Writing Goals

There’s less than a week remaining in January, which, for me anyway, means it’s still the New Year. Which means we’re still within the 2018-goal-setting window, if there’s such a window at all. When speaking of goals here, I mean writing goals. (I’m a writer, so what other goals are there to ponder?)

As 2017 came to a close, I thought long and hard about my goals for 2018: a large writing project to revise, essays to complete and submit to literary journals, and agents/publishers to whom to pitch my memoir.

Ten days before the New Year, when I was thinking about how to hone in on manageable, realistic writing goals, an email from Brevity, a journal of concise literary nonfiction, popped-up in my inbox. I clicked open the email, and there it was, the post that could not have come at a better time. In “The Year of the Writer,” Allison Williams starts out by first encouraging us to celebrate even our tiniest 2017 writing accomplishments. Maybe it’s a sentence you’re proud of, the essay you finally sent to a dream literary journal, the positive feedback you received from your writing group, or the rejection letter from an editor who took the time to offer specific suggestions and asked you to re-submit in the future. Allison’s mindful nudge for us to recognize each of our writing accomplishments, while examining what worked and didn’t work, was grounding for me. It gave me permission to pause, to take my time to mine the ever-growing list of writing goals I continue to compile and house in a somewhat large file on my computer’s desktop.

So how did I hone in on my 2018 writing goals? I listened to Allison and focused on the classic SMART formula: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timely. As Allison cautioned, I was careful to not set too many goals, and took into consideration my emotional/mental idiosyncrasies. (I become anxious when I have too much ahead of me, and end up spending more time thinking about how I wish I weren’t so anxious than getting as much work accomplished as I’d like.)

Here’s what I came up with (except for goal #1, the deadlines are self-imposed):

1) Apply for the 2018 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. Deadline February 15, 2018.

2) Submit fifty query letters to agents by the end of March, which is in addition to the 125 I sent in 2017.

3) Each week, revise two chapters of a draft of a novel I wrote two years ago.

4) Revise an essay rejected by a mainstream newspaper, then submit to other publications. Deadline February 10, 2018.

5) Complete an essay about processing forgiveness and submit to literary journals. Deadline: still thinking about it.

6) Collect ideas/thoughts/questions regarding the structure of my next memoir. Deadline: March 1 2018.

Since I do well with visual reminders of things I need/want to accomplish, I typed my writing-goal list, printed it out, and taped it to the inside front cover of my 2018 date book. That way, when my mind gets over-excited about other writing projects, I have that list readily available to remind me, “Melissa, stay focused. Of course, if something else comes up that’s worthy of veering off my writing-goal course, like an offer from an agent to represent my memoir, who then quickly sells it to, say, Random House, and I’m too busy traveling for my book tour to complete those two essays or work on my novel, then I’m all good, really, really good.

So far, I’m ahead when it comes to goal #1: I hit the send button on January 6. Now I just have to wait until May to hear back from Bread Loaf. I’ve taken a small bite out of goal #2: six queries sent – forty-six remaining. As for goal #3, I begin the revisions of my novel during a five-day retreat in Point Reyes, California – what I call the kickoff event to making my next large project the best that it can be. Goal #4: I’m happy to share that I’m deep into revisions of the essay, and feel good about meeting my February 10 deadline. Goal #5: Well, there’s a reason why I didn’t set a deadline: I only recently started the first draft of this essay, and still need to think about a realistic time frame. For some reason (one of my idiosyncrasies), once I set a date, I feel as if I can’t change it. So I need to be sure before putting it out there in black and white. Goal #6: I’ve come out ahead here too; I’ve already decided on the structure of my second memoir, and have even written the first and last sentences of the book!

What writing-life experiences from 2017 have helped you to formulate your 2018 goals? What are your writing goals for 2018? How do you navigate distractions, keep your butt in the chair, keep your eyes on the page and your fingers on the keyboard?









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The importance of wasting time

The other day, while searching for ideas to jumpstart my writer’s brain, I decided to haul out from my file cabinet the library of journals fat with notes from lectures I attended as a Vermont College of Fine Arts graduate student. I thumbed through each page, scanning for a word, a phrase, anything that made my heart skip a beat. Aha, after several minutes, it finally happened, the one sentence I needed most to see, to hear, to touch, to taste: “The importance of wasting time.”I let out a long, calming breath, comforted by this affirmation: it’s okay to be idle.

