Right now I’m supposed to be writing. I have some time cleared away for a session attending to my rewrite. But I’m not writing. I’m doing social media. (VERY important.) I’m making a list of all the things I want to accomplish in the next four months. (Before I leave for my next France workshop.)Emailing people who have expressed interest in attending.
In other words, doing everything and anything but writing.
But, here’s the deal. I’m at a tricky spot that needs working out. I’ve looked at the chapter a couple times today and sat back in my chair and sighed. Furrowed my eyebrows. Twisted my mouth. Sighed again. Then clicked on over to check out Twitter.
Because in the back of my mind, things are percolating. Every time I look at the manuscript, I get a bit closer to figuring out how to work on it. And since I don’t know yet, I’m letting things percolate while I do other less brain-fatiguing work.
Creativity is a cycle. You can’t go full out on it 24 hours a day. You’ve got to give your brain a break. It is useful if you can actually refuel it by doing something you love to do. This morning on a phone call, I knitted, for instance. That was lovely–and knitting has the advantage of helping jar loose ideas.
My friend Patty Bechtold tweeted this Elizabeth Gilbert quote: “Time, when treated like a bandit, will behave like one.” Sometimes, you just have to take the time to knit, to do your social media, to go for a walk, to weed the garden and let those ideas percolate.
This morning when I got up at my usual early hour (made even earlier this week with the time switch), I had plans to work on the rewrite of my novel. Because that’s what I do when I get up early to write. It is my sacred time, devoted only to writing fiction. (Except for those times when I, ahem, devote it to reading blogs and interesting news articles.) It is part of my daily morning routine.
But this morning I awoke and the juicy bits at the top of my brain were for newsletters. (Which, if you don’t know, I send out every week–I post them here but you can get them right into your inbox by filling out the form to the right.)
So I did what any self-respecting writer would do–I argued with myself. Told myself I HAD TO WORK ON THE NOVEL AND NOTHING ELSE. But the newsletters wouldn’t let hold of my mind. And when I tried to connect with my novel, nothing was there. It was like a blank wall in my brain.
And so I grudgingly did what my brain was telling me to do. I ended up knocking out two newsletters (I’ll be out of town next week so I’m setting one up ahead of time) in no time at all.
What would have happened if I hadn’t gone with the flow? Knowing me, I most likely wouldn’t have gotten either the newsletters or the work on the novel done. Instead, in trying to force my brain somewhere it didn’t want to go, I would have ended up not doing either and heading off to my procrastination default of farting around on the internet.
And now, later on in the afternoon, I’m going to steal an hour or so to work on that novel rewrite after all–because I got everything else done. So sometimes it is a good idea to release expectations of what you should be doing. We should ourselves way too much anyway.
What do you should yourself about? Leave a comment!
Honestly now, isn’t this a skill you need to learn? Of course it is! Every writer in the world needs to know how to procrastinate. I submit that it is one of the most vital skills you need to master before you can call yourself a writer. And it just so happens that I am a master at it and have much wisdom to impart to you. So gather, children, and I shall instruct.
Here we go, with items listed in no particular order. Pick and choose as you wish!
Check email every five minutes. Because, you know, something important might have come in. Perhaps an email from someone in #2 will come in and then you’ll have even more reason to stall.
Read writing blogs. There’s so much to learn! And cruising around all the writing sites is so helpful in this regard. Never mind if it doesn’t leave you any time for writing. You’re learning, for chrissakes!
Read. While you’re in a reading mode, go ahead and pick up that novel. Spend at least an hour with it. Sink into it deeply. If a family member happens to come by and say, “I thought you were working,” give them a dirty look and say, “I am.” Because, you’re reading. That counts as work when you’re a writer.
Watch TV. An excellent case can be made that this, too, is part of working when you are a writer. A bit more difficult to convince your spouse of this, but if they question you, say, “I’m studying structure and character arc.”
Plan your life. It is SO important to have goals! Smart goals, achievable goals, good goals. And you must write them down! You want to publish six novels this year? Write down every single step associated with that goal in minute detail. Never mind that you’ll be so exhausted by the end of it that you’ll need #6.
