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Keep Your New Year’s Resolutions as a Writer
It’s January 1st, which means, if you are a writer, you probably just made a New Year’s resolution. It also means, if you’re a writer, last year you probably made a New Year’s resolution as well.
And that probably means that you also fell short of whatever New Year’s resolution you made for yourself last year. And maybe even many years before…
Which probably means that you’re already feeling a weird mixture of confidence and doubt, of hope and fear, of confusion and relentlessness. It means that you’re probably already excited to overcome whatever you feel like you missed out on doing last year, and also afraid that history might repeat itself.
Keeping Your 2021 New Year’s resolutions is more about the way you approach goal setting towards your resolutions than it is about the resolutions themselves.
So, on today’s podcast, what I actually want to talk about is goal setting. I want to talk about how to set goals, not to create the change overnight (which we all know doesn’t happen). But how to set goals that actually set you up for success, so that you can create the long term change that we are all looking for in our lives…
This is so valuable, and not just as a screenwriter. This is valuable in literally any endeavor in your life that really matters to you. It’s valuable anytime you’re trying to do something hard that you can’t just do in one sitting, anytime you have a task you can’t just check off of your Asana or your reminder notification, anytime you’re doing something big that requires continuous effort. Often, these big things that require continuous effort, these superobjective kinds-of-things (to speak in screenwriting terms) are actually the things that matter most to us.
Learning to set goals as a writer begins with learning to think a little more like your characters.
One of the ways that we tend to be a little bit different from our characters– and not in a good way– is that our characters in a movie or TV show are really good at relentlessly pursuing these hard things. That’s what makes them so compelling as characters. It’s what makes us fall in love with them. They are going for something they want so badly that they’re making choices every day, every scene, to get them. Choices that are so big, that are so passionate, the kind of choices that we wish that we could make in our lives.
And that’s the reason that when we watch and read these shows, these movies, these plays, these novels, we connect to those characters.
Even when our characters are pursuing goals that we don’t approve of, or agree with, or even if they’re pursuing goals that are completely external from the realities of our lives, there’s a part of us that can’t help but root for those characters.
We root for them because there’s a part of us that feels like “that’s me up there, or at least a part of me… the part of me I wish I could be… the part of me that wishes I could go for the things that I want with the kind of passion that these characters go for them.”
The truth is, your characters are actually no different from you. They’re just distilled versions of you. Versions that are very good at intensely pursuing their goals.
If you think about your lifetime, you’ve actually accomplished huge and incredible and challenging things. And the pursuit of those things, sometimes over years and years and years has changed who you are as a person and revealed who you really intend to be, not just to other people but also to yourself.
The process of overcoming obstacles in pursuit of something that really matters to you doesn’t just reveal who you want to be on the outside, it actually reveals who you really are on the inside. It shows you parts of yourself that you weren’t aware of; it allows you to be more you.
But this weird thing happens to us in life, just as it does in poorly written screenplays.
A poorly written life really is just like a poorly written screenplay. Everything falls apart when our goal setting, and our pursuit of our goals, gets diffuse.
Rather than feeling the drive of our passions in pursuit of the things that really matter to us, what we end up feeling is the diffusion of the many, many, many, many, many other goals and things and crap that we have to deal with: things that don’t necessarily serve that big superobjective.
The things that we’re actually spending our time on, the things that we’re actually spending our money on, the things that we’re actually spending our life doing are the things that make us who we are. And yet, for so many of us, myself included, at times the things that we end up spending our lives doing, if we’re not very, very careful, end up becoming the things that are in front of us, rather than the things that really matter.
So what happens is, once a year, we all agree to make New Year’s resolutions. We ask ourselves, ”What really matters? What do I actually want to do? What do I actually care about?”
We know when working with our characters as they enter a new scene, a new act or a new movie or TV show, we have to come back to that North Star of the superobjective: what do they really want? What do they really care about? What really matters to them? What’s driving them? How are they pursuing it?