Creative people do take time off from their projects to engage in completely different activities. Maybe a writer takes time to paint or doodle, to play music, to learn a new skill, or to take a nap – imagine that, taking a nap during the day. Such idleness allows time for “incubation,” says Connie May Fowler and Patrick Madden, prolific writers, authors, and VCFA faculty members. This incubation period works best when we first identity the problem with our manuscript, then step away from it, throw all the worrying over it in the trash – and live our lives. (Take that nap.)

Think of the incubation period as a time for “cooking your book,” Connie and Patrick say. Of course, to leave your book, or project, “cooking,” requires trust – trusting that you’ll eventually be served a heaping plate of creativity while you watch for the water to come to a boil, or the edges of your project to turn a sugary golden brown. But if you’re open to the process, if you are curious and interested in every cobwebbed moment, awake and responsive to every random swirl of a leaf, every sigh of a passing stranger, every intentional touch of a hand on the curve of your back, the creativity will come.


Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top. ~ Virginia Woolf




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Writing Prompts

writing prompts

I recently attended a memoir writing retreat at La Finca in Vieques, Puerto Rico, where eleven of us gathered in the Caribbean breeze each morning to discuss work submitted by two separate participants. But before we plunged into the nitty-gritty of structure, voice, character development, and so on, we warmed up our brains each morning by spending fifteen minutes responding to a writing prompt provided by Elizabeth Cohen, award winning writer, poet, memoirist, journalist, steadfast writing mentor, and Assistant Professor of English at SUNY Plattsburgh.

I like writing prompts, timed prompts; they drive me to write fast, to keep the pen moving, to not fret over whatever it is I’m writing about. Prompts force me to let it all out, to express what I otherwise would second-guess expressing. One of my favorite prompts Elizabeth offered us came from a Mary Oliver poem, “The Summer Day.” In the poem she says, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.” The prompt: “What is a prayer?”

Maybe I wasn’t paying close enough attention to what Elizabeth asked us to respond to, because I heard her say this: “What does it mean to pray.” But, hey, that’s the beauty of prompts; they leave room for choice. So here’s what I wrote:

To be still and quiet is to pray. To walk barefoot in the grass, and feel each blade between the toes. To close your eyes against the day’s glare and turn inside yourself and breath out any knots and tangles. To breath in the memory of being carefree, of doing water angels and skipping stones on a midnight lake. To pray is to sing, to write, to call forward that which makes you still, still enough to listen to the sounds you cannot hear. It’s to hold close to you the heartbeat of what matters most to you. To pray is to remember that you are not alone, and that candy breezes have the capacity to carry you closer and closer toward the inside of you, deep into the uterine center of you. To pray is to imagine, to feel, to hold a butterfly in the palm of our hand.

I’d love to hear from others what it means to you to pray. (or if you’re good at paying attention, “What is a prayer?”) What other mind-limbering prompts do you have to share?

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Music and Memory


While researching the effects of music on memory for an article I recently wrote for my local newspaper, I had the opportunity to speak with a participant of an adult day program in the area. Like most of the other participants, he has Alzheimer’s. When speaking with him, he shared with me his life-long passion for classical music, and invited me to listen to one of his favorite albums that he just happened to have with him at the program that day. He slipped it onto the 1940’s turntable situated in the center of the homelike furnished room, then lowered the needle onto the record. He started humming to the piano solo, snapping his fingers, sweeping his arms through the air, performing a music conductor’s dance.

The music did something for him, to him. Perhaps you know what that feels like. When you hear a specific song from your past, what happens? You can’t help but time-travel in your mind, linking that song to a long-ago, meaningful event, like the day you got married, or your high school senior prom, or the one, and only, time you sang Karaoke. Research indicates that listening to music activates regions in the brain responsible for motor activity, emotions,  creativity, and autobiographical memories. Listening to music is particularly beneficial to those suffering from memory loss, whether it’s from a traumatic brain injury, dementia, or Alzheimer’s.  Music calms ceaseless brain static, helping one to focus on the present and recall  long-term memories.

