Back in grade school, I used to revere New Year’s Eve as supernatural, far more than the daily midnight switch. I saw it as the only shared holiday across the planet, and that was powerful to me. Up until high school, I spent every NYE with my best friends; the annual occasion when we would organize wrestling brackets and fight with all our little girl might, chew singular ice cubes grasped with washcloths, and lose our voices screaming numbers. In 2000, I remember flying out of the house at the ball drop, running through crispy snow like a bat out of hell, fully expecting the furnace to spontaneously combust, the street lights to flicker, every digital display to flash binary messages of chaos.
Now that I realize we humans aren’t magically transporting from one end of some cosmic calendar to another, I find less of a reason to make big plans or stay up well into the wee hours of the next year. Perhaps my frugality and disinterest in screaming over music assist this preference.
But even though the actual celebration has grown humdrum, I still uphold the practice of marking time and seeing a full life as many chapters stitched together. How author-y of me.
I like the idea of New Year’s resolutions in the same way I like the idea of year-round goal setting and constant self-improvement. That was something I enjoyed about my two- to five-month stints abroad for work. My TGS terms sectioned life into manageable time periods in which I could feasibly take on challenges, improve skills, change habits, or assess a shift in my thinking from start to finish. I was always reflecting on the pre- and post- trip “me.”
For the last few years, I’ve chosen reading challenges on New Year’s, and for the last few years, I’ve fallen short of every resolution. 13 out of 20. 29 out of 40. If I counted all the books I started, then both years would have been “missions accomplished,” but what’s the point in cutting corners with personal challenges? Though we humans seem collectively terrible at keeping NYE resolutions (just observe gym attendance alone throughout the year), I don’t believe they’re made to be broken.
Not only did I write these with paint marker on the “Resolution Wall” next to those of my friends, but I used Good Reads to track my reading goals in a quasi-public way (for quasi-accountability). If you aren’t using Good Reads yet, I highly recommend it for any reader. It’s one of the few social platforms that doesn’t feel like wasted time, and it manages book lists, reviews, and the kind of meta data I appreciate to enrich my solitary reading.
Back in grad school, I reflected in a process paper to my advisor about goal-setting, and this idea comes back to me now with regard to my reading:
“Setting high targets for writing became a standard for me throughout the MFAW program, and I’m still uncertain whether that helped me finish on time or whether those lofty goals registered in my head as impossible to reach and therefore stalled my progress.”
I admit that 20 books a year isn’t lofty for a writer who hasn’t been employed since June. Heck, my pal Berna read 62 while traveling throughout Asia! And even if I subtract January through April as months dominated by manuscript revision, that still left me with 8 months—12 days per book to reach 20 by this NYE.
Have you ever set a goal for yourself only to step back in the process and say, “What was the point of this goal anyway?” Why would committing myself to reading a certain number of books—any books of any length, content, quality, or genre—in a calendar year benefit my future self? Especially in the year when I chose to commit full-time to writing?
To be clear, reassessing goals out of laziness isn’t something I’m promoting; neither is finishing a goal just because you set it, regardless of that goal’s value to you or anyone.
Sure, I believe all reading is objectively valuable, but at a certain point this year I determined that reading to achieve a number wasn’t what I needed. If the number was all that mattered, I would have read a couple dozen short YA novels and called it a job well done. Instead, I reassessed when I found myself trying to make book choices in favor of that arbitrary goal; I decided it was more important to choose books for their utility in my writing process, something I learned from other writers and my program.
Perhaps it’s worth noting that books aren’t the only things I read, and I imagine you’re the same (since you’re, ya know, reading this). Every day I read thousands of words in blog posts and journals, and I think they provide access to different and often valuable content for a fledging writer. Meta-reading. Industry education. Exposure to colleagues in an invisible and unsocial work environment. Where would I be if I didn’t value this reading as well? It exposes me to such reads as Can Reading Make You Happier? by Ceridwen Dovey, in which the author presents a good argument against reading indiscriminately:
“‘If you actually calculate how many books you read in a year—and how many that means you’re likely to read before you die—you’ll start to realize that you need to be highly selective in order to make the most of your reading time.’”
