It’s traditional around the end of the year for people to reflect on the past year, and envision wanton aspirations for the coming one.
Most bloggers have, by now, posted their reflections — no doubt scrupulously prepared before the holidays, so that they can post triumphantly in the early days of January. I bet they weren’t moving house. Nor had trouble with their blogging platform. That’s fine with me. I don’t call myself a blogger. Though, if pressed, I will admit to having a blog.
A similar diffidence struck me when I first became a vegetarian. For many years I simply told people that I didn’t eat meat. I felt embarrassed about claiming to be a vegetarian, because I mostly didn’t eat vegetables. I subsisted on carbs and dairy. I don’t know how I managed. I will now happily eat most green things with a little olive oil.
Last year I wrote six posts, totalling a mere 9,000 words. That’s less than one-third of what I set out to write at the beginning of last year. But I’m not embarrassed about anything I wrote, which surely accounts for something. 1
Every year, in late December or early January, I make a list of “achievements” and “experiences” from the year. It’s a quirky, idiosyncratic list that includes big ambitions and little pleasures, many things in between, and is probably only meaningful to me. I don’t show it to anyone. I acquired the habit after hearing David Allen talk about drawing up such a list each year with his wife. 2 It’s insightful to be able to look over these annual lists and see my life at a glance. At least what I thought was important at the time.
If you’d like to try this out, don’t wait. It’s tough trying to recall what the happened over the course of a year. Start the annual list of your “achievements and experiences” now, and add to it during the year. I’ve already started my list for 2017.
Under “experiences” I put things that more happen to me than are caused by me. Things which any fool in the appropriate circumstances would have experienced. For example, “riding a camel” was one of my experiences in 2016. Since I was in Cairo for work reasons, that wasn’t too hard to accomplish. Another experience, from a couple years ago, was “getting my flat burgled”.
Under “achievements” I list those things I moved on intentionally and which came to fruition out of my own work and initiative, at least partly. These include personal and professional accomplishments or goals on which I made some headway.
Last year’s achievements were largely to blame for my absence from writing.
2016 was my first year of working full-time remotely. During this period I wrote the most complex piece of code I have ever attempted and helped organise an academic conference and several smaller events. All these, and more, are in my list of achievements.
What is missing from that list is any substantial progress on my writing. Writing is a pursuit I’ve recklessly taken up and abandoned for the last twenty-odd years. I had assumed that working remotely would provide me with plenty of free time to write. After all, I didn’t have a commute any longer. That was ten hours freed up each week3.
However, over the course of last year I hardly updated my blog and made only minuscule progress on a novel that I’d half-heartedly set out to write. But that is only because other things fared better, and not just professionally.
I got more into yoga, working up to a śīrsāsana (or headstand, if your Sanskrit is rusty) last spring. It’s wobblier than it should be for someone who has neck problems. It still went in my list of achievements.
Yoga was merely a means to improve my meditation posture. After sitting in meditation for about twenty minutes, I would feel a sensation like a pinched nerve on the left side of my neck. I began attending Ashtanga yoga classes three-four times a week to prepare for attending my third meditation retreat in February of 2016.
Yoga didn’t resolve the issue — though I kept at it because other benefits were so obvious. And, despite some discomfort, I was so joyous after the meditation retreat, that I volunteered to help on the next one, which took place in August. Serving at the retreat as a volunteer was almost more profound than attending one as a student, even though I needed a vacation. It was twelve gruelling days of waking up at four in morning and getting to bed at eleven at night.
I have an incomplete a blog post about my time volunteering that perhaps I’ll still publish. With hindsight, I can single out two things about that experience:
The first thing is that I figured out the issue with my neck pain.
I had been scrupulously doing yoga between the two retreats, which probably helped, but the clincher was volunteering. In this role, I had to sit near the teacher at the front of the meditation hall, visible to all the students. I decided it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to use a backrest, as I didn’t want the new students to have a slouch as a model.
