Resolutions. I’ve made them. You’ve made them. We’ve broken them the next day, the next week, a few months into the new year. We’ve even forgotten about them. A resolution involves making a decision to change and sticking to it: “I want to spend more time with my family and friends next year,” or “I want to save money and make time to travel to Istanbul next summer.” It requires a hefty chunk of willpower and determination. I failed at the resolutions above, and yet I’ve managed to write every day since the fall. How is that possible?
1) Why do you want to do it?
A few weeks ago, I had an uncanny experience when beginning another draft of my novel. I felt like I knew nothing about myself. I felt empty and light and shocked. Who was I? I thought this novel drew from my life? What is my life? Why do I know my characters far more than I know myself? When did this become more about them and less about me? I had never felt this way before. I had been writing every day since the fall, without making an explicit resolution to do so. The urgency to write daily grew out of a need to know two characters in particular, who are based on my grandparents. My desire to know them and to bring various truths to fiction was obsessive. I didn’t think of a reason for why I wanted to write every day because it was so obvious. Whenever I sit down to write now, I look at a big sheet of paper stuck on the wall which reads: WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS? I wrote it to guide myself. If I take the time to understand my motivations before beginning, it brings me to the work with humility, and it encourages my obsession, which makes it much easier to be resolute. Willpower and determination become irrelevant in the face of obsession, curiosity, and the sheer desire to know people who are not you.
2) Doubt is your best friend.
Self-doubt is every writer’s enemy. While working on my first book, Port of Being, I constantly had two documents open. In one document, I was working on a draft of the poem. In the other document beside it, I was making a running commentary on the questions, feelings, and theoretical frameworks that caused me to doubt the poem. I was forging my poetics by making room for questioning, by cataloguing all my doubts. I do this even now as I work on the novel. I make space for doubt on the page instead of giving it room as a loop of chatter in the back of my head. I don’t think I would be able to write if I didn’t doubt myself. Can you imagine reading a novel by a confident person who didn’t doubt themselves? It would be boring and arrogant!
3) Break it up.
Yes, we’ve all heard this one: break it up into manageable chunks, take it one step at a time. I find this hard to do. How can I make up a map to break up the project into manageable chunks if I don’t know where I’m going – and if the work requires me to not know where I’m going? Mind maps. The minute you draw one puffy cloud and connect various squiggly lines to people, places, objects, colours, images, photos, times, songs, you’ve got your manageable chunks. This is how I wrote Port of Being. Seeing how everything was related to everything else gave me telescopic view and a sense of direction. More importantly, it made my work grow. For the novel, my map has cut out the work for me. Each squiggly line is a relationship; each relationship is a bond between characters, a set of questions, a situation, a story, an entire life. There is nothing like an unsolved question to give you a sense of purpose; to remind you of the why for your resolution.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Shazia Hafiz Ramji is the author of Port of Being, a finalist for the 2019 BC Book Prizes (Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize) and the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Her writing has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, Music & Literature, THIS magazine, and Best Canadian Poetry 2019. CBC recently named her as a "writer to watch" and named Port of Being as one of the best Canadian poetry books of 2018. Shazia is at work on a novel.