Just like our characters, if we want to live transformative lives, we must come back to these same questions in the New Year. We have to allow ourselves to say, “I WANT this. I’m going to do this.”
So, why, after asking these questions and setting these powerful New Year’s resolutions that are so in alignment with our real values, don’t we actually do them?
Why do we lose steam or fail to keep up our commitment? What actually gets in the way?
Guess what? It’s not laziness.
You might think it’s laziness. But it’s not laziness. Very few people are actually lazy. Many people are scared. Many people are distracted. But take the laziest kid in the world and watch him for a day. You’ll realize that while he seems really lazy when it comes to schoolwork, when it comes to World of Warcraft, he’s not lazy at all. He’s passionate and driven and focused.
Take the person who seems lazy when it comes to her screenwriting and you might find that when it comes to answering every email that comes into her inbox, she’s extraordinarily fastidious and careful.
I want to take you out of the laziness trap, because when you start to think of yourself as lazy, two things happen.
Number one, when you label yourself “lazy,” you get into a closed mindset: a mindset that basically says, “This is what I am”, as opposed to, “this is what I want to be.” A mindset that is based on defining you, rather than a mindset that’s based on curiosity, and wonder and hope and change.
The second thing that happens, as soon as we start calling ourselves names (whether it’s lazy or whatever other name you have for the behaviors you don’t like), is we start to beat ourselves up. And when we start to beat ourselves up, we release a chemical called cortisol. And that cortisol knocks us down and makes us feel stuck and unhappy and unmotivated.
In this way, the process by which we’re trying to push ourselves into action, actually ends up stunting our growth!
So I want you to know you’re not lazy. It’s very unlikely that you’re lazy. And even if you are part of that one half of one percent of people who are actually lazy, that’s just who you happen to be today.
If you’re a screenwriter, what you know is that the way movies and TV shows work is curiously similar to the way life works: the person you are today, is not the person you’re going to be at the end of the movie.
The person you are today is not going to be the person you are at the end of the screenplay.
And that’s really true whether you make any choices or not. It really doesn’t matter if you make a choice or not. To quote the band Rush, “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
What ends up happening is one of two things: either we’re going to take the world, or the world is going to take us. Either way, we’re going on a journey.
The difference is, if we allow the world to take us, the journey is not going to be that interesting. It’s going to be hard to root for yourself if you’re simply getting swept along a river. Although you still will change, just like your character still will change, it’s harder to feel, “that’s me up there.”
It’s harder to root for that character who’s being carried away by fate and being changed by fate, than it is to root for the character who’s being changed by the force of their own will.
So, how do you change yourself by the force of your own will?
Well, the first step is becoming aware of the river that is carrying you away.
For so many of us, (especially writers, as people of words), do you know what the main river that carries us away is?
It’s email. It’s Facebook. It’s text messages.
It’s all that stuff that kind of pops up, right at the beginning of your day.
I have a terrible habit. I want you to know, I’m not sitting on a pedestal above you. I’m a writer just like you. I’m struggling with the same things every day that you’re struggling with. We’re all on this journey together. We’re all going through the same process.
Like a Zen Buddhist meditation, it’s remembering the process, rather than the destination, coming back to the same process again, and again and again, that makes you a writer.
It’s not that one weekend you spent holed up in a cabin in Maine that makes you a writer. It’s that process that you come back to daily.
So here’s my bad habit, and here’s my process to correct it:
If I allow myself to sleep with my phone by my bed, I will check it first thing in the morning. And because I run a school and because I’m passionate about teaching, and I’m passionate about what’s going on, invariably what happens is first thing in the morning an email comes in that’s going to knock me off my course, before I’ve even gotten out of bed.
It might be a great email. It might be “Incredible! This writer that studied with me has won an award. I want to feature her on social media.” It might be, “this writer sold her script”. Or it might be, “this writer needs some advice.”
Or it might be something that’s a mess. “Oh no! The email that you were working on as a draft just sent out to 18,000 people” or, “Oh no! This person’s call didn’t get returned.”
