“The thing all writers do best is find ways to avoid writing.” ― Alan Dean Foster
“Like most writers, I am an inveterate procrastinator. In the course of writing this one article, I have checked my e-mail approximately 3,000 times, made and discarded multiple grocery lists, conducted a lengthy Twitter battle over whether the gold standard is actually the worst economic policy ever proposed, written Facebook messages to schoolmates I haven’t seen in at least a decade, invented a delicious new recipe for chocolate berry protein smoothies, and Googled my own name several times to make sure that I have at least once written something that someone would actually want to read. Lots of people procrastinate, of course, but for writers it is a peculiarly common occupational hazard. One book editor I talked to fondly reminisced about the first book she was assigned to work on, back in the late 1990s. It had gone under contract in 1972.” Megan Mcardle
I teach writing workshops and classes and it is inevitable to hear a writer say, under their breath and hoping no one will hear, that they in fact battle a million and one distractions in order to sit down and become a productive writer. Then whether the battle is won or lost, what the end product generates is self doubt, and self criticism. Well let’s all just stop that. The common issues regarding procrastination for writers are captured by the quote above made by Megan Mcardle.
But, the problem of procrastination can be as simple as working from home and the phone ringing and jumping up to answer it, putting that load of laundry in, having to get up and walk the dog or the most common issue being the uncertainty about what you are writing and welcoming every single little tiny distraction that exists in order to avoid the fear, the lack of clarity or the horrible feeling of being stuck.
What we use to procrastinate must serve us in some important way. Procrastination is what is called an “avoidance technique” and it is your job as a writer to look it square in the eye and fess up to what you might be avoiding. In the end, procrastination is all about being uncertain about your self as a writer. Whether it is about inspiration, self concept, constantly comparing your writing to others or the loop that is going all the time in your head that says something like this: “what the hell are you thinking writing this book?” the ultimate outcome is a kind of stalling out and waiting for a magical elixir. But, procrastination comes in many shapes and sizes.
The French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette who wrote Gigi, used her French bulldog, Souci, to procrastinate writing. She would pluck fleas from Souci’s back and hunt for them in her fur until the grooming ritual prepared her to move on to other procrastination techniques like cuddling with Souci and swatting flies. Only then would Colette begin to work.
Graham Greene, who wrote The Quiet American, needed a sign from above to begin working on a piece. Obsessed with numbers, the English playwright and novelist needed to see a certain combination of numbers by accident in order to write a single word. He would spend long periods of time by the side of the road looking at license plates and waiting for the hallowed number to appear. Now that is navigating by the sigs and by coincidence.
Wherever he traveled, Charles Dickens decorated his desk with nine objects. The bronze toads, green vase, and the statuette of an eccentric dog salesman surrounded by his pups comforted Dickens when he hit a mental block, and helped him feel comfortable enough to work anywhere. Now this is bordering on being Obsessive Compulsive but OCD has its place in history with a slew of famous writers.
Victor Hugo, who wrote novels like Les Miserables, did more than buy a new bottle of ink in preparation to write The Hunchback of Notre Dame. With a deadline looming, Hugo locked himself inside his house with nothing on but a knitted gray shawl that reached down to his toes. The uniform suited his productivity, and he completed the novel weeks ahead of the deadline.
Some people dream of lounging all day, but Truman Capote really did. His workday began in bed or on a couch where he would write on a notebook rested against his knees. He always kept cigarettes and whichever drink was appropriate for the time of day—coffee, tea, or sherry. Boy do I relate to this. Not the cigarettes and Martinis at the crack of dawn, but I get out of bed and put on my favorite tea at 6:30 am and then crawl back in bed with my laptop on my knees and write until 10am every morning. If I do not do this I am a basket case and cannot get my barring’s for the whole day. I put music on every time and listen to soundtracks of my favorite movies while I write. The theme from Bourne Legacy gets me every time.
So you are in good company. You are not odd or unusual in your procrastination. And in the end you need to make friends with a pattern that is one of the most frequent issues for a writer. Know that procrastination is just part of the job. Get over it when you can and then laugh at yourself the rest of the time. You will get to writing, you will finish and you will be done in your own good time.