Sitting on my buckwheat pillow without any support for my back, I had two options: work on my posture or suffer for ten days. For the first three days I ached, but endured, though my concentration suffered. On the fourth day, I realised that I was unconsciously lifting and tensing my shoulders. When I dropped my shoulders and relaxed them, the pinching sensation diminished and, eventually, disappeared.
As with all hard things, it sounds easy in retrospect.
The second thing is that I met someone.
This someone is the reason that, after some amusing misadventures4, I moved from Athens to Thessaloniki. After my moving there, we also changed flats. Twice.
These moves, along with work-related travel and several side-trips meant that between May and December I wasn’t in the same place for longer than three weeks. During 2016 I travelled to (New) Cairo, Rome, the island of Amorgos, a resort near Athens, Thessaloniki, three mountain villages in Northern Greece, Milwaukee, Cleveland, back to Athens and Thessaloniki, before finally welcoming the new year in Belgrade.
When I was younger, I yearned for a romantic milieu. I used to fancy myself an adventurer. I’m not. My kind of joys are warm cocoa and stable wifi. Though travelling did pad out the “experiences” section nicely, my general itineracy disrupted many aspects of my life, including my already haphazard writing habits.
I drafted half-a-dozen blog posts and began three novel-length stories — though I didn’t finish anything. But I’m picking it up again. Not only are you reading a brand new blog post, but I’m writing fiction again. Gosh darn it, I’ve even tweeted about it, so it must be true:
It turns out that Taskpaper is terrific for outlining fiction.— Alex Armstrong (@alehandrof) January 6, 2017
Yes. This is what my Friday nights are like.https://t.co/ndWDfXfVEA
Sometime in the summer, the two stories I was working on last time I checked in foundered. On a whim, I decided to follow in the footsteps of my beloved Sergio Leone, whose first Western, A Fistful of Dollars, was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. If Sergio could make a Western out of a samurai tale, surely I could do the same. The plan was simple: take a gritty, blithe, American crime story and transpose it to a fictionalised version of 18th century Greece that I had been developing for an aborted novel. Being a contrarian at heart, I was pretty sure my adaptation would evolve into something interesting.
Unfortunately, this worked a little too well. The film I picked was based on a book from the 60s, an era when men were men and women were plot devices. Both the film and the book had weak female characters, including the one who sets the plot in motion, only to conveniently kill herself right after. I decided early on that she wouldn’t die. And if she didn’t die, then should would… And then the wheels dropped off the story, and it went off the rails, and it wasn’t even a mixed-metaphor car-train hybrid anymore, it was more like a boat — and it sunk. After it exploded.
I only had to write a few of scenes before I realised that my story had strayed too far from the original to keep working. I took a step back and, in December, began outlining the plot anew. I threw out all the parts that were obsolete and saw that this was a new story, bearing only coincidental resemblance to the source.
I wanted to use an existing story as a blueprint so that I could focus on scenes and sentences without worrying about the workings of the plot. With this intention foiled, I was unsure of how to go on. I could abandon one more writing project. Or I could keep going and see what happens. As the philosopher Jagger once said, “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime you might just find you get what you need.”5.
I chose to keep going. And, for now at least, the work is going well.
There are many more things to tell you, about future projects and past failures, hard-won epiphanies and wisdom still tantalizingly out of reach.
But I’m done reflecting for now. It is now time to do. Maybe I’ll even write about it.
I’m sure David Allen articulated it more clearly than I do here, but I haven’t been able to source where I heard him talk about it. I think it was a podcast. If you happen to know the source, get in touch with me. I’d like to track it down. ↩︎
Among other trivia, I record the number of books I read each year. In 2016 I only read 16 books, the lowest number of any year of record. I suspect the lack of a commute is to blame, as I used to listen to audiobooks on my way to work. But when all you have to do to start your working day is tumble out of bed and take a shower, that opportunity evaporates. Sure, I could take random walks and listen to audiobooks — and did — but not for ten hours every week. ↩︎
One of these misadventures was starting a writing club in Athens modelled on Shut Up & Write! that I had to abandon when I moved to Thessaloniki. I still like the idea, and may have to create another one here. ↩︎