It’s that time of the year. We’re taking stock of what we’ve done, of what we’ve accomplished. There are lists and lists of the best books of the year, the best movies, the best of everything and then some.
I am, by the way, not against any of this.
2018 has been a wild ride for me— my debut released! I turned in book two! I sold book three! What is air!— but I’d also like to take a moment, to pause and to say this: even in those years where you cannot list things out beautifully and perfectly, you have not wasted your time or your efforts.
There is no such thing as a waste.
There are no wasted words.
There are no wasted years.
Perhaps you wrote eighty thousand words and had to delete sixty five thousand of them. Perhaps you barely got four thousand words drafted this year. Perhaps you wrote your book, but it didn’t sell. Perhaps you switched tacks, switched genres, changed agents, lost your editor. I don’t know, I’m not you. But we all have these moments. Where the setbacks feel larger than life. Where they feel insurmountable.
Where we want to potentially give up. Where everyone around is us on another list, on another track, living a better creative life.
I’m here to tell you that these years, these moments of unclarity (I know that’s not a word, but go with me), these phases where everything feels like a haze are just as important as the obvious accomplishments. These years and these times are not wastes of your life. They are not wastes of your talents.
I’ve thought a lot about this. I started the first part of my working life thinking I wanted to work in museums and the arts. I graduated in the worst recession since the Great Depression. There weren’t a lot of jobs in the arts available. And even when I snagged one, the work wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. Then I thought I would go to graduate school and be a professor. I loved the work and I hated the living environment of academia. I’ve worked in retail, I’ve worked in galleries. In curatorial departments. At teaching.
I did not end up in any of the longterm places you get to with those jobs, but working them and learning the ropes was not a waste. Writing academically, even though I now write fiction, was not a waste. Understanding how art becomes a commercial endeavor was not a waste. Learning to deal with customers and clients was not a waste.
I learned to research efficiently and to be rigorous with my reading from graduate school. Retail taught me to understand when I was showing up for work, when I was “on” and had to really be able to be professional while dealing with strangers (aka customers). Teaching taught me how to break down any kind of lesson, so that everything was in digestible pieces. Taught me how to get out of my way of understanding the world and be able to communicate what I see to someone who understands the world entirely differently.
None of that was a waste. All of that is applicable to my work now. Not always directly. But I carried the lessons I learned from these spans of time of my life that— for years— I believed was a waste.
The business end of writing will always be important. I am not going to lie to you and say that I don’t understand the value in selling a book. Being mindful of your work and the audience of your work doesn’t go away as a professional artist.
But remember that your art is allowed to exist outside of the business side as well. That sometimes you must write a book that does not sell, that does not perform as you wish, in order to write the next thing that maybe does.
So as you take stock of your year, think about everything you’ve accomplished, not just as it fits on a neat list. Think of what you’ve lived through, what you’ve come out the other side of. Think about what you’ve learned from what didn’t work out. Think about the ways that those false starts taught you about yourself, about your art, about the ways in which you create.
And most of all, remember you’re more than any list. More than any one book. You always bring your whole life and whole self to the page, no matter what you’re writing.
Happy New Year, and I’ll catch y’all on the flip side.