“The mind of the man who dreams is fully satisfied by what happens to him. The agonizing question of possibility is no longer pertinent. Kill, fly faster, love to your heart’s content. And if you should die, are you not certain of reawaking among the dead? Let yourself be carried along, events will not tolerate your interference. You are nameless. The ease of everything is priceless.” — From The Manifesto of Surrealism by Andre Breton
Resolutions are a funny, fickle thing we love to hate. We desire to improve upon ourselves, but somehow always end up falling short. For one, I had a number of resolutions to meet by the time I turned 30, notably: publish my first novel and have children. I’ve accomplished neither. I’m halfway past 32.
But 2012 also taught me a lot about learning how to let go of certain expectations in my life. Even goals now exist on a sliding scale and the word itself—’goal’—clings to what feel like antiquated ideas of ‘success’ and ‘importance’ that I see slowly fading to a distant, stupid, short-sighted youth.
But I’m not that old. Steinbeck, when he wrote this letter to his editor and friend Pascal “Pat” Covici, was much older than I (and wiser too). He’d just finished writing East of Eden yet still he was burdened by an aching sense that the novel was not what he’d expected of it. He wrote, “Although some times I have felt that I held fire in my hands and spread a page with shining—I have never lost the weight of clumsiness, of ignorance, of aching inability.”
I’m with you, Steinbeck. Last year I gave birth to my novel—entrusting it with an agent who believed in it. The path to publication has been slower—and more mired in self-doubt—than I’d expected. Of course, my earliest scribblings of this novel began in 2004, if not earlier, when I had absolutely no intention of building a career as a writer. Then, I was a sinologist who would never have dreamed that one day I’d have an esteemed literary agent interested in my writing. Or that published authors would support my work. Or that this little project I’d dreamed up while sitting in my Chinese Baba’s kitchen in Beijing would become a manuscript, a story, a possibility.
Over the years since I began the project, I recall several ‘resolutions’ involving my writing—most were amorphous and existential, things like ‘trust your work,’ ‘write what gives you meaning,’ and ‘read more.’ I doubt I met any of them in the time anticipated, but, if I think about it, I’ve probably learned a lot about myself, and my process, by setting them to begin with.
So then we come to that whole resolution of 2013 bit. The end of a year, the beginning of the next. The somewhat arbitrary turn of the calendar’s page (in an era when calendars cease to exist on the material page). What is my resolution? Is it to fail to make a resolution at all? What do I hope for my work, my writing, the world at large?
I would say, on a personal and selfish level, I resolve for my first novel to reach publication, to reach an appreciative audience. But of this process, even Steinbeck himself has his doubts:
“A book is like a man—clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun.
Well—then the book is done. It has no virtue any more. The writer wants to cry out—”Bring it back! Let me rewrite it or better—Let me burn it. Don’t let it out in the unfriendly cold in that condition.”
As you know better than most, Pat, the book does not go from writer to reader. It goes first to the lions—editors, publishers, critics, copy readers, sales department. It is kicked and slashed and gouged. And its bloodied father stands attorney.”
So while I once never would have dreamed that I’d write a novel, perhaps 2013, and years beyond, may teach me something new about expectations, resolutions, and where I intend to be as a writer and a person. Then again, isn’t that the most fruitful lesson of resolutions? They are not necessarily predictors of who we will become, but telling reminders of who we are when we are at our best, the essence of who we are now.
And if all else fails, there is still time for further resolutions (even resolutions not to make a resolve), as Maurice Sendak’s editor, Ursula Nordstrom, reminded him in a 1961 letter (coincidentally, I will turn 33 in 2013):
You reminded me that you are 33. I always think 29, but OK. Anyhow, aren’t the thirties wonderful? And 33 is still young for an artist with your potentialities. I mean, you may not do your deepest, fullest, richest work until you are in your forties. You are growing and getting better all the time. I hope it was good for you to write me the thoughts that came to you. It was very good for me to read what you wrote, and to think about your letter. I’m sorry you have writers cramp as you put it but glad that you’re putting down “pure Sendakian vaguery” (I think you invented that good word). The more you put down the better and I’ll be glad to see anything you want to show me. You referred to your “atoms worth of talent.” You may not be Tolstoy, but Tolstoy wasn’t Sendak, either. You have a vast and beautiful genius. You wrote “It would be wonderful to want to believe in God. The aimlessness of living is too insane.” That is the creative artist—a penalty of the creative artist—wanting to make order out of chaos. The rest of us plain people just accept disorder (if we even recognize it) and get a bang out of our five beautiful senses, if we’re lucky. Well, not making any sense but will send this anyhow.
In 2013, I may find myself finishing a draft of a second novel, or I may not. I may come close, but not close enough. I may finally have children, or my body may decide otherwise. I may want a lot of things that do not come to fruition, but in the meantime, I may have lived a life. In fact, I probably will have lived a darn good one.