Think Small

January is a fitting time to test New Year’s resolutions. In Edinburgh, the month is perhaps one of the least inspiring with overcast skies and scarce few hours of daylight. Once the holiday season ends and life gets back to the day-to-day, enthusiasm for resolutions seems to end too. A study conducted by psychologists at the University of Hertfordshire estimated that out of 3,000 people who made New Year’s resolutions, only 12% achieved their goal. Similar studies showed an even lower success rate. So why do we make resolutions we know we won’t keep?

We all long for change in some form or another. Never completely satisfied with our lives, we want to eat less, exercise more, stop a bad habit, start giving to charity, spend more time with our families and spend less money. With a fresh calendar on the wall, we are even more mindful of a chance to begin again.

Appropriately, the word January has a strong connection with beginnings, dating back to mythology and the Roman god Janus, from which the word January is derived. Acting as the god of doors and gateways, Janus was often depicted as having two heads, one looking forward, the other backward. He was most often associated with beginnings and ends, as it was believed he could see both into the past and future.

Though I don’t know what the future holds, I feel like Janus this time of year, looking back over past events and forward, wondering what’s to come.
In doing this it’s easy to get caught up in the major events of life. Society teaches us to do so. When will we find a better job, buy a house, be happy with our bodies, make more money, follow our dreams…the list goes on and on. We are measured by accomplishments, yet so many of us fall short of the mark. We are left feeling inadequate, discontent, and not quite good enough. We focus on the big things that are missing and forget sometimes it takes “baby steps” as Bob said in What About Bob, rather than leaps, to reach goals and live a more fulfilling life.

Think small.
Instead of resolving to get fit in 2009, why not resolve to walk the dog around the block two evenings a week or play an outdoor sport with your children every Saturday. Find ways to make your resolution manageable. Once you have reached that goal, enhance it (walk the dog four days a week).

Don’t resolve to read more books in the coming year, resolve to read one book. Take a book to work and read on your lunch break or go to bed half an hour early every night to spend time reading. Find ways to finish one book.
When you’ve reached that goal, find ways to read another.

The same can be said for writing. I often fear that my dream—having a career in the writing industry, will never happen.
Sometimes I have to remind myself that instead of taking a step back to see the big picture of what I want, I need to take a step forward to see the things that make up the big picture. Chances are I won’t land a book contract or an editing job overnight. I have to commit to small goals, like taking a few hours a week to write or submitting a story to a competition.

Whether you believe in New Year’s resolutions or not, search for inspiration.
Look for small ways to enhance your life, rather than struggle to maintain unmanageable goals. Instead of approaching a new year consider the 365 new days that make up a year and when you find yourself consumed with the big picture or battered with thoughts of failure, consider what Anne said in Anne of Green Gables. “Isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet.”

all the difference

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost said The Road Not Taken was a “tricky” poem. Decades later, debate over the poem’s meaning continues, yet whether or not the four stanzas are literal or ironic, the idea of a road “less traveled by” holds my fascination.

My photo albums are scattered with pictures of roads, some less traveled, others well worn. Trees border most of the roads, with undergrowth threatening to claim the path. Some are in open spaces, following fence lines, cutting across meadows, weaving through cemeteries and trailing through gardens. Others, the gems of the bunch, are roads that bend, leaving mystery and guesswork to what might be around the corner, just out of view. I seek out roads, often finding them in unexpected places. Sometimes I’d like to think roads find me.

What I love about Frost’s poem is that whether it’s about individualism or regret, the road “less traveled by” manages to capture a bittersweet quality of life to which we can all relate—how choices can potentially change our lives forever and how, as citizens of this world, we can’t help but reflect on choices and how they have guided our life journeys. Frost boils it down to a simple, yet poetic “slice of life” moment. A man pauses at two roads in a yellow wood.

When it comes to writing, there never was a “pause” moment for me, just simply a decision to begin. I decided I wanted to be a writer when I was twelve years old. Oddly enough I can remember the exact moment when, sitting in one of my grandparents aged recliners reading a book by L.M. Montgomery, I had the idea that maybe I could create my own characters and stories. I started out with poems and books that never made it past the first chapter or two, though it was fun to continue calling them books. I tried a few short stories, but didn’t feel any connection with them. Along the way my love for writing deepened, carrying me down roads I would never have imagined, including moving to Britain to pursue a masters degree in creative writing and discovering an affinity for short stories.

Like the two-fold interpretation of Frost’s poem, my fascination with roads goes beyond the literal. I love what roads represent. With their twists and turns, beginning and ends, roads are a fitting metaphor for life. They make us consider choices, where they lead us, and how we come to be where we are.

Lately I have been doing a lot of reflecting on the roads I have taken. You can’t help but question past choices when student loans come due. I’ve wondered, like Frost’s protagonist, how things would have turned out had I taken a different path. What if I had decided to be a veterinarian or a park ranger or a psychologist? I certainly would be making more money and I wouldn’t get the awkward “oh” response I get now when I tell people I have a degree in creative writing. Let’s be honest, creative writing isn’t the most marketable degree when it comes to finding a job in the real world. “What do you plan to do?” I often get asked by the "oh" crowd. I laugh. “That’s a good question,” I say. I'm still trying to figure that one out.

But writers are used to these stumbling blocks, just as they are familiar with the many roads of life—something in the analogy sits comfortable with us. When we are not busy creating characters and roads for them to travel, we are traveling our own roads of discovery as writers. Being keen on reflection, we are also natural observers of life, trying to figure out how and where we fit, and our writing fits, in the bigger scheme of things.

Like some of the pictures in my photo album, the writing path is not always straight and easy. Perhaps that is why I write. Perhaps that is where the drawing power lies—in the challenge of facing the unexpected and what might be just around the bend, waiting to be discovered. When I think about my choice to be a writer, I am Frost’s protagonist, standing at two roads diverging in a yellow wood and when all is said and done, I know the road I chose, for better or worse, “has made all the difference.”