It doesn’t really matter if it’s good or bad. What ends up happening is, suddenly you are chasing that good or bad thing that just happened, that email, that Facebook post, that message, that text.
You’re chasing that thing, before you ever had a chance to decide what’s important to you.
And, as if that wasn’t distracting enough, once you get engaged, what starts to happen is other people start to interact with you. And those people want things from you, too.
And so what ends up happening is you have this huge goal that you know you need to work on every day. But somehow every morning you get into the stream. And suddenly you’re being carried away by the stream.
You are not carving your own course, you are running down whatever stream you’re used to running down.
Streams flow in beds, and those beds tend to run in the same places. And if you get into the current, what’s going to happen is that stream is going to take you where you’re used to going.
It’s going to take you where you always go, unless you do the work of building a different stream. Unless you build the work of keeping yourself out of that current.
Nobody is out of that current all the time.
Fortunately, to make tremendous change in your life, you don’t need to be out of the current all the time.
As a screenwriter, your characters also don’t need to be out of the current all the time. You’ve probably read screenplays or seen movies or TV shows where the character doesn’t seem to have a life outside of what’s happening in the show. And that feels fake.
You also have other things in your life. Those things are part of the richness and the complexity of what makes you, you. But starting your day with the real you, with some real goal setting or some real priority, helps you understand who you want to be, and helps you make choices during the day.
I’m going to suggest an exercise and a process that will help you start your day with the real you.
Most of the exercises I give are mine. But this exercise does not belong to me. This exercise is a twist on one created by Julia Cameron, who wrote what I consider the best book on the creative process ever written: The Artist’s Way.
If you haven’t read The Artist’s Way, and more importantly, done it, you want to. It will change your life.
I’m going to start with a little piece from Julia Cameron, an idea called “morning pages.”
What you want to do is buy yourself a journal.
I like to buy myself nice journals, I used to buy Moleskine journals. And now it turns out that Amazon has a knockoff, that is one quarter of the price, and it’s pretty much exactly the same thing.
I like to have a nice journal, something that feels like leather, something that feels important and weighty. Not like a yellow pad, but something that reminds me that this is sacred, that this is a holy process.
Instead of sleeping with your phone by your bed, in this first 30 days of the New Year, I want you to try something different.
I want you to take your phone and I want you to sleep with it in a different room. If you don’t have an alarm clock, buy yourself an alarm clock. I want you to sleep with your phone in a different room. And on your nightstand next to your bed, wherever you used to keep your phone or your iPad, I want you to keep this journal you just bought.
And when you wake up in the morning, I want you to write three pages of literally anything.
These pages are called “morning pages.” They’re a dumping ground for all that crap in your mind. So if your morning pages are just “blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah…” great! If your morning pages are just “I hate waking up. I’m tired. I don’t want to do this…” great! If your morning pages are a scene or a thought about a character… great!
Literally whatever comes out is great. There’s no requirement for what’s in these pages. It’s literally just a recording of the first things you’re thinking in the morning. Three pages.
I like to write them nonstop, rather than thinking.
What writing non-stop does for me is it gets me past my conscious mind and into the world of my subconscious.
It gets me past trying to make my writing do what I think it should do. It allows me to relax and simply be the transcriber of these thoughts.
As you do your morning pages, I want you to to practice not judging them.
Don’t worry about them. Don’t even go back and read them. These pages are not for looking at. This is about expurgation. This is about getting that stuff out of you. This is about getting out of that flow of water that you’ve been caught up in, not just this year, not just last year, but probably your whole life.
It’s what screenwriters commonly call the Ordinary World. The world before you’ve gone through your change. The world that if you don’t step out of it, it’s going to be your world forever.
Even if your world is great, this is still a valuable exercise.
One of my heroes as an artist, (not as a person, but as an artist), was Pablo Picasso.
