“If you go slowly enough, six or seven months is an eternity—if you let it be—if you forget old things, and learn new ones. Even a week can last forever.”
Rick Bass, Winter

"In the midst of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer."
Albert Camus

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Day 88: On Artful Procrastination: Readers Forum Requested

It's an old adage that if you want to clean your house or your writing space, sit down to write.  When you're squirmy but still can't put words down, one after the other, the laundry beckons, or even the vacuum cleaner.

I'm not really like that, though.  When I go down, I let everything fall apart.  My writing studio looks just as messy when I'm so immersed that I don't notice that it's grown dark outside or the wind just blew more shingles off my roof as when I want to get that thing written but it's caught somewhere between my overblown idea of what it could be and my throat (odd, but it's true; writing strains my vocal chords, even if I'm not reading what I write out loud.)  When I finish something and need a real break is when I make a ritual of thoroughly cleaning up, washing the cups in the sink, putting the piles of books around me back on the shelves.  The ritual cleaning always signals to me that I've accomplished something that was hard-won.  Chances are the next thing will be even tougher, so creating a clear space/clean canvas helps me get ready for it.

One school of thought is that when you sit down for your two hours or three or twenty minutes (which is actually the perfect amount of time to get something small but tangible done if you go in with laser-like focus, my friends and I agree), you should not allow yourself to do anything but that project.  No dishes.  No laundry.  And definitely no e-mail.  You give yourself an ultimatum:  I'm either going to just sit here and stare and not move, or I'm going to write this.

A lot of people hate doing nothing so much that they'll get that thing written, almost out of spite.

This is very good advice, and I plan to take it sometime soon.

I have another approach.

I cheat on my project with another project.

I've been doing this for years.  I did it in grad school.  When I was supposed to be writing fiction, I wrote nonfiction and a play, neither of which "counted" for my degree.  When I had a paper due for a literature class, I worked on a short story.  When I had a short story due, I worked on my D.H. Lawrence papers.

Probably all that transgressive energy, the passion of ignoring my erstwhile responsibilities and putting them into the other thing(s) was what made those pieces work better, because the writing had urgency and freshness.

It's like having two or three husbands.  Or two or three jobs.

Take Friday, for example.  I had spent about 11 hours working on my novel for all of Thursday.  I was trying to get something done.  Except for one little chunk, it wasn't new writing, so I could work that long without getting too tired.  (For new writing, I do have a method I really like, with built in breaks that actually allow me to clean up a little as I go, which I adapted from Ellen Sussman. See Day 56.)

A while back I had decided that I wanted to enter a short-short story competition, just to make me start writing short fiction again, which I haven't done in this century, and the deadline was this past Friday.  I used to enter contests regularly, and I had some luck there.  And contests give you a deadline too.  I thought it would be fun to take the essence of my novel and turn it into a story 500 words long.

But I was too busy to work on it all these weeks since I read about the contest, so Friday came, the day it was due, and I hadn't started it.  (I sound like one of my students, don't I?)

So what did I do on Friday?

I lolled about in bed reading for a while.  It just felt good to bask in other words, other worlds, as a follow-up to an 11-hour writing day.

Then I took a bath.

While I was in the bath, a short-short started coming to me.

But it wasn't the story.  It was  . . . the blog.  I heard the voice and some of the images--the kite, the rat terrier--and realized that I was writing another post.

So when I was supposed to be writing fiction, I wrote the post for Day 87.  The one I put up yesterday.

I followed the voice that was dictating itself, the thing that needed to come out.  I had so much fun doing it.  More fun than I'd had in days.

And when I was done, it was 10:30 in the morning.  I sat down immediately and wrote the 500-word story, and was done with a draft before lunch.

And I actually liked it.  I made the deadline without stress.

Even as I write this, I cringe, because it sounds like I'm bragging.  Yikes!  Please believe me, I have many many days when I work long and hard and don't like what I produce at all.

I have the usual amount of manuscripts in the drawer too that I haven't yet found the temerity to burn.  I'm not where I want to be in my career, and I'm trying to make up for lost time.  But that doesn't mean that I'm self-disciplined.  I think it's more accurate to say that I'm just finally figuring out how to go with what I do and not fight it.

So this was just one of those extremely rare lucky days when the muse didn't spit at me or complain about the working conditions.  The reason we have to get our butt in the chair every day, even if nothing good comes of many of those days, is that we're there and have our muscles warmed up and our voice conditioned when something asks us to be its midwife.

It's not just writing that I cheat on via other kinds of writing.  It's physical activity too.

Although I am posting this on Sunday morning, I am writing this on Saturday afternoon.  At the moment, I'm procrastinating going on the dog walk.  As much as I love walking Zoe--it's the highlight of my day--the wind out there is fierce and wild, and it will feel like Siberia.  But I wouldn't dream of not going.  The only thing that keeps me from walking with Zoe is thunder or hail.  But at the moment, I'm trying to figure out where we can go where branches won't fall on our heads.  And just delaying that decision gives me fuel to write this post.

This week I'm hoping to get another 5,000 words written on the novel before my husband and Zoe and I set off for our spring vacation.  Which means that I'll enjoy writing this blog--my second sweetheart and guilty pleasure--all the more.

Before we say good-bye for today, I have a request.

Procrastination, tips for fighting it, or perhaps the basic subject of how we psyche out the things we do to trip ourselves up and come back with constructive strategies: my guess is that everyone reading this today is already an expert on the subject.

Zoe is waiting.  We're off into the wild as soon as I end this post!
So I would love to hear from you about how you handle procrastination, or the juggling of more than one project at once.  And it would be great if people agreed to disagree, and offered alternative views.

I dismantled the comments-step where it was funneling through my e-mail.  Now you just have to read that trippy/squiggly word the system gives you and reproduce it, to keep away the spam, I guess, and your comments--and your own strategies for dealing with procrastination--will appear in a nanosecond.

Wishing you all a delicious, restful Sunday, dear readers. And I hope if there is something you are procrastinating doing today, you will channel your resistance for that work into sending a comment below!  Namaste.

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