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In the Bleak Midwinter: A Writer’s Reflection Exercise🕯️
How time spent reflecting in the twilight of the year can help set intention for the year to come
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Currently reading: The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien
Currently watching: White Lotus, season 2
Currently writing: I have a few irons in the fire, now that I’m on to “What’s Next?” territory, including a personal essay that may potentially be bigger than I originally imagined. 🤯 Meanwhile, How to Keep a Husband for 10 Days is currently in preorders ($3.99 ebook), and My Big Fake Wedding is of course available in all formats.
Has your brain felt like mush all month? Are you looking forward to setting your out-of-office auto-reply and slowing down?
I know I am.
2022 has been incredible—and incredibly busy. Even so, it’ll be pretty hard for 2023 to beat it, given how this is the year I signed my first ever book deal(!!) and became a published author.
I feel like I’ve been ramping up to this incredible year, though, in large part because of a ritual I started four Yuletides ago.
What is Yule, anyway? ❄️
Apart from its more vernacular usage as an old-timey synonym for Christmas (think: “Make the Yuletide gay”), Yule is a pre-Christian sacred time that informs several Christmas traditions.
Though it begins with the winter solstice, it evolved to last for twelve days, which is where we get the Twelve Days of Christmas. During this batch of days, observers of Yule focused on preserving and cherishing light at the darkest time of the year, when the days are shortest, as a reminder of the coming spring. In fact, the ancient Celts thought the sun didn’t move during this time (helped out probably by the cool stuff it did to monoliths like Stonehenge and the mound at Newgrange, Ireland), so it was critical to bring light and life into the home, to protect it from the gathering dark outside.
Because this period of time doesn’t seem to belong to either the old year or the new—and most importantly because many of us are away from work and have more than five consecutive seconds of peace, thank the baby Jesus—Yule is a fantastic time to reflect on the past year while looking ahead to the new. It is a time to set strategic intentions, not New Year’s resolutions, which a majority of people have broken by June and which therefore can demoralize you if/when you don’t keep up with them.
How I Use Yule to Reflect and Set Intention 🕯
Because of all the “Cold and dark bad; inside, light and warm, good” I just mentioned, candles are often a big part of Yule. They are also a regular part of my writing ritual and are likely part of a ritual you yourself perform if you celebrate practically any winter holiday tradition (e.g., Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa).
With this in mind, each year since December 2018, I have incorporated a candle ritual into my Yuletide celebrations. Each night for twelve nights, between December 21 and January 1, I light a candle and spend some time reflecting on a handful of areas of my life that have been important in the past year.
I carve particular notches into the wax of the candle, twelve in all, cascading in a spiral from top to bottom, so that I know when to blow out the candle until the next night. By the light of the flickering flame, perhaps with some ambient music on in the background, I celebrate my victories; I mourn and lay to rest my defeats; I determine what has worked, what hasn’t, then make a proverbial rucksack to hike the good stuff into the new year and jettison the rest. I do all of this with a journal and pen handy, in case any insights download into my mind thanks to the meditative quality of the experience.
How Doing So Has Impacted Me ✨
For the past few years, my areas of focus have been Home, Business, Love, Creativity and Self-Improvement. With that said, more and more of my Yuletide focus has been drawn toward my writing life, my creativity. In 2019, I began asking myself questions like, How can I work more generative writing time into my daily life? How can I become a better writer, speaking of craft? How can I surmount my fears of not measuring up to the point where I’m brave enough to apply to prestigious workshops and conferences, to the point where I’m ballsy enough to query that dream agent or publisher?
This period of reflection may seem like a cutesy exercise, like everyone going around the table at Thanksgiving and saying what they’re grateful for.
It’s not, though. (And frankly, neither is a gratitude practice!) When we reflect on what has and hasn’t served us in the past calendar year, then strategically take those lessons into the new year with us, we are setting strategic intentions, putting our needs and the ways we’ll reach them foremost in our mind. So much of life these days is re-active: responding to emails, reacting to social media posts. When we live our lives reactionarily, not deliberately, we’re always on the back foot. We don’t prepare for the discussion at the table, so we don’t get to put our needs forth.
With all this in mind, doing this work during one of the few times of year we all have the gift of time in which to do so can be critical to moving ahead in the direction of your goals.
