The Joy of Work in the New Year
Cathy and I didn’t waste any time saying goodbye to Christmas. We took down the tree and all the decorations and stored everything neatly in our basement before New Year’s Eve. We rearranged the furniture in our living room and did a top to bottom house cleaning. We’ve made it through the holidays, and here we are at the start of a fresh year.
It’s only natural to have optimism when we turn the page of the calendar to January, but unfortunately a realist’s eye stares directly at what may turn out to be a perilous 2022. The pandemic continues, our climate is out of control, as is our political and cultural divide. We live in fraught times. It’s more important than ever, then, that we find things to sustain us, so we don’t forget the joys of our lives.
For the writers among us, this may mean new pages. A new project can make for deep and rewarding work. In the winter months ahead, what better way to spend our hours?
Be fearless. Don’t think too much about the completion of this new project. Instead, do your best to stay in the present moment of the writing, to think only of the work you’re doing for however many hours you’re doing it in a single day. It may help to make yourself curious and to write to satisfy that curiosity, but always stopping short so you’ll have a reason to continue the work the next day. For me, so much of writing a novel, for instance, is a matter of delaying the satisfaction of my curiosity. That’s what keeps me writing. Remember this anecdote Flannery O’Connor shared in her book, Mysteries and Manners:
I lent some stories to a country lady who lives down the road from me, and when she returned them, she said, “Well, them stories just gone and shown you how some folks would do,” and I thought to myself that that was right; when you write stories, you have to be content to start exactly there—showing how some specific folks will do, will do in spite of everything.
Everything I write comes from my curiosity about “how some folks would do,” and lord knows we have no lack of intriguing behaviors around us right now to call us to the page. We can find curious events and narratives on the evening news, in our daily newspapers, in the gossip we hear, in the stories our friends tell, or in the family episodes we recount. Anything that makes us curious about people and their worlds—the secrets and mysteries of the human heart—should be enough to kickstart our imaginations. We can grab onto a single character who’s engaged with a particular event or detail and use that person’s action to put a narrative into motion. All we have to do after that is to follow that character through a sequence of significant events until we reach a point beyond which life will never be the same for that person. All of our dramatic requirements have been met—the Christmas tree has been taken down, the furniture has been rearranged, the house has been cleaned—and we’ve made the world of our novel/ story/ essay/poem complete. We’ve shut out the noise of the outside world for the hours we’ve spent at work, immersing ourselves in worlds of our making. What could be more sustaining and joyous than that?
Perfect message for today. Thank you. 🙂
You bet, Ruth! I hope you have a wonderfully productive year.
Ruth is right; perfect—exactly the words I didn’t know I needed this morning. Thank you, Lee.
Britton, I hope you do good, joyful work in 2022.
This is wonderful, Lee. I am “between projects” (waiting on two presses who are currently reading an anthology I edited with essays, short stories, and poems by other authors) and can’t seem to settle on what’s next. Novel? Short stories? Essays? Like you, I write in several genres. Not feeling quite ready to commit to the long form, so I might just start a short story and see where it leads. Thanks so much, always, for your wise words and encouragement! Happy New Year to you and Cathy! (P. S. We’re Orthodox Christians, so we take down our tree, etc. after Theophany, which is January 6 . . . coming up soon!)
Hi, Susan! I know what you mean by not being ready to commit to the long form. Sometimes I’m in that position, too, so, like you, I start something I think will be shorter just to see where it might take me. I wish you all the best with your work this coming year.