First, may I say be careful what goals you set. For instance, you might be granted all the writing time in the world. Then, there you are in a small Ohioan town during winter break, wandering the empty cobblestone streets, you and Your Book, showdown at high noon, time to shoot except both parties glance and shrug, too filled with ennui to pull the trigger.
When not slogging through my book these past weeks I've been slogging through the celebrated Cheever bio/tome from last year, and I'm struck by how he was continually dissatisfied. For us, a regular appearance in The New Yorker=Big Time Success (over 100 stories!), but Cheever spent age 20 to 42--his ENTIRE youth--bemoaning that he didn't have a novel. Then, when he did publish novels, he fretted that the reviews weren't glowing enough, that John Updike's wife was prettier, etc.
So, my first idea is that we have to guard against this idea of the “enough,” as in, no success is ever enough.
But then we also need goals.
I can see some of my “checklist” completed. (an MFA, publication(s) in a national magazine, a McSweeney’s list, short story acceptance from major journal. I’m in a PhD program and about to finish a book.) And yeah, with each of these accomplishments I squealed. The successes meant I wasn’t just some hack, one of those deluded people who fancy themselves a “writer” but go their entire life writing only for themselves (and sadly, for good reason).
As I check more goals off my list, and as I suffer the inevitable disappointments that come with “getting out there,” (for every goal achieved another dream is dashed) I’ve realized the only goal you can cuddle up with at night is to not suck. I want writers who I respect to look at my work and reflect to themselves, “hey, that doesn’t suck.” Granted, this is a lowered expectation from Great American Novelist status, but I have come to accept that only Nabokov is Nabokov. Good American Novelist remains quite the achievement. I also want, ultimately, for readers to pick up my work for the pleasure of it versus "I should try and get through this."
I have new goals. I want to write a fiction novel geared more for a wider audience than literary raves. My one acceptance to the one literary journal is gathering dust and it’s time to get out there again. I would love to be in a Best American Something. I’ve been attending writers’ conferences lately, and want to spend more time behind the podium than doodling on my program in the audience.
And before I get back to work on my latest big goal (Finish and Publish My Nonfiction Book) I will share my practical, superficial and admittedly supercheesy motivator: I visualize my resume.