People would have been happy with Picasso doing the Blue Period forever. But Picasso wasn’t happy with that. Everytime Picasso realized he was in a stream, he would step out of it. He would find a more interesting stream, a different part of himself that he hadn’t explored before.
Rather than just being carried away doing the same thing, Picasso would always try to do something new.
One of the things I think is very interesting is that Picasso did such a great job in his art and such a terrible job in his personal life.
Of course, that’s true for so many of us as artists; we’re better at communicating with an art form than we are at using the same exact strategies in our life.
What I am saying to you is that these two things are not divergent, they are convergent.
Learning to do these things in your life will help you do them in your scripts. Learning to do them in your scripts, in your art, will help you do that in your life.
Just remember, it’s the same process of stepping out of that river that you’re in all the time and stepping into a different river.
So let’s talk about why it’s so hard.
It’s so hard because that Old River is as old as time, and that New River doesn’t exist yet.
The Old River is like our rushing current. And although it might not go anywhere you actually like, you’re used to it. And there’s a lot of water there. It’s relatively easy to navigate, because you’ve got it in your bones. You’re used to doing it that way. And even if there are parts of that Old River that you can’t bear, that you don’t want to ever go through again, there’s a certain comfort level with being in familiar territory where the water is flowing. We’re used to having a lot of flow.
Whereas the other stream doesn’t even exist yet… so how can we depend on it?
So many of us are waiting for a flash flood of creativity. Many of us call this flash flood “selling our script.”
“I’m going to sell my script, then I’m going to have this flash flood of creativity where suddenly there’s all this water, all this creativity. And now all I have to do is write, and I write all the time and I live like an artist. I don’t even have to worry about money anymore…”
For some of us, it’s even bigger.
“I have to win an Academy Award, and then I’ll be an artist”
For some of us it’s more personal.
”I need to prove my dad wrong, or my mom wrong, or my aunt wrong, or my boyfriend wrong or my girlfriend wrong.” We feel like we have to prove ourselves and then we’ll be in this flow.
“I have to quit my job, when I don’t have to have a job anymore, then I’ll be an artist.”
We’re looking for this flash flood, where our whole lives change.
One of the things I don’t like about New Year’s resolutions is that New Year’s resolutions are built around this flash flood idea, this idea that BANG! everything changes all at once.
In my experience, what usually happens in a flash flood is not a wonderful new path of creativity. What happens is a lot of destruction. Oddly, the water doesn’t end up channeled anywhere. It just ends up dispersing and sinking back into the ground.
This is true with lottery winners as well, which is another form of flash flood. Everybody dreams, “If I just win the lottery, then my life will be easy.” But the truth is most lottery winners end up losing it all. They end up broke, again. Lots of crazy destructiveness and then nothing. Because they didn’t build the bed before they filled it with water.
If you actually think about how a river flows, it begins with a single drip.
If you can get that little drip going, eventually that little drip creates a rivulet, a little groove through which more water can flow. And if that water keeps flowing, eventually that rivulet will turn into something deeper and something deeper and something deeper and something deeper, until eventually you have a whole riverbed.
And at that point, you can pour as much water into it as you want. And it will still carry, it will contain, it will harness the power of that water rather than diffusing it and spreading it.
You can think of your morning pages as a way to purge of the Old River.
It takes about 15 minutes in the morning to do this. So you might want to practice waking up 15 minutes earlier, or, if you can, starting work 15 minutes later, so that you can actually do it. It’s just 15 minutes. You can do it.
At first, the morning pages are often just about recognizing the river you’re currently in. And the river you’re currently in might be concerned about money, or the river you’re currently in might be concerned about not being good enough, or concerned about your relationship, or concerned about what you’re writing, or confusion, or pieces that you need to understand about your life or about your script, or places that you feel you need help.
We don’t know what the river is; it doesn’t matter. If you sit and do math in your morning pages, great! Whatever comes out.
The morning pages are just the place where you recognize the water you’re currently in. You recognize what you like about it, and you recognize what you don’t.
The process of doing the morning pages is like looking in a mirror. It’s impossible to actually look at yourself in the mirror every day and not make choices.
