in·ten·tion·al

inˈten(t)SH(ə)n(ə)l/

adjective:  done on purpose; deliberate.

Synonyms: calculated, conscious, intended, purposeful

I talk to my writing students about audience all the time — “Know your audience,” I tell them,  “Your tone, your style, your voice depends on your audience.”

But when I sit down to write, the audience member I most often put in focus is someone whom I never met in person, someone who passed away before we ever had a chance to talk.

I had a dear professor in college, someone who has grown into a lifelong friend, and she used to share my work with her mother. “Do you mind?” she’d ask me, “My mom would love this.” And then the writing would be passed along and her mother, Harriett, would send me (via her daughter) feedback. It was the kindest, most gentle reminder that someone was listening, someone was there, someone was nodding in another place reading my words.

When I get stuck — or when I find myself avoid writing altogether — it’s usually because of audience. It’s because I imagine someone out there reading my words and rolling her eyes. Or I imagine myself stumbling upon the document in a few years and laughing at my former self. I have a whole clan of mocking doubters who like to climb up and take residence on my shoulder.

But if I can narrow in, if I can remind myself to just write it for Harriett, I can do it. I can find a way to brave through the mess, to stumble through the words, even if I trip on the way there. I can find a safe place to land.

Rather than making resolutions that are lost by February, I’ve gotten into the habit of picking a focus word for my year, a word to guide me. Last year was STILL. This year it’s INTENTIONAL.

If last year I asked myself to stop more often, this year I’m aiming to be more active about my next move — to look around and find a focal point before I pick up my feet. I also want to be more intentional about where not to look, places undeserving of my energy, times to say no.

I’m in a transition stage of parenting. This fall, our youngest started Kindergarten and there are so many perks: everyone can buckle his own seat belt, brush his own teeth (with prodding…“Really, Mom? Twice a day?”) and I luxuriously find myself in the grocery store by myself. But with this next stage come busier calendars, bigger boundaries to set, more technology to monitor (or confiscate).

My husband and I have had countless conversations about making conscious decisions, about where our energy — and where our kids’ energy — will go. And just like with doubters on my shoulder when I sit down to write, there are many competing voices, contradictory ideas, expert opinions. A friend recently told me that they have written a family mission statement so that when things come at them, they can ask if the activity fits in their mission, rather than just their schedules.

Like a yoga teacher asking her students to set an intention for practice, like an athlete mentally rehearsing plays before the game, where we fix our minds does matter.

And while I still intend to talk to my writing students about audience, I’m also revising that lesson’s slant a bit. Because the word, “audience” is tricky and carries with it an implication of judgment and performance. I want my students to know — I want myself to remember — this is not all about anticipating the reaction of others, but acknowledging that where we turn our eyes, where we put our focus,  steers our steps or stops us in our tracks altogether.

Setting an intention may be less about trying to impress the right people and more about where we choose to place our gaze.

It’s sitting down to write to Harriett rather than a teacher with a red pen in her hand. It’s welcoming a friend to my table instead of a food critic. It’s feeling called by a God more interested in love than judgment and condemnation.

A focus on intention is a turn away from pleasing and guilt and obligation to a perspective of purpose and pleasure. It’s wanting for myself what someone who really loves me would want for me. The opposite of critical.

Sometimes I get tripped up — when writing, parenting, teaching, living — with a spirit of competition rather than community. What a mess it is when we’re all pretending and competing rather than cheering each other on. We live under the false illusion that if someone else does something well, it does not leave less space for the rest of us to do well, too. But there is no pie and there is enough for everyone. The world won’t run out of kindness or creativity or love. We are not being graded on a curve.  We won’t run out of goodness.

There are days I don’t dare write because I think all the good words have been taken. It’s already been done. It’s already been said. But don’t I keep picking up books? Don’t I read, re-read, and re-read again my favorite novels? Don’t I walk away after finishing an essay looking for more written by an author? By her friends?

Being intentional is stopping to be still, to make conscious decisions, to pray and wrestle with purpose. But more, it is about not being crushed by expectations or hiding within illusions of safety.  It’s about pushing aside fear and criticism to venture into places of greater faith and freedom.

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