Have a drink. Writing is hard work and everyone knows that alcohol makes it easier. Right? Am I right?
Clean. Oh never mind. That’s the worst idea in the world.
Check social media. Because you never know what you might find on Facebook. The perfect idea for a scene in all those quizzes and stupid Gifs.
Nap. Maybe you’ll have a dream that will illuminate your novel.
Do something creative that’s not writing. Like knitting. Or drawing. Or coloring. Or stitching. Or gardening. Or building model airplanes. The process will inspire you.
And I could list many more. Like shopping, eating chocolate, walking the dog, organizing.
Okay, so all kidding aside, with the exception #1, #6, #7 and #8, all of these are things that actually do support a writing habit. But they are also so easy to sink into and convince yourself that you’re doing it for your writing, when really you’re not. You’re procrastinating. And only you can know when to say when.
Just about every morning, I wake (naturally–it’s just when my body is ready to get up) around 5:30, stumble downstairs, drink some water, then grab my coffee and head to my computer, after being careful not to trip over the cat in the predawn darkness. And then I get right to work and don’t move until I’ve finished my daily word count look at email, maybe check on what happened in the world (though less so lately as its too painful).
Finally, I get to work. I plug in brain.fm, which helps me ignore the cats and husbands wandering around the house,, and go to it. And I’m pretty good at sticking with it (with lots of breaks for more coffee and water) until I’ve reached my word count. Which, over the past month, since I did Nanowrimo, was 2,000 words a day. (And yes, I did finish! I hit 50,047 words on November 30.)
But, yeah, that’s the perfect world. Which doesn’t always happen, alas. Here’s what happened one morning last week: I woke earlier than normal because of a stomach ache, and went back to doze on the couch for a few minutes. Then I smelled coffee, went and grabbed some, and stumbled to the computer. Which, when I woke it up, was open to a page I really wanted to read. So I did. Despite knowing better. Which set the tone for reading even more when I went over to my inboxes. And then one thing led to another..and pretty soon, well you can guess what happened.
Yep, I’d waste my entire morning writing session. Because I had to read about the fires in Gatlinburg (which are so tragic. The resort I’ve stayed at there several times burned to the ground. Scroll down on that link to see photos of the Westgate.) And check on the latest political news. And then I decided, smugly, that today just wasn’t a good writing day and what I really should do is make notes for some business visioning I’ve been doing. But by that time, all I ended up doing was confusing myself. And I gave up and went to eat breakfast.
But, here’s the deal: this bout of procrastination set the tone for the whole day, and I struggled to pull myself back to my focus. Also, I felt like crap (mentally and emotionally). I felt edgy and out of sorts, and besides that I wasted a lot of energy beating myself up.
And the truth is, I could have avoided the whole mess, just by being aware of my own creative rhythms. Because truth be told, I needed a break. I had been writing hard all of November and doing a lot of other work, too. (Okay, so planning the next France retreat over wine at Noble Rot is maybe not hazardous duty, but still.) When I first started my procrastination spiral, I might have been able to figure this out and rather than click through internet stories and ads for sales, I could have done something intentional. Something that would have fed my creativity instead of making me feel bad about myself. Like taking a walk. Or stepping away from the computer and reading a book. Or spending some time organizing my office. Or repair to the living room and knit.
But I didn’t. But next time this happens, I’ll try to catch myself mid-stream and nip the spiral in the bud. (Let’s see, did I mix enough metaphors there?)
Being conscious and mindful of your creative rhythms can be oh so helpful. And then allow yourself to do what you need to do to sustain a writing practice over the long haul. And if that means stepping away from the computer, for the love of God, let yourself do it.
Do you procrastinate? (Is that question akin to asking, do you breathe?) How do you prevent it or deal with it afterwards? Please do share in the comments.
I think I’m the most unorganized writer on the planet.
If you could see my office right now, your stomach would hurt from laughing. I’m way too embarrassed about it to post a photo, but there are stacks of binders atop file boxes, a teetering tower of office supplies, folders from a class I taught last summer recently waiting to be put into some kind of order, yarn for weaving and knitting piled up besides knitting needles and looms. And that’s just my office. The desktop on my computer is covered with icons for folders and files and for the last few days I’ve been searching my cloud storage for a folder I know for certain I’ve saved but can’t find. (Likely because I tend to nest folders within folders in logic that makes sense only in the moment I do it.)
