The Alchemy of My Year

Earlier this year I set myself a goal of reading 30 books in 2016. And with two weeks and two books to go, I happened across a list of shorter reads. One of the books on that list, a surprisingly brief novel at just over 200 pages, was one I had long wanted to read but never prioritized doing so. Now was the time. So after blazing through another one of Steven Pressfield’s micro-books, The Authentic Swing, I turned my attention to what not only became my favorite book of 2016, but one of my favorites of all time. That book was The Alchemist.

The Alchemist is a warmhearted philosophical tale, bordering on proverb and fable, about a young Andalusian shepherd who goes in search of his treasure. His journey is not without setbacks. He quickly finds himself in debt, out of money, and delayed. Yet he persists. Because the shepherd knows that it’s not just treasure that he seeks, but his own Personal Legend.

It’s rather ironic that I should read this after The Authentic Swing as so much of Pressfield’s works, particularly The War of Art and Turning Pro feel like the tough love companions to The Alchemist. Where Pressfield commands you to wage battle against your inner resistance, Paulo Coelho charms you into understanding the reasons why, swinging his story in front of you like a talisman. The Alchemist is a guide to life fulfillment. It’s inspiration. It’s encouragement. And it’s justification (for those who need it) to chase your dreams.

“Everyone on earth has a treasure that awaits him,” his heart said. “We, people’s hearts, seldom say much about those treasures, because people no longer want to go in search of them. We speak of them only to children. Later, we simply let life proceed, in its own direction, toward its own fate. But, unfortunately, very few follow the path laid out for them—the path to their Personal Legends, and to happiness. Most people see the world as a threatening place, and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place.

Closer Than When I Started

On my bulletin board is a four-year timeline I created in the summer of 2015. The timeline details a rough plan for how I am to spend 2016-2020 launching my career as a novelist, i.e. pursuing my Personal Legend. The timeline contains plucked-from-the-ether, self-imposed target dates for drafts, agent queries, and everything else related to the business of being an author-preneur. It was educated guesswork at its finest, written down in the vacuum of best-case-scenarios.

The first year is over and there was progress. There were also setbacks and distractions and life. According to the timeline on the wall, I’m behind schedule. But that’s not how I choose to look at it. I choose the shepherd’s view.

“The hills of Andalusia were only two hours away, but there was an entire desert between him and the Pyramids. Yet the boy felt that there was another way to regard his situation: he was actually two hours closer to his treasure… the fact that the two hours had stretched into an entire year didn’t matter.”

By the end of 2016, Year One, I had hoped to have already completed the second draft of my first novel. I have not yet completed the entire first draft (something I expect to have done by the end of February). While that is a disappointment, the first 70 pages of my book have already advanced beyond the third draft thanks to the incredible critique group I was accepted into. The quality of my writing has improved and I have such a greater understanding of my story. My outline has expanded and though it may be taking longer, the work is of higher quality.

I will never be one of those authors who crank out multiple books a year. That’s not how I work, it’s also not how the books I love were written. The books that stuck with me, the ones I recommend to others, were all labors of love that took the authors multiple years. That’s the art I hope to create (though improving to one per year would be nice).

Life Battles the Dream

Last year my wife and I returned home from the pursuit of another dream, the treasure was travel. The reentry has been smooth, but not without its challenges. Namely, housing. Selling a home in western Washington in 2014 and trying to buy in 2016 is, shall we say, not recommended. In fact, it’s essentially impossible. It is tempting to kick ourselves over our choice, especially when surrounded by friends celebrating the massive amounts of equity that has poured into their homes, or those who have now bought nicer homes and rent out their prior ones for mortgage-covering profits.

That could have been us, I think to myself. And then I open a book. Any book. And there’s a very good chance I have been to the region, if not the exact town, in which the story takes place. And I love that.

“It was the language of enthusiasm, of things accomplished with love and purpose, and as part of a search for something believed in and desired. Tangier was no longer a strange city, and he felt that, just as he had conquered this place, he could conquer the world.”

I’ve been to Tangier. In fact, here’s a photo of me trying to negotiate some zip-ties and rubber tubing at a hardware store in Tangier. Much of The Alchemist takes place in Tangier, the deserts east of Morocco, and the Andalusia region of Spain. All are areas we bicycled through (though not the greater Sahara, obviously). Tangier is a town we spent 10 days in. A town where a produce merchant greeted me with a hug each day and insisted on giving me free tomatoes as a sign of gratitude for my loyalty. It was, in fact, our favorite town in Morocco.

As I said to a friend the other night, twenty years from now, an extra fifty or a hundred grand in equity isn’t going to make a whole lot of difference. But having those travel memories, and being able to relate so much more to the books I read, will mean so much more.

The Pursuit Continues

The shepherd boy spent a year getting just two hours closer to his treasure. Yet, in that year, he had learned new skills and filled his pockets with enough gold to buy twice as many sheep as he ever had before. He gained experience and knowledge. And though he was physically no closer to his goal than when he began, he was far more prepared. His odds of success were far greater because of the year’s so-called delay.

As I prepare for the second year of my pursuit, and the terrifying dark of night before the dawn that will be a finished manuscript, I can look back at this first year and count many successes as well.

  • December, 2016 will mark my seventh consecutive month of increased year-over-year sales for my book One Lousy Pirate.
  • Not yet counting my final December numbers, I’ve managed to increase my platform (i.e. audience) by ~450% this year.
  • I will finish 2016 with a total word count of roughly 360,000 words. Breakdown: 28% fiction, 20% blogging, 40% videogames, 13% other.
  • I armed myself with a team of writers whose weekly critiques and encouragement have helped sharpen my craft beyond my own capabilities.
  • As mentioned above, I met my goal of reading 30 books this year.

These are the marks of progress that I can look to should I feel that I’m only two hours (or in my case, 208 first-draft pages) closer to my Personal Legend. I wish you the best of luck on your own personal journeys in 2017 and the years to come. And, as Paulo Coelho wrote in The Alchemist

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.”

Happy New Year. See you in January.

*All quotes included in this post are taken from The Alchemist, a book I highly encourage everyone to read.

Post Image by Dorothy, used under Creative Commons.

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4 thoughts on “The Alchemy of My Year”

  1. Great post, Doug. We have The Alchemist – it was required reading for our 11th grader, I think in 9th grade. I hadn’t considered reading it myself but based on your recommendation, I definitely will!

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