You can’t achieve them if you don’t have them.
The thing about goals is that if you write them down, and if you give them a deadline, you may fail. That’s scary for many people, failure. I’ve failed enough to know that it won’t be the end of the world (except for a few times flying, in which case, yes). The more times you fail and bounce back, the more times you fall off the bike and get back on, the more times you can put yourself out there again. It’s a challenge to yourself, but it’s not fruitless. You can game the game. Ever heard about SMART goals? Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-Based. To have a vague goal that’s out of your reach isn’t a goal at all, it’s a dream. When I was little, I wanted to be the first person on Mars, mostly because I thought future history students would get a kick out of “Armstrong on the moon, Armstrong on Mars.” But I didn’t actively plan the steps toward attaining that position. I did, however, have a map of what I needed to do in order to become a Marine. When people ask me how I became an attack helicopter pilot, I usually tell them, “One step at a time.”
About a month ago, I sent my MFA thesis – what I’m calling the “bones” of my memoir – to three literary agents. One of my goals is to be represented by a literary agent, preferably in the next year or two. I was immediately rejected by one. A week later, the second rejected me. And a week after that, the third. Was I disappointed? Sure. Was I surprised? No. Deep down, I knew my manuscript wasn’t ready, wasn’t polished, wasn’t even the narrative story I intended to tell. I almost felt like I was fishing for failure. I wanted to break that failure ice, taste the brief excitement of clicking open the email, and make peace with the outcome so when I submitted my next round of queries, I wouldn’t have to go through that initial process. Or maybe I’m a sucker for pain.
Having been rejected three times led me to think about goals, concrete goals. Their purpose is to provide stepping stones toward bigger goals. In theory, if you’ve completed all the steps of a goal, you should be able to attain your goal, even if you think it’s out of your hands, like being signed with an agent. Perhaps this is where that overused phrase in writing comes from: Trust the process. Here are some of my SMART goals:
1. Write every day my child is in day care (currently, three mornings a week). Aim for 1,000 words each session.
2. Rewrite my thesis manuscript by 31 December 2019.
3. Write a blog post twice a month.
4. Find and sign with a literary agent by July 2020.
5. Publish my memoir by 2021 (or at least have a book deal by then).
See, what’s scary about writing down goals is now you have to work toward them. I just made mine public. Oh, the horror! But it’s a way of making yourself accountable to yourself. Not only do you have your own pressure to achieve them, you have peer pressure from your family, friends, and well-meaning fans. And guess what? If you don’t complete them on time, they probably weren’t exactly SMART goals – usually the timeline wasn’t long enough, or your goal wasn’t realistic, or you couldn’t measure your progress. This sounds scientific, but it’s really not. It’s a bit of being organized and deliberate. Kind of like flying. What makes a good flight? The seven P’s: Prior Proper Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. Same thing.
I’d like to make a living from my words. That would be nice. That’s a goal after some of my other goals have been checked off. As I told a representative of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs yesterday over the phone, “Yes, I’m self-employed, but I don’t make any money. My income as a writer is zero.” He seemed to have a hard time understanding that. I’ve made my peace with it.