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A manifesto on goals. And: Abby's Secret Summer School is here!
In mid-April, I took a week off from teaching, and when the most recent writing classes started back up again — with basically all the same wonderful women — I proceeded as normal: here’s the poem we’re reading, what do you see, here’s your prompt, let’s write.
But at the end of class, someone in one group said, you didn’t ask us what our goals were for this session!
Goals! Had I asked them this last session? I guess I had (I mean, clearly I had), but it had entirely slipped my mind, so very Freudian of me. Or perhaps it hadn’t slipped my mind. Maybe it had never really been there to begin with.
But since I aim to please, the following week, I gave them a chance to name their goals. The two I remember before my internet went to shit were: I want to write faster and I want to write more courageously. Instead of nodding and writing them down and encouraging them to, yes yes, pursue those very good goals, I basically then proceeded to declare them bad goals and to tell them to forget about them.
We were laughing — bad goal, next! — but I was serious. The person who wanted to “write faster” writes the most astonishing little gems every week that blow us to bits. She spends the first few minutes of writing time thinking, then puts down only a few sentences, but those sentences leap off the page. The person who wanted to “write more more courageously” writes some of the most bold stuff we hear each week, exposing a layer of vulnerability that astounds us.
Why did they want to be any different? To me, so much of the benefit of writing on any sort of consistent basis is learning about your own rhythms. What works for you, what doesn’t, how you dive in — quickly or slowly — whether you write a little and grow it, or write a lot and cut later. As I said to them, don’t fix what’s not broken.
Clearly I have my own fierce love/hate relationship to goals, probably something I should work on in therapy rather than play out on my poor students. And maybe this is really, at heart, a semantic question: what one person calls “a goal” is what someone else might call “something to explore or experiment with,” or, to another — like me! — “something to play with.” Language here shifts the meaning slightly but maybe the end result is the same: you’re showing up with an intention, and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it might be steadying to some!
In my workshops (as opposed to the open writing classes), I do ask people to declare “goals” or at least name what they want to work on — if they want to publish something, then we look at how they might complete some pieces and start sending them out. If someone wants to work on different forms, that’s an entirely different, albeit equally important, goal. The feedback they receive shifts according to the desired outcome.
But in the open writing classes? I mostly want people to be present with whatever comes up. I want to be a midwife for bravery and risk-taking and surprise and depth. How do goals work alongside those things?
So when one person in class finally said, I don’t really have a goal and I don’t really know what I’m doing and I don’t really consider myself a writer, I thought: yes, yes, yes. This is more up my alley! None of us know what we’re doing! Welcome!
It might be pathological, my desire to create an atmosphere free of goals, but I think it has more to do with freedom, with ego, with failure, with the unconscious. To me — and I think to this particular goal-less writer — setting up a goal means you risk failing at said goal and then feeling awful about yourself. Aren’t there enough parts of our lives we risk failing at every day, or feel like we’re already failing at? Am I a good partner, parent, student, employee, boss, citizen, collaborator, tax payer? Am I keeping my house clean and my fridge stocked and am I submitting all the class forms on time and registering for all the camps? These things — or at least some of them — have clear answers, succeed or fail. But whether you succeed at a writing goal? I don’t know how beneficial it is to look at it through that lens.
Perhaps my manifesto against writing goals is entirely pathological: my own inability to sell my first book. If I’m totally honest with myself, I think I did go to grad school hoping to leave with a book contract in hand, or at least get one within the few years that came after. That didn’t happen, although the story is much more complicated. So when I think about that particular goal in that particular way, I failed, and that sucks. But in so many other ways, I didn’t, and those ways are much more important to me.
In the writing of that book, my work — and my stamina and patience and grit — grew in surprising ways, and all the work that’s come since is, without a doubt, so much better. I’ve grown as a writer with or without book contracts, and the best stuff often emerges when I least expect it.
I often think of something one of my mentors at Columbia explained to us after reading one of our very messy drafts. “When you go back in to edit an essay, you have to make a choice,” Steve would say, “about where you thought the piece was going to go, and where it seems to want to go.” The first is the planning mind. The second is the work of the unconscious, opening itself up to you. You think you’re writing about your mother but it turns out the piece is really about grief. Do you keep writing about your mother? Or do you take a deep breath and turn around? One is not necessarily better than the other, but you often can’t go to both places at once and make something substantive of the story. You have to, at some point, pick a route. And the one that is growing organically out of the plan is very often the most exciting, unknown, alive one.
What on earth does this have to do with goals? I don’t know, but it has something to do with my very rigid belief that goals are sort of limiting and useless at some stages of the writing process, and enormously important at another phase. If you want to sell a piece, you have to finish it. No way around this, especially for a new writer. If you want to hit 80K words on a manuscript, you have to type more words. But beyond that, it feels way more mysterious. It has way more to do with what I wrote about last week: simply showing up. If you write slowly, what good will it do you to write fast? Maybe you do well writing slowly? It’s not a race after all.
This is what I wanted to say to my beloved friend and student when she said she had no goal: Good! It is enormously freeing to be in a space where this is of no concern! And this attitude has no bearing on the work anyway!
How often can we just make something without fear of success or failure?
All she has to do — at least, in my book — is show up and stay in her body and see what honestly emerges. This is what most of us do anyway, whether we want to hit 80K words or write our nine sentences this week.
I’m sure many of you disagree with me, and I’d welcome any thoughts on this. I want to hear from you Goal People! I’m sure I’m missing something vital here. Sometimes I think if I believed in goals I’d have more work to my name, or more money in the bank, or, like, better shelving in my closet, but mostly I just end up thinking: How can I make writing as close to playing as possible?
✨ ABBY’S SECRET SUMMER SCHOOL IS HERE! ✨ Speaking of playing and summer and writing, you can now sign up! All the info is here. This has been in the works for a while and I am so excited to share it with you. It will be SO, SO MUCH FUN. Open to anyone and everyone who has ever wanted to spend just a few minutes a week writing. It will run from July 1 - Sept 1.
And *four* spots left in May’s Intro to Creative Writing Class. Last Zoom class until September! Can’t wait to write with you. xx
ALL THE THINGS
FUCK NO. This weekend I inhaled Angela Garbes’ Essential Labor — out in a few weeks — and it is a must-read; a revolution in book form. I want to give it to every caretaker I know. “I Have Studied Child Protective Services for Decades. It Needs to be Abolished.” Excited to read this long piece by Leslie Jamison. I loved this essay by Joanna Rakoff about an unexpectedly sweet book reading. You really need to be reading Nicole Chung’s newsletters. Trevor Noah, speaking at the nation’s most distinguished super spreader event (at least watch the last two minutes, starting at 23:00). A doc about Spring Awakening makes me feel…old (still can’t wait). And speaking of being goal-less, oh, I love this.