We fail to make choices because we forget that we’re being carried away by all this water, we think that’s just life.
So the first step in these morning pages is just acknowledging it, getting it out of our heads, we’re getting it onto the page, so that we can present ourselves for the rest of our day from a calm place.
The second part, when you finish those three pages, is my twist on the exercise: a little technique that you can use.
This step works whether you’ve set a New Year’s Resolution or not. But remember, it’s not the big goal that gets you there, it’s the little goals.
So when you finish your morning pages, after you get all those thoughts out, I want you to write down one thing, just one, that you can do today that will help you serve your bigger goal.
What’s really important is, it must be something you can do today.
And when I say “today,” I mean today– being real with yourself about what today is really going to look like.
Don’t write down something you can do this week, or over the next two days. Write down something you can do today that is one small step towards that goal, that is one drop into that river.
That might be, I’m going to write for seven minutes.
That might be, I’m going to read this book for research.
That might be, I’m going to take a walk and just think.
That might be literally anything. Literally anything that is a step towards the pursuit of your goal.
When you sit down to do your morning pages the next day, you’re not going to reread everything before. You’re just going to look at the goal you wrote down. And if you achieved it, you’re going to check it off.
And when you check it off, you’re going to celebrate it! You’re gonna do a happy dance. You’re gonna post to our Facebook alumni group and tell the world! You’re going to do something that let’s your subconscious mind know you actually achieved it. (There’s a whole bunch of science behind this that I’ll save for another podcast… but suffice it to say, for now, that celebrating your success in some way is the most important part).
And if you didn’t achieve it, you’re not going to beat yourself up. You’re not going to punish yourself. Because that doesn’t help.
But you are going to ask yourself, “what got in the way?”
And then the all important follow up question, if you fell short of the goal yesterday… “How will I achieve that goal today?”
So this is my twist on this incredible Julia Cameron exercise. The Julia Cameron Morning Pages part is about getting that Old River out of your head. Then, this second part is about setting one goal, and getting that one drip of water into your new River Bed.
For myself, I want this to be an artistic goal. But if you’re not a screenwriter, and you happen to be listening to this podcast, great! You can use this. You want to get your MBA? Great! What’s the first step towards getting your MBA you can take today?
But if you’re a screenwriter, if your New Year’s resolution has to do with your screenplay, if your superobjective has to do with your writing or your art, I want you to make sure that the thing you write down has something to do with your writing or your art. And I want you to make sure that it’s something you can do today.
I want you to do this for 30 days. I want you to notice at the end of those 30 days, how incredibly much further you are towards that goal. How incredibly much further along your path you are.
I also want you to notice if any patterns come up for you that are getting in the way.
Maybe, there’s something that happens on Tuesdays that knocks you off of your goal. Maybe there’s one particular goal that’s especially challenging for you.
Wow, that’s so interesting, that one goal, I wrote it every day for three weeks before I finally did it. What’s that about? Is that about fear? Is that about frustration? Is that about busy-ness? Am I setting my goal too big? Is the goal not clear? Am I not scheduling it? Am I not being realistic about it? Do I need to break it down into smaller steps?
I want you to really think about that.
If you are falling short, instead of beating yourself up and pushing yourself, I want you to get really, really curious. I want you to wonder:
What is that about? Is there something I’m afraid of? Is this really the step I want to take? Or is this the step other people are telling me to take? What’s the step that I really want to take? What’s getting in the way? How can I make sure that today I take a step if I didn’t do it yesterday?
Coming at it from that place of curiosity, these first 30 days are not the days to achieve your goal. They are the days to achieve some steps to start taking our feet out of that stream that’s been carrying you and start moving ourselves to the new stream that you want to build.
This is where we start that tiny flow that’s going to build that rivulet that will eventually one day become a great river.
So I’m wishing you all a Happy New Year, filled with creativity and achievement of your spiritual and creative goals.
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-Transcript edited for length and clarity