Last week I decided I should write about procrastination next, but then got sidetracked and wrote about True Blood instead. I didn’t know what to say, so I said something else.
Procrastination is my favourite thing, and I hate it. It slows me down. I have so much writing to do and so little time, and yet I still find myself counting cobwebs, trawling old photographs and re-arranging my books.
“..as soon as I get an idea, before I even map out the narrative structure, or position the little white index cards around my desk, or reorganize the file structure in my computer, or even sharpen my pencils, I write my acceptance speech for the awards which the script will eventually win.” – Paul Bassett Davies ‘Beat Procrastination, Soon’ [Read the whole thing at The Writer Type]
So why do we do it and can it, should it, be stopped?
“If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.” – Thomas de Quincey
Here’s the problem: I’m deep into writing my first novel (very bad and doomed to be ignored by everyone), but I haven’t done any actual writing on it for a couple of weeks. I’ve looked at it. Frowned a bit. Made some half-arsed notes about what I think might work. Indulged in a guilt-trip, mentally beaten myself up, and then turned my back and whistled.
So instead of doing proper writing I’ve been playing with this blog. (There’s a whole debate to had here about whether blogs constitute ‘proper’ writing. Post your comments below.)
Am I procrastinating?
I’m writing, definitely. But not what I feel I should be writing. I have a chapter plan. I know broadly what happens next. I just don’t know how to say it. Plus it’s quite an important moment in the story and I think it might be hard to write. Plus I’m not convinced what I’ve written so far doesn’t suck.
So I’m stuck. Or am I percolating?
What if instead of being crippled by self-doubt and a suicidal desire to screw everything up, I am in fact gestating something? Maybe the next chapter isn’t ready yet and I need more time to let it sit and stew in its own juices.
In ‘Fearless Creating’ Eric Maisel says: “If you don’t work at your art because you feel like a beginner or because the work frustrates you, I would ask you to stop using those facts as excuses.”
Am I using my neuroses as an excuse to avoid the work, or am I letting the ambiguity get to me?
Yes, writing is hard. Yes, I don’t know what I’m doing. And yes, that’s a good thing.
To tell the difference between procrastination and percolation we need to be honest with ourselves, and this requires self-knowledge. You know when you’re running away from something. It feels completely different to that sense of expectation you have when you’re preparing something unconsciously. There’s no fear in gestation. You simply wait.
If you’re not comfortable waiting, then you’ll need to learn to live with uncertainty. You’ll need techniques for dealing with negative thoughts and emotional complexes that threaten to de-rail your masterwork.
It’s funny (or possibly tragic) that even though as writers the tool of our trade is our mind, we rarely bother to learn to use it effectively. We fling ourselves at our work thinking – it’s just words, I use words all the time, how hard can it be? It’s just writing down what I think and I never stop thinking.
But then look what happens when confronted by the blank screen or page. Perhaps it’s time we got some mind chops. More effective thinking = more effective writing. At least, in theory.
So if you’re procrastinating (and I undoubtedly am) – stop!