Being a somewhat organised person, I start each year with a Strategic Planning Document, aka New Year’s resolutions. Obviously, this is a joke at my own expense because no normal person has a Strategic Planning Document. It also reflects my brief time as a long-ago employee of a large government department.
Looking at my SPD for 2019 is painful, and not just for reasons of pre-COVID nostalgia (overseas holidays!). That year, I was resettling into Edinburgh, a city I had lived in previously, on my own, and then left without regret, onto the next stage. Several stages later, I was persuaded to move back, to live with someone else. It wasn’t quite a matter of picking up where I’d left off, ten years earlier, but Edinburgh wasn’t unknown territory. Also, this time, I had a regular job and a relationship, hitherto elusive markers of ‘normal’ life.
None of my plans – holidays, writing goals, the endlessly postponed resolution to relearn how to drive while long-range petrol cars are still a thing – took into account a pandemic or how the relationship developed.
I can hardly bear to look at 2020, Plague Year Zero. I finished a novel, which nobody wanted, and bought Solo HQ back in Glasgow.
‘(Wo)Man makes plans, the gods laugh’, like most cliches, is not untrue but neither is it absolutely true.
As per plan, I did finish a novel, something that was entirely in my control. The outcome of seeking an agent and publisher, however, was not. Taking steps to buy a property was also under my control, although I did not imagine buying mid-pandemic, nor moving back to Glasgow.
The notion that we have complete control over our lives, and that any deficiency, shortfall or failure is a failure of will or even moral worth, is a noxious one, peddled by the American self-help industry. Pure capitalism rejects any structural explanation of why some people are poor and some are rich, placing all blame on the individual. If you’re poor, it’s because you don’t work hard enough, not because the system is deeply skewed. Likewise, if you don’t lose 5kg, get a better job or find your dream partner, it’s all on you. If you are ever tempted to buy a book or online course on how The Universe (always capitalised) will give you what you want if you only ‘set your intention’ with sufficient resolve, bear in mind the ideological roots of this pernicious idea. I’m all for not dwelling in negativity and trying to be positive, but self-delusion is generally unhelpful, unless you are Donald Trump and can persuade other people (and look how that turned out).
The division of responsibility between the individual, their wider context and random circumstance (=Fate, Providence, sheer dumb good/bad luck) is impossible to measure or second-guess.
Should a sensible body presume to make any plans at all?
In early 2021, I won a first chapter competition for a novel I’d finished several years ago, but I still don’t have an agent, much less a publisher, for it.
All those hoped-for holidays in Greece, Italy or Spain, bumped along from my 2020 SPD to 2021, have been bumped along another year. I have not been on a plane since November 2019. The money I would’ve spent on plane tickets and accommodation went on an implant to replace the tooth I’d lost in an emergency extraction during the first lockdown, when modern dentistry stopped for several months.
And yet. I’ve already started another edit of the prize-winning novel, finishing a brand new chapter between Christmas and New Year. Instead of getting on any planes in 2021, I went down to London to see old friends, and spent a week on a writing retreat in the Highlands, where I made new ones.
Depending on the pandemic’s journey through the Greek alphabet, I might not get around to those refresher driving lessons for a while yet, but I’ll still put them on my Strategic Planning Document, along with a Mediterranean holiday, another round of agent submissions, and another trip to London.