Historically, New Year’s resolutions began as a bargain with forces beyond our control, which seems an apt metaphor for dieting in our calorie-rich society. The Babylonians left behind a record of a new year tradition the involved making promises to the gods to ensure prosperity in the coming year. So will the gods favor you in 2020? If the fruits you’ve sown reap no reward, if your business fails to thrive, is it because you’ve displeased the divine and brought ruin upon yourself? Maybe what goes around comes around, but we also live in a world of inequality and natural disasters. In a sense, New Year’s resolutions are rooted in a narrative of self-blame and accountability for what actually amounts to good—or bad—fortune.
Each turning of the wheel is an opportunity for further growth, but it can feel like an obligation to reinvent yourself instead. New Year’s resolutions reflect this pressure and consequently often take the form of sweeping statements promising dramatic transformation. I’m thinking of the classic weight loss and fitness goals and their accompanying “before” and “after” photos, as if a changed body indicates a transformation of the soul. While getting in shape may make you feel better and live longer, it won’t make you a better listener to your friends, or a more organized boss. This is why the pressure and promise of New Year’s resolutions are so dangerous: we want our resolve alone to be enough to change our lives for the better, change us for the better, and eliminate some of the burden of being a modern human. But once you address your underlying motivation for change, you also have to construct a plan to implement that change, one step at a time.
The Romans continued the tradition of New Year’s promises but moved the date to align with their own civil calendar in 46 B.C.E. Roman NYE included worship of Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings and endings, from whose name the month January derives. A beginning suggests hopefulness, while an ending gives permission to leave something behind that has come to a natural conclusion, or no longer serves you. We can arrive at the new year unencumbered, but with stars in our eyes. So let’s not think of resolutions—a hard resolve—so much as ambitions—a hope and a dream. If you “resolve” to achieve an ambition, then you’ll have to set incremental goals to make it happen.
Start with a specific achievement like “get a solo show.” Then brainstorm the steps needed to achieve your goal. It may be difficult to estimate how much time each step will take you, which is why breaking it down into more detail can help put it into context and give you a sense of real time. Then make a timeline of the milestones to achieve over the next month, then the next three months, then six.
For example, if my goal is to get my own solo show, I’m going to think about my current status as an artist.
Do I feel like my body of work is ready? Am I emotionally ready? Is my website even ready? I know gallerists will check it out. Is my CV up to date to submit with a proposal? Maybe I need to produce more pieces to round things out. Maybe I’d like a former teacher or an artist friend to give me some input on my proposal and pitch, which I realize as I’m brainstorming I’m definitely going to have to write. And I know my favorite former professor can take a month to get back to me.
Meanwhile, I’m also thinking about what connections I have.
Where do they work, who are their friends, where have they shown? Come to think of it, which galleries am I even interested in targeting? Who has connections there? Maybe the director of the residency I attended last summer… How do I approach them and ask for help? How do I forge new connections that could help me?
I keep scribbling notes on a to-do list, or making circles on a mind map, then I start putting them into chronological order. I notice each step, like building up my website, has sub-steps. Already, I’m beginning to see that I have months of work ahead before I’m even going to be ready to start cold-calling galleries or getting friends to reach out on my behalf. Perhaps this will take longer than a year, as not all of this is within my control. But I know from my timeline that I have at least six months of tasks planned out and that I can start working towards them today. That is my New Year’s ambition.
The process of brainstorming each step towards achieving my goal, then placing it on a real timeline can be revelatory. And painful. A lot of us give up because our goals seem way too far out of reach or it’s taking too long to get where we’re going. We live in a culture that loves stories of overnight success, especially when it happens to someone who’s under 30. As Lizzo has openly discussed, there is no such thing as overnight success. Patience is a virtue for a reason: it’s really f’ing hard to achieve something. That’s why building a creative career is usually a lifelong pursuit. You’re playing the long game here. So give yourself credit for how far you’ve come and space to get where you’re going. Remember, “Beyoncé wasn’t built in a day.”
Q: How do you handle fear of success?
A: I have to be honest here: not too many people approach me and say they’re worried they won’t be able to handle their success. Most are focused on getting there at all and are truly petrified they won’t reach the goals they’ve set. Among those who have achieved what could be conventionally called success, such as widespread recognition and awards, many are terrified they will backslide into a less well-respected position if their work falls out of favor. In other words, they’re worried their successful work will suddenly be judged “unsuccessful” and they’ll lose their status and the platform for their voice that comes with it. So let me answer a question with a question: is the fear of success you’re talking about really different from a fear of failure?
Fear of success is a symptom of Imposter Syndrome, which manifests as a collection of feelings that can include tremendous self-doubt, a sense of worthlessness, and an inescapable fear that you are a failure, to the point of being unconvinced you deserve help, support, or the accolades you’ve garnered. This is accompanied by an underlying worry that others will discover you aren’t really a “good” artist. Imposter Syndrome presents in people who have already achieved success in some way, shape, or form—from acceptance into an arts program of study to receiving big awards and grants—but believe secretly that they are failures, because they think their work isn’t “good enough.”
The most common advice given to sufferers of Imposter Syndrome is to “fake it till you make it,” meaning to go about pretending you are more confident or successful than you really are, until that success and the accompanying feelings of loving yourself eventually become a reality. The problem is that those with Imposter Syndrome already feel like posers in danger of being found out. Advocating for further performing won’t always help. Sometimes, the stakes just keep getting higher. Instead, you have to come to accept your own worth. The first step is to separate your identity from your work.