Good point. Why waste your precious time befriending people that don’t reciprocate or enrich your life? Why eat junk foods that do nothing positive for your health? And why waste valuable mental energy reading anything but a carefully chosen book that guarantees some degree of value to your larger life goals?
I still like reading challenges, but I’ve grown to view them as loose expectations of myself, finish lines I aspire I cross but won’t be disappointed if I don’t. Their utility comes from the periodic reminder that a year is both long and short, that I have plenty of books in my queue that could enhance my writing, my outlook, my thinking.
What’s a resolution post about a reading challenge without a list of what I read, amirite?
Books read in 2018
Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Not what I thought it would be from watching the movie. Modeled for me how to ground a reader in the experience of the character’s body even when using flashbacks or ruminations. Really helped me in the revision stage of my manuscript first draft.
The Ticking is the Bomb by Nick Flynn
As close to poetry as I imagine a memoir can get. Vignettes. Recurring metaphors. Heavy, beautiful, and confusing.
White Like Me by Tim Wise
Narrative nonfiction/memoir for a different intended effect. Eye-opening in content, not craft.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
A refreshing reprise of fiction, reminding me that imagined stories can spark just as much thinking and emotion as lived ones. Sometimes I forget that…
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Another eye-opening read, this time for content and craft. A love letter to a son. Poetic, at times too much so, to the effect of losing me in metaphor, but something I could reread later and notice a different layer of meaning.
Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Made for a quick and timely read as I graduated with my MFA at the same time. The only quote I remember being struck by: “If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write towards vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act—truth is always subversive.”
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
A beast of a memoir that won a Pulitzer for biography. Very heavy on the surfing terminology, but he modeled well social commentary amidst reportage and plot.
Another Pulitzer nomination that deserves your time. She manages to describe a lot of the complicated emotions I feel while traveling abroad as an American, as well as when I come home and struggle to accept the differences in mentality and outlook that rear their head as reverse culture shock. Really strong work of long-form journalism.
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
A difficult childhood indeed, and her craft is strong as well. Far better than the movie adaptation.
The Prophet by Khalil Gibran
Picked this up at my hotel in Morocco because I wanted a book that felt place-based and wise even though the setting of Orphalese is fictional and metaphorical. Very quotable. Succinct. Poetic. I love the section on children. Parents, have a look.
Black Silk Pajamas by Thi Mai Nguyen
A self-published book you should read for content alone. I’m disappointed in the not-quite ghost writer/editor of this autobiography of a Vietnamese spy and former first lady (who puts their name on someone else’s autobiography? …hence why I don’t list him as author). This one had personal relevance to me and dropped a dump truck of perspective on my own woes of adulthood. Try attempting to escape Vietnam 16 times by boat with an infant…
A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
Post-colonial island experience told from the perspective of a native Antiguan. She unleashes with a razor tongue and unabashed commentary on power dynamics between oppressors and the oppressed. I need more recommendations like this (thanks, Steven Dunn!).
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Certainly one of the most influential books in content and craft I’ve read so far in relation to my own WIP. A missionary family goes to the Congo in 1959 and lives in a small village that will change the make-up and dynamic of their family forever. If it were up to me, this would be require reading for all missionaries, humanitarians, professionals in a cross-cultural environment in which power dynamics play any role (not to mention anyone in the business of sales or evangelism).
There were a handful of books I attempted in 2018 that I paused for various reasons: Peacekeeping by Mischa Berlinski, Deuba: A study of a Fijian village by W. R. Geddes, This Boy’s Life: A Memoir by Tobias Wolff, and currently In Fiji Islands by Ronald Wright.
Will I set another reading challenge? You betcha. And I’ll probably bomb that one, too. But if I’m honest, I had many more resolutions this year that I just didn’t write down:
quit my job to focus on writing (check)
settle down in Denver (ahhhh, check)
meet someone special (woohoo, check!)
get my WIP ready to submit (this one is still that: in progress)
Though I’m preparing in these final hours of 2018 to clarify my reading and writing goals and set myself up for success in 2019, I know that goal-setting is year-round, a constant remeasuring and resetting of the goalposts, and I’m happy with where I am: possessing the awareness that I could always do better but knowing I’m better off than I was 365 days ago.
Always moving forward. Not looking back.
Happy New Year, folks.