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I started making New Year’s resolutions when I spent some time teaching in Rockview Maximum Security Prison, outside State College, PA. While teaching an extension course for Penn State (back then I joked I was teaching at Penn State and the state pen), I read a lot of prison narratives and found one overwhelming commonality: the convicts who made it on the outside all made resolutions or goals that they strictly adhered to.
The first year I made all the rookie mistakes. I chose unmeasurable goals (Be the best person you can be) and unrealistic goals (Never lose your temper — fine until I see a full shopping cart in the express lane). Writing goals are also easy to miscalculate. Don Murray borrowed Pliny’s “Nulla Dies Sine Linea” (never a day without a line), but this is a goal I’d already have failed to achieve. I prefer something like Ben Franklin’s “We must be on the right road because we are on the road of experimentation” — something that I try to keep in front of me in order to keep my writing and my teaching from becoming too staid.
I’ll never forget the ruminations of my father, a Galwayman, who told me, looking at the calendar one night on January 3rd, “Well, I guess that’s another one shot to hell.” Let me tell you: these are words that make a profound impact on a young boy! So, this year I’m choosing as my mantra, advice from a fellow Irishman, Samuel Beckett: “Fail better.” I know it sounds bitter, but I think the underlying spirit of boldness (dream big he seems to be saying) even as he undercuts the sentiment sounds just about right for 2010.