Foer’s Eating Animals made a huge impression on me and now, after a decade, he’s back with a “big” novel a la Franzen, etc. I have a “big novel” in me also (doesn’t everybody), the hard part is getting to it (and doesn’t everybody say that?). 2019 is tentatively the Writing Big Year when I hunker down to draft it. In the meantime, I’ll buy Here I Am and swoon. (By the way, Alex Shepard’s GQ article is way neat.)
Besides the fun of doing Big Years, I feel a need to derive real benefit, be it enjoyment or understanding (perhaps they’re the same thing), from the actual concept. So let me, for my own benefit, restate what a Big Year is, or may be.
A Big Year is a calendar year spent obsessing on something, anything, amidst real life. It is a structured exercise with five characteristics:
- Everyday, or nearly every day, focus over a long period of 365 days. I picture commencing at dawn on January 1 and concluding at dusk on December 31. (Quite what “everyday” means remains up for grabs. For my Jogging Big Year, I ruled off travelling periods, though in practice I’ve jogged when I could on the road. Also, I’ve noticed that what really excites me is the notion of insisting on activity each and every day; this was not part of the original idea.)
- Finite duration. No matter how tough or irksome the Big Year is, I know the end will come. I picture a huge sigh of relief on New Year’s Eve.
- Demanding but not impossible. Setting the bar is what makes the Year thrilling. Too low and the challenge is ho-hum, too high means you can lose heart when you slip up. I picture gritting my teeth, maybe even complaining, but enjoying confidence deep down in my chest
- Demonstrably measurable. A vague challenge quickly withers. Being able to tell others what the goal is, and whether I’m on track, seems important to me. I picture an app that anyone can consult; indeed for my jogging Big Year, the app Strava is all I need.
- Complex. Planning is needed months before January 1, every half year, every quarter, every month, every week, yes, even every day, to ensure I can fit this into daily life. I picture a corporate project plan.
So there it is. What I need to do, not now but before too long, is to pare the above description down to something much more pithy.
Many interests and passions call to me for the period January 1, 2017, to December 31, 2017, but a variety of factors edge me towards getting to know the bike.
But how to do it? What makes sense in terms of a goal or daily commitment? Ideas buzz . . .
Nearly two-thirds of the way through my first two Big Years, I quiz myself: worthwhile or not? I’m not sure whether it’s this self enquirer or the stimulus of a certain kind of travel (I’ll write about this stimulating topic sometime soon), but weird ideas have begun popping up.
Sitting in a Lake Como cafe, at an outside seat under a white umbrella, tourists promenading before me, fat middle-aged local men behind me gassing on, leg still sore from yesterday’s fall, I read the 20th of 50 interviews in Danielle Krysa’s Creative Block: Get Unstuck, Discover New Ideas. Why I’m reading this is a mystery, because it doesn’t consider writers but visual artists, and not only am I a Pictionary disaster, I’ve struggled all my life to “understand” paintings, drawings, images, etc. But then I find this piece of “unblocking” advice from illustrator Justin Richel:
Take a couple large pieces of paper and cut them down into smaller parts between 5″ × 5″ and 10″ × 10″ (12 cm × 12 cm and 25 cm × 25 cm). You should have somewhere between twenty-five and fifty small pieces of paper. Without spending too much time on content, begin making marks or drawing loosely with your preferred medium on the paper. As you complete the marks, you may need to set them aside to dry; simply move to the next piece of paper and repeat until you have moved through the entire stack. Once you have moved through the entire stack, sort the pieces into three different piles. Ones that work , ones that don’t work , and ones that need work . In no particular order, finish the ones that work by adding the final touches. Work on the ones that need work and continue by making the ones that don’t work, work, by discovering what went wrong and how it can be “saved” if possible. Continue to work on the pieces until all or most are finished. You should now have a pile of fun starts, finished pieces, and some failures to learn from.
Flash . . . could I contemplate a Sketching Big Year even though my drawing/painting talent is demonstrably zero? Why does that thought excite me like it does? If contemplated, should the notion be pursued? Is 2017 a suitable candidate?
Meditating is meant to do good in so many ways but me, I’ve adored my busy monkey mind. Who wants to quieten the buzz?
Well, for some reason (a specific reason I won’t discuss now) the notion of being more mindful has beckoned. There are no yoga or meditation or mindfulness classes nearby, so on impulse, I picked up a free app recommended by Doctor Michael Mosley, whose ideas I value. The app? Headspace, 10-minute meditation “lessons” by Andy Puddicombe.
Shouldn’t meditation be more serious? Isn’t ten minutes frivolous? Surely this is just the territory of shallow apps!
In fact Headspace works a treat with me, some two months in. The sequenced “meditations” always succeed in leaving me relaxed and strangely self-aware, beyond what my normal fizzing mind can. Puddicombe’s intellectual framework seems true enough. I’ll keep going (but it’s not going to be a Big Year, okay?).
Nutrition and diet are the modern middle class’s hidden burden. We eat and drink badly and too much, and we lie about it to ourselves but especially to others. I’m genetically lucky – thin, that is – but unlucky – borderline cholesterol numbers. I’m no nutrition sinner but also no saint, and I’d love to do better. Should I do a diet big year?
No! A big year addresses what’s in our heart – the yearnings, the hidden loves, the passions and those values and ideas we don’t honour but know we must. A big year is a one-year obsession. Diet is something else. More like cleanliness or manners, it’s something to address forever in the future.
Yes, diet is tough and, yes, it’s all about habits, but it’s more “I must fix diet or I’ll die early” rather than a big year’s “let’s dream, dream for twelve months.”
Does this person show happiness? I think so.
Hiking in Wales with good friends, each day I sank further and further into the sheer pleasure of extended walking, sometimes close to civilisation, sometimes quite remote. The Jogging Big Year and Writing Big Year have curtailed our walking somewhat and the thought occurred to me: shouldn’t I do a Hiking Big Year? Max out on something clearly challenging, beneficial and enjoyable?
But when? 2017 certainly isn’t a Hiking Big Year and 2018 seems so far away!
A month ago, desperate to finish a chapter, I skipped a gym session. Now, my Jogging Big Year is nearly all about 1,600 kms, but I’ve been insisting that on every non-jogging day I would do gym. So in my mind I’d made a decision to commit a minor Jogging Big Year breach in order to attend to the Writing Big Year.
Then, two days later, even more desperate to finish that chapter, I did the unthinkable – I did not jog on a jogging day. For the first time this year, during a week entirely in Melbourne, I jogged not 40 but 30 kms. Major breach, major breach.
It seems to me that conflicts of this sort must arise. All you can do is steel yourself and decide between the two conflicting goals.
But here’s the good news – I rose extra early the next morning – the day we flew out – and fitted in a jog otherwise not planned. Peace of mind . . .
A Big Year of hiking would have us doing this many, many times over one year. Should I?
Every day, sunny or apocalyptic, Kevin scans his world, takes a photograph and posts it on Flickr. He’s a whiz at composition (the photo below is his and is reproduced with permission, check out his work) and over a year his single works of art build into a large body of art. Kevin relates how a day surgery visit meant he had to set up his tripod the night before and click on the camera before he left. Often he must work hard to organize both the shooting and the uploading. A busy man, this is all he can do to keep the embers of his love of photography glowing.
A Big Year is just Kevin’s daily task restricted to one calendar year. Kevin’s daily commitment turns “should do X” into “I am an Xer.”