I am ridiculously, painfully unorganized.
This terrible state of affairs is because I put organization at a very low priority. I try to make a little time for it every day, but if I end up having a little time I would much prefer to do other things. Like read blogs I like to follow. Or knit a few rows on the never-ending scarf I’m working on. When I think about organizing, my mind goes blank and I can’t seem to figure out where to start.
It is not that I don’t notice the mess, like some people I know who may or may not live in this very same house with me. I notice it plenty. And it bugs the hell out of me. I just don’t want to spend any time dealing with it. So I don’t. I love the idea of being organized, not the reality.
I think this is how a lot of people are about writing. They love the idea of it, but have no real desire to sit down and actually do it. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that sitting down to writing is hard. It is easier, so much easier to do something else. Like sweep the kitchen floor. Or laundry. Or check the latest election polls. But, unlike organizing, once you get writing, it is actually fun. (At least when the words are flowing.)
Like everyone, I have good days and bad days when writing. That’s normal. But if I’ve made the commitment to show up regularly, the bad days don’t loom quite so large, because I know that tomorrow will likely be a good day once again. When you make writing a priority, the good and the bad even out and eventually you’re just writing.
All this by way of excusing myself for being so unorganized. Because, well, I can’t be bothered. I’ve got more important things to do. Like write.
What about you? Are you organized? Or do you write in the midst of chaos, like me?
I’ve been out of sync with my writing lately. (And my blog posts, too, as you may have noticed.) Off my feed, unchained from my computer, thinking about things other than my writing.
I’m best when I write every day, or close to it. I get into a rhythm and it becomes just something I do, not a task I avoid, or a thing to obsess about (when I could just as easily be writing). But as soon as something throws me off my schedule, I’ve got to find ways to get back to it. I struggle a little bit, and sigh and wring my hands and think about how awful life is. How I don’t have any time to write at all, ever.
And then I remember that my life is pretty damn good and actually I do have time to write, if I would only take advantage of it. I quit sighing and struggling. But those are all just interim steps. I still have to find my way back to my groove.
Today, as I spent another morning doing something else very important besides writing, several items that will impact my procrastination fell into my lap. Well, more like my computer. Anyway.
First was this article by Barbara O’Neal about how she started listening to dubstep and it increased her output exponentially. I’m still experimenting with this. (And please don’t ask me to explain dubstep, I actually don’t even know it when I hear it yet.) And never mind that going to Pandora to find some dubstep led me to ponder if I should try Spotify. Of course the answer was yes, and that took a bit to set up an account and then I remembered that Beth Orton had a new release out and…you get the idea.
I really am out of sync.
But here’s another one, a TedX Talk about how to find fascination in the every day. It really is worth a watch. Thank me next time you’re staring at a pile of dishes in your kitchen sink.
And then, trying to be positive, I thought about the things I’m doing to get back in sync. That would be writing in my journal every morning (call them morning pages if you like), playing around with writing to prompts, and rereading my WIP. Organizing my craft closet (not by choice–a huge yarn avalanche occurred when I opened the door and fell all over my office floor). Thinking deep thoughts.
I’ll get back to it soon. I have to, because I have another rewrite to accomplish. There will be deadlines and such. Or at least I hope so, because giving me a deadline is another surefire way to pull me out of a slump.
You’ve heard it a million times, and so have I. Hell, I’ve said it a million times: all you have to do to write is get yourself to the page and throw words at it. And yet, sometimes this is just ridiculously difficult.
Like, for me, this morning, when I struggled with writing a scene. I let my attention wander to ponder a book I desperately needed wanted for research, and this led me down one rabbit hole after another.
All I had to do was throw words at the page until I finished the scene (which I had sketched out in note form already). And I wasn’t doing it, until finally I strong-armed myself into completing the scene (which didn’t turn out half bad for a rough draft). But it started me to thinking, once again, about why this happens. We love writing or we wouldn’t be writers, right? And yet sometimes it takes the 10th army to get us to the page.