Not by accident, around the time I began this ritual, as well as others dotted throughout the year, my writing life began to flourish. It wasn’t necessarily because of the ritual itself—most ritual can be thought of as “spicy psychology” anyway—but rather because of the confident, focused mindset the ritual put me in.
I made time every day to write, where I hadn’t before. I made sure I always had one piece on submission, whether it was a book-length manuscript or a short story. The results of that consistency poured in. I became a stronger writer. I grew confident as I held space for myself and my abilities. I got a (for me) record-breaking three stories published in 2021, and as of 2022, no matter what else happens in the rest of my life, I get the honor of being able to call myself a published author. 💕
How You Can Apply This Reflection Exercise to Your Life 🌞
I hope by this point you’re champing at the bit, which here means vibrating in your seat to finish reading this and dash out to the store to buy a candle! If so, here are some suggestions, as well as a list of prompts to get your reflection period started.
First, consider buying a candle. I recommend short taper candles, no more than two or three inches in height. The thicker and taller the candle, the longer it will take to burn, so if you don’t buy small, you might be there all night!
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Second, set up your candle, some matches or a lighter, and a journal and a pen in a quiet area where you won’t be distracted. Lower the lamps, etc., so that the candle is one of the focal sources of room light but so that you still have enough light to see. On the first night, carve your notches down the candle. Light it, and then sit in silence or with ambient music, focusing only on the candle and your point of reflection. Don’t let your thoughts roam like you would in a meditation session, but rather focus on any and all facets of that point of reflection. If some point of insight strikes you, whether it’s from the past or for the future, feel free to write it down. (This way, whether right after Yule or two years from now, you can look back at your thoughts.)
You can reflect on as few or as many areas of life as you like, but since this is a newsletter for writers and creatives, I have developed a list of questions you can meditate on. Pick up to twelve of them—if you have fewer, just cycle through them—and reflect on one each night. (To make sure you don’t forget to do this in all the hustle and bustle, I recommend setting an alarm on your phone for the same time each evening, ideally after the sun goes down.)
What books did you enjoy most in 2022? Have you learned any craft or life lessons from reading them?
What books are you most looking forward to reading in 2023? (This might be a mixture of exciting new releases and an exploration or revisitation of “the classics.”)
What is your favorite writing victory in 2022 (e.g., publication in a favorite literary magazine; three full manuscript requests)? Take time to celebrate and revel in how these accomplishments make you feel.
What are your intrinsic goals for your creativity in 2023? In other words, what do you want to personally get out of your creative experience in the new year, beyond extrinsic rewards like recognition and publication?
Where do you intend to submit your work in the new year?
What is one publicity or networking strategy you haven’t attempted that could boost your writing platform next year? Could you create an author website or post snippets of your work on social media?
What is one thing that didn’t benefit your writing in 2022 that you won’t be taking into the new year? Reflect on it, acknowledge it, and then discard it. You might even discard it symbolically, by writing it on a scrap of paper and burning the scrap of paper in a fire-safe area with proper ventilation.
What can you do to challenge yourself as a writer next year? Are there forms of writing you’ve always been interested to try but too hesitant to do so? What about generative challenges, like the Poem a Day challenge in April, NYC Midnight’s Fiction Contest, or National Novel Writing Month in November?
Consider a spiritual element that isn’t part of your life right now, but that you’ve always been interested in, such as meditation, yoga, journaling, a gratitude practice, or regular, unplugged nature walks. If you make a game plan to add them to your life in 2023, how might they benefit your writing practice?
What is one thing you can do next year that scares you? How can you be a more fearless writer in the new year?
Are there any goal publications or agents you’ll set your sights on next year?
Are there any workshops or book clubs you intend to join? (I know of a couple that may be useful! You can learn more about Chelsea Hodson’s Morning Writing Club here, Hurley Winkler’s Book Club for Writers here, and Steven Arcieri’s Kill Your Darlings workshop here.)
I hope you use this valuable, blessed time to reflect on the old year and set intentions for the new. What do you think you’ll reflect on? Tell me all about it in the comments below! I look forward to reading them.
In the meantime, may you have a merry and bright holiday season, and may 2023 be kind to us all,
P.S. If you love Left/Right or have read and enjoyed my debut novel, would you kindly give me the gift of hype this holiday season? Tell two friends about this Substack, or else remind them to preorder my second novel, How to Keep a Husband for 10 Days, forthcoming in February 2023!