Here is some of the best advice I’ve ever received: I had a painting teacher in college who told me I should never alter my work just because she said so. (She also told me in her adorable Swiss accent, “These brushes already know how to paint, so they will help you!” And so they did.) She wanted me to make my own art, whether she liked it or not. In grad school, whenever everyone praised her work, she would intentionally alter it and take it into a less likeable direction. By then, I’d studied with perhaps a dozen arts instructors, most of them writers, and this was the first time anyone had told me point-blank that I shouldn’t work for their approval. I was flabbergasted but also inspired.
To be honest with you, I didn’t really learn the lesson. Not until several years later in grad school when I became so fed up with having my work judged through the lens of what fiction is “supposed” to be like that I began to ignore critics in my workshops whose comments didn’t resonate and instead created the kind of stories I wanted to read. I developed enough confidence to decide for myself what was “good” and worth pursuing. My painting teacher’s advice came back to me then and I realized how brilliant and daring it really was to challenge a college student to defy convention and resist the set standards to follow her own inspiration, or genius.
Art is subjective, so if you work for praise, you will always be chasing down someone’s approval while simultaneously hating yourself for it. Try making/writing/composing something you actually think others will hate, not because it’s offensive—that’s too easy. Don’t make racist/sexist/phobic art. But because it’s different and challenging and uniquely yours. Remind yourself that a negative reaction to art is perhaps more powerful than a positive one because people dislike work that challenges their assumptions about themselves and the world and that impression usually sticks with them, producing passionate responses. Remember an artist’s role is to further discourse and hold up a mirror to society. You can’t always do that nicely, or prettily. This is why visual and performing artists sometimes shock their audiences on purpose.
If you can produce a piece of unlikable art, it’s easier to see the line between your identity and your work, because you yourself are probably not that unlikable as a person. Toni Morrison, a favorite writer of mine, may she rest in power, sometimes mused about the strength of her own books, as if someone else had written them. She had a sense of self outside her writing that enabled a healthy distance. She wasn’t necessarily objective, but she got that her work existed apart from her-self. Indeed, she is gone but her novels live on.
Next, rest assured that everyone feels like a big phony sometimes, even your artistic heroes. They’re all just people, not gods, which means they make mistakes. (Well, actually, even gods make mistakes, they just don’t have to apologize for them). I recommend looking at some of your favorites’ earlier to work to see if you can map their progression. It's likely someone told them along the way that their work was no good. Did they become a more valuable person as their work changed, or as it received attention? Or did they always have talent and, separately, value as a human being?
Lastly, it’s corny but you have to believe in yourself. This does not mean convincing yourself that you are perfect. It’s about believing your voice has value, just as you think other people’s voices are important. You have a right to express yourself creatively, and that that action is beneficial to you and the world. (Even if no one “likes” your stuff, you are still contributing to the conversation. You can still push boundaries, raise issues, portray beauty as you see it). While your work is separate from your identity, being creative is not—it’s a key piece of your makeup, so embrace it. If saying “I’m an artist” makes you squirm, try saying, “I’m a creative” or simply “I’m a creative person.” Or, even better, "I'm an instigator."
Fear of succeeding and all the attention—and scrutiny—it might bring may never entirely go away. After all, who doesn’t want to be liked and praised and eternally popular? As you progress, there will be new challenges, new hurdles to clear. But you can get more comfortable if you can separate your identity from your work, acknowledge lots of people feel this way, including probably every artist you know, and accept that your voice is valuable, even when you think no one wants to hear it.
Q: My first pitch just got rejected after I answered a call for submissions at a magazine. I don’t know where else to submit and I’m feeling discouraged. Can you recommend something feminist and forward-thinking?
A: First, congrats on your first pitch! Woo! This is a really big deal and deserves a moment’s pause to take it in. You reached out to an actual editor! And got an actual response! Sure, the answer was no, but you’re going to get a lot of “no’s” throughout the pitching process, as everyone does. Don’t ever let that stop you. Every “no” brings you closer to a “yes,” as cheesy as that sounds.
There are currently tons of magazines publishing feminist and forward-thinking content, like Bitch, Lilith, Bust, Jezebel Teen Vogue, and so many others. Traditional women’s magazines like Glamour and Marie Claire have also moved with the times and developed a decidedly more feminist tone. They run the gamut in terms of difficulty breaking in, so make a list of those that interest you and think of them the way you did college admissions: which are the ones you have a really strong chance at and which are the reaches? (If you’re not sure, think about the overall circulation and notoriety of each magazine). The difference here, though, is you get to attend all the schools and never stop reaching for the top tier. In fact, the more bylines you garner, the more likely you’ll be to get work accepted by the most well-respected publications, especially as you continue fine-tuning your pitches, gaining confidence, and building connections.
You’ll notice I haven’t actually told you where to submit next and there’s a reason for that. There are so many publications out there, it’s hard for me to tell you which you would like. Instead, do some googling. Look up “feminist magazine” and see what you find. Likely there will be big names you recognize, and many you don’t. Start with the unfamiliar but eye-catching ones.
Next, you have to read them. Editors want pitches that are on-brand for their magazine. They don’t want pitches on topics they published a year ago. The best way to understand a magazine’s brand is to be one of their readers. If you like what you see and it inspires you, then that’s a magazine to aim for. The “About” or “Contact” pages can tell you who the editors are and often includes information on how and where to pitch. If you can’t find info there, join freelancer writer groups on Facebook and crowdsource the info. Consider going to readings promoting collections, or other events focused on essay-writing and journalism. The people you’ll meet there could be helpful allies and mentors. Many editors’ email addresses and other trade secrets are passed from one writer to another.
In short, there’s a whole world of publishing out there for you to explore. Getting started can seem daunting, but you’ll find you ask the questions you need to ask as they arise; you don’t have to know it all from the start. For now, focus on finding magazines you love and would want to be featured in. These will help you get to your dream publications by building the path one stone at a time.