Dan Cohen, a social worker who founded the non-profit Music and Memory, recognizes the benefits of music, particularly for those suffering from memory loss. His wish to be able to listen to his favorite 60’s music if he were living in a nursing home was the driving force behind his idea to bring iPods, or other digital music technology into elder care facilities, with the  goal of delivering personalized music to the residents, thereby improving quality of life. The miracle-like effects of Music and Memory are evident in the documentary “Alive Inside.” The film features a nursing home resident wearing an iPod, listening to his favorite Cab Calloway songs. Within seconds of hearing the first song, he re-awakens, the music stirring him from his sedate, nearly unresponsive state. His eyes snap fully open, his voice singing in a clear vibrato, as if someone just reset his memory’s circuit breaker.

When I told my husband and two of his adult daughter’s, Rachel and Hannah, about Music and Memory during a recent family gathering we decided to make a list of our favorite songs to share with one another. We each took turns playing them on our iPhones, and, as we did, something remarkable happened: a flash-flood of melodic memories. “Hobo’s Lullaby!” Hannah called out. “Remember, Rachel, Dad used to play it all the time.” Then it was Rachel’s turn: “I learned this Fleetwood Mac song on my guitar. When was that, like ten years ago?” When I played “Cat’s in the Cradle” by Harry Chapin, I felt as if I was back in high school again, singing out loud with my friends, “And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man in the moon …”

Which songs jump start your time-travel engine? Where do those songs take you?




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“Failure breeds success”


Do you ever berate yourself for failing, tell yourself that you should quite while you’re ahead? Has your writing been rejected by literary journals, magazines, and newspapers time and again ? If you’re a writer, you know what I’m talking about. Yes, we get rejected, a lot. Failure is inevitable. It’s inevitable for painters, dancers, musicians, for all creators. Writer, author, and inspirational speaker, Elizabeth Gilbert, failed – for six years she “failed at getting published.” She received rejection letters in the mail, every day.

Are you wondering where I’m going with this failure thread? Keep reading. As Elizabeth says in her Ted Talk, “Success, failure, and the drive to keep creating,” failure breeds success.”

How so? Elizabeth’s story is the answer:

Nearly a decade ago, when readers from all over devoured her memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, she became an instant success. But with that success, she says, came the hard part: “How in the world I was ever going to write a book again that would ever please anybody.”

You may not be a writer, but does this sentiment sound familiar? You’ve succeeded at something: maybe a record label has finally recognized your music. Or you’ve been accepted into an artist colony after applying countless times. Now that you’ve made it, you ask yourself, What’s next? This isn’t enough. I need to do more. I need to keep pleasing my partner, my parents, my grandparents, my children, my pet goldfish.

So, even if we succeeded, we feel like we’ve failed, because we burden ourselves with having to do better and better, all the time, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But if we believe we can’t keep succeeding, we may seriously consider giving up, which is what Elizabeth considered after publishing her memoir. It’s all in the mind, really. That we can all agree upon, right? We see things in black and white, good or bad. Success equals good; failure equals bad. (Whoever came up with “good” and “bad” should be … Well, I’ll leave it at that.) Of course, the unending praise bestowed on us when we succeed boosts our egos, until we realize that we need to do more, do better, that this, whatever it is, is not enough. Similarly, the lack of recognition when we fail buries our confidence. Either way, when it comes to good versus bad, Elizabeth cautions us: “There’s a real equal danger in both cases of getting lost out there in the hinterlands of the psyche.”

To stop ourselves from second-guessing ourselves, we need to find a way to forge ahead, to fire-up our inspiration. For Elizabeth, she found that inspiration from past life lessons: the constant rejections she received in the mail each day. Rather than quitting though, she found her way back: “I’m going home,” she says. Not home in the literal sense; home in the artistic sense. Writing was, is, her home. Because writing is what she loves, she returns to it again and again. She went back home after the book she wrote in follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love failed. And she keeps going home.

But how do we find our way back home? Here’s a hint from Elizabeth: “Your home is whatever in this world you love more than you love yourself.”


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