
Writing is essential to me. It is the thing I do naturally. When I'm consistently writing, I feel like the most authentic version of myself.
If writing were illegal, I’d be in prison. I can’t not write. It’s a compulsion. - David Baldacci
Writing is true to me, but periodically I stop writing. I forget its importance and lose myself. Eventually, I write to remember myself again.
Every time I go through this cycle, I arrive at this epiphany: Writing helps me. I need to write. I want to stop forgetting.
I will practice writing every day.