"Begin as you intend to continue," my grandmother Chris used to say whenever I tried her patience as a child. She was of Scots parentage, and inherited that practical streak and her love for aphorisms from her father, a Vermont stonemason. I'm taking her admonition to heart in this New Year, when difficult times make it seem especially relevant. How best to handle the economic uncertainty, peril of global climate change, and other stresses that seem beyond my control? Begin as I intend to continue: One step at a time, walking the path that is right for me, day to day.
One way I'm beginning as I intend to continue is evident in the to-do list that lives on the daily calendar on my computer, where I note my deadlines, appointments, conference calls, and events. I've added a "recurring task" to the top of that to-do list. (A recurring task is one that pops up every morning even though I checked it off by clicking on a box next to it after accomplishing it the day before.) Why in a life where I have far more to do than hours to do it in would I want to saddle myself with a task that is never really done? Because I want to remind myself to make this particular item part of my work day, every day: "Take a walk!" The exclamation point helps draw my attention to this one task when my to-do list gets so long it's overwhelming, and it also reminds me of how critical it is to actually do it: Get outside, breathe fresh air, swing my arms, and be part of the community of the world around me.
Why put something seemingly counter-productive to writing on my daily to-do list? Because for me, taking a walk is about writing: It clears my mind and gives me new material. It's my reminder to look up and outward, when I spend so much time looking at my computer screen and focusing on hearing the inner voice of my writing. It's my nudge to take time to get outside refill the well of creativity that my writing springs from, to tend my ties to the land from which I draw my stories. It's about maintaining my health and sanity over the long term, not just meeting this week's deadlines. The very fact that it doesn't seem important is why I need to remind myself to do it.
I always think I don't have time for a walk. And I always come back from my half-hour outdoors feeling refreshed, and having noticed or heard or smelled or felt something that weaves its way into my writing. That simple reminder, "Take a walk!" is in fact a reminder to put taking care of myself high on the list of my priorities in work and in life.
For years, the recurring item at the top of my to-do list was "Write!" That reminded me that the business of my day was not tending the laundry, vacuuming, washing the kitchen floor, weeding the garden, cooking elaborate meals, or any of the myriad other household tasks that suddenly seemed vitally important the moment I turned on the computer at my desk in my home office and was faced with a blank page. Now that I have deadlines to motivate me, I need to be reminded to pause, breathe, and live, so that my writing doesn't lose its vitality. One of my friend's recurring items is "Close the door!" to remind her to shut the door of her home art studio so that she can work undisturbed by family and friends.
What would you choose to remind yourself of every day? What recurring item would help you be the writer you want to be? Whatever it is, put it up at the top of your virtual or physical list, and when you check it off, pat yourself on the back for accomplishing what you need for yourself–and then make sure it returns to the top of the list the next day and the next and the next, until it is so securely woven into the fabric of your writing habits that you no longer need to remind yourself to do it.
On a personal note, I'm beginning my writing work as I intend to continue this New Year in other ways. In particular, I've resolved to articulate more clearly why I write and what I believe. Hence, I've designed an entirely new web site and a new blog as well. Please visit them and let me know what you thnk. And I've plunged into what may be the greatest gift a freelance writer can be given: a writing fellowship that will free me from my accustomed deadlines for three months. During that time, I have the luxury of working on my next book without worrying about generating income. Thanks to Terra Foundation for generously supporting my work, and to Colorado Art Ranch for making the fellowship possible!