A few years ago, I flew home to Maryland for the holidays. It was the week before New Year’s Eve, and I was trying but failing to remember what my resolution was the year before. I’m pretty sure my friend Katie, who was visiting San Francisco for the first time, decided no one ever sticks to New Year’s resolutions — so we should make monthly ones instead. Of course, we didn’t stick to that either.
Back in Maryland, even the small-town spin-class instructor was partaking in year-in-review mania. She suggested everyone tally their top achievements of the last 12 months to inform new resolutions. The first two that came to mind as I pedaled in place were that I traveled a decent amount and quit my job. That year, I left the public relations agency I transferred out west with to be a freelance writer full-time and managed to piece together enough income to continue living in the Bay Area.
But as I pedaled a bit more, I thought perhaps the word “freelance” wasn’t the point. Perhaps, the word “writer” was.
It wasn’t until that year that I called myself a writer. The milestone didn’t come to mind right away, I think, because it’s so fluffy. Being a writer isn’t a tangible bucket-list item like going to Portland for the first time or being your own boss. It’s an ever-shifting achievement, a question of identity and a bucket of dreams all tangled into one.
The Saturday following this revelation, I was at the bar with my friend Lindsay. We were in downtown Frederick, the closest thing to a city near my hometown, and I was telling her my latest story. Yes, fine, twist my arm; I’ll tell you, too …
When I first got back to Maryland, I went for a drive. Afterward, I began describing some Christmas decorations I’d seen to my mom. You know, those giant inflatable lawn decorations? Well, the one I saw was of a few penguins and a snowman. Much to my dismay, two of the penguins were stealing the poor snowman’s head.
Evil, evil penguins! I pictured them maniacally plotting to remove Frosty’s next snow sphere. I pictured two of the penguins playing catch with his skull while cruelly laughing. I pictured a third penguin happily munching on his nose. I described this all to my mother. At first, she was equally concerned.
“Who the heck would make Christmas decorations like that?”
Then, she paused and looked at me. “Wait,” she said. “Are you sure they weren’t just building a snowman?”
I began laughing almost immediately, because of course.
I laughed just as hard each time I relayed the story. “You should blog about this,” Lindsay joked. She assumes every question I ask is sourcing for a blog post. She might be right. I am a writer, after all. I remain convinced my whole life is technically a tax write-off.
The next day, I met my writer friend Adam for coffee. I told him the same story, and we talked about writing. I admitted that writing can be kinda sorta hard sometimes. First, you have to understand what you are seeing in the world and what you think or feel or know about it. You also have to consider how it relates to all the other things you think or feel or know. And you have to actually be able to articulate all that to yourself.
That last one might sound repetitive, but I’ve found I have the hardest time articulating the things I feel most strongly about. Adam asked what I meant by that, but I struggled to explain.
Even after that, though, you’re not done.
The biggest challenge of all comes from articulating it to someone else. Your idea is being presented to someone with a totally different life experience — being presented almost totally out of context. You have years of thoughts and feelings and considerations; writing means reducing them to a sentence that could easily be skimmed over. So much could go wrong. So much can get lost. It feels a bit disheartening, I said.
But then, I thought about the penguins again and reconsidered. I decided the sentence doesn’t necessarily have to be a reduction. It could also be a seed.
I used this to create my newest resolution: I wanted to see more penguins building snowmen instead of seeing them stealing heads — to consider what could be grown, not just what’s sacrificed. It’s pretty fluffy, I know, but it felt right. Besides, as Gloria Steinem wrote: “Hope is a form of planning.”
Alyssa Oursler is no longer in San Francisco but she is still a writer. She’s written for SF Weekly, USA Today, Popular Science, The Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Find her on Twitter: @alyssaoursler.