For me, fall ushers in a mourning period. Although I welcome its drier air and kaleidoscope of color, its football season and Minnesota State Fair, loss lingers beneath the breathless bustle of a new school year. Loss of daylight and summer warmth. Loss of long walks with my sister and family time at the lake.
I grieve writing losses, too. Loss of (mostly) undivided attention, absent my full-time teaching job’s preoccupations with lesson plans and committee reports, student struggles and institutional politics. Loss of mental energy to revise a book without brain-draining essays to grade. Loss of early-morning quiet when my mind is fresh and ready to fire. Loss of time due to commuting in traffic and raking leaves.
After half a lifetime as a student and almost 20 years teaching, I’m getting better at managing fall’s losses, but there is a point each year—usually two weeks after school begins—where I sink into a mini-depression before I rebound. In the two-plus years I’ve spent writing and revising my first book, I’ve discovered my mini-depression carries with it resentment that I have to keep in check.
To prevent my negative emotions from leaking out in classrooms and meeting halls, I have begun treating the new school year like the New Year’s holiday. I have developed a New School Year tradition that consists of three parts: assess, acknowledge, select.
The advantages of New School Year Resolutions over their January counterpart include:
- no holiday complications
- no pressure to make resolutions public
- no baggage left by decades of failed calendar-induced resolutions
- no opposition from nature; it, too, is beginning a time of great change.
Here’s how I implement my tradition:
Teachers hear a lot about assessment every fall. We assess our teaching, students’ learning, the institution’s development, and yes, we even assess our assessment. Assessment is on already on my mind, so I turn that focus to reflecting on and assessing my writing year:
- What did I learn about myself as a writer? about my process?
- What did I do well?
- How did I spark new ideas? avoid rushing the process? manage time? balance deadlines? let go of projects that didn’t work?
- What evidence supports my answers to the questions above?
- What would I like to do better?
As a Type-A personality, I can get hyper-focused on achieving goals and checking them off lists. Once something is off my list, it’s off my mind, so I forget to savor successes and recognize progress, especially if that progress isn’t attached to a tangible result. To foster health and happiness, I’ve built into my tradition a step for acknowledging and celebrating growth.
Sometimes acknowledgment means sharing a publication on social media—something I used to avoid because it felt like “bragging.” Other times, I reward myself: a visit with my sister, an extra hour of reading, a new helmet for horseback riding lessons.
Reality rarely allows enough time and energy to pursue every goal I can dream up, so from among those goals, I select resolutions that will become my year’s focus. Then I follow nature’s lead by asking:
- What mindset or habits do I want to let die off this winter?
- What mindset or habits do I want to cultivate for next spring?
- What don’t I know that I want to find out?
- What would I like to gain?
- How will I mark my progress?
- Where do I hope to be next year?
- aspirationally (sky’s the limit)?
My answers include short- and long-term resolutions, and they vary widely, from submitting monthly blog posts to The Feisty Writer to finally finishing and sending my book to literary agents. But the best thing about fall resolutions is that, unlike New Year’s resolutions, they don’t come with a built-in expectation to share and then forget them.
For too long, I relied on a lot of stick and very little carrot to keep myself moving forward as a writer. Riding horses has made concrete for me how ineffective that approach can be. Therefore, I’m trading both carrot and stick for an ongoing process of reflection and renewal.
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