And I realized that for me, and maybe for you, too, its the constant carping of my inner voice. When I listen to it, it leads me astray. It says things like aw, c’mon just go check your email one more time. Or, you know you’re a crappy writer and this particular scene sucks so why bother? Or, you’re stupid and so is your writing. Or even, everybody hates you. (Now if that isn’t ridiculous, I don’t know what is.)
Yet when I’m able to ignore it, I go directly to the page and my writing flows. I don’t waste time obsessing about what other people think of me or how my writing is going to be received. I’m happy and I feel free. These times have historically been few and far between, but they are getting more common with my understanding of the carping inner voice and some techniques to deal with it.
The inner voice is, of course, your ego and your ego’s job is to keep you safe. S/he has done a good job up till now, because here you are, reading this in one relatively unscathed piece, correct? And yet in your ego’s efforts to keep you safe, it sometimes often goes a bit too far. Your ego would probably be delighted were you to stay safely at home, never risking venturing out into the big scary world. This goes for the physical world and the mental world. Free, unfettered creativity is the ego’s worst nightmare.
Because what if you reveal something deep and true and unique about yourself that people might judge? What if those words you’re putting on the page become a book and people, gasp, actually read it? What if you succeed? What if you fail? What if people criticize you? On and on the ego’s fears run, a constant litany and threat of doom. If you listen to it, you’ll never get any writing done, trust me.
So not listening to it is the key. But your inner voice is a persistent bugger, and it will continue to carp at you non-stop no matter how many times you scream at it to shut up. Another way is called for. That way is to acknowledge it and then let it go. As the revered meditation teacher and Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, just say hello and goodbye. This is surprisingly effective, especially when done over time.
And one of the things that has really helped me is something I learned from Michael Singer’s book, The Untethered Soul. Think about that inner voice as if it were a real live roommate in your home. Would you give its constant chatter any credence? Would you pay attention to anything it said? Would you believe its crazy stream of words? Of course you wouldn’t.
If there’s one thing that drives me crazy, its a person who talks non-stop. I end up tuning them out, ignoring them. And yet I often let my inner voice run my life. So I’ve given my inner roommate a name–Irene–and when she starts spouting nonsense I say to here, “Hello Irene. Goodbye Irene.” Then she can go off and spout away but I don’t have to listen to her.
This is a wonderful practice not just for writing but for every aspect of life. It is such a relief to get away from Irene whenever I can! And when I’m not listening to her, I can appreciate the present moment, and I can write with a whole brain and a whole heart.
Do you have an inner roommate who talks at you constantly? How do you tame him or her?
(Note: you may also be interested in posts I’ve written about our inner critics, a different but similar beast. You can read about that here or here.)
My newsletter comes out every two weeks without fail and usually I get the material for it to my friend who compiles it for me well ahead of time.
Not this week.
Yes, life got in the way–I won't bore you with the particulars. But I also procrastinated. Because if I had really wanted to, I could have fit some work on it in the nooks and crannies of time. I'm used to doing that. I do it all the time.
Not this week.
I knew I needed to get the newsletter done in plenty of time for it to be scheduled, but I didn't do it. And then last night, as I was falling asleep, I realized why: because I didn't have the topic yet. Bear in mind, I write posts for this blog a lot. (Over seven years, I've managed to rack up over 1,000 of them.) So coming up with ideas and writing them is not often a problem. But in this case, I didn't.
Until I realized I wanted to write about what was happening to me in the moment: procrastination. And here's the deal, the epiphany that occurred to me, the idea that made it all worthwhile:
Sometimes procrastination is a good thing.
Yes, I said that. So let me explain why, and when you can use procrastination as a tool, and when it is just a plain old bad thing. Okay?
When Procrastination is a Good Thing.
Sometimes, a story or a scene or an essay simply hasn't formed itself enough to be gotten down on paper. Period. You can try to force the issue as much as you want and it simply won't budge. Stories are like that. And then you've got to let it come out in its own time. (Which can look like procrastination to uninformed spouses but really isn't.) Some ideas that might help the process:
1. Take notes. Gently, without trying to force anything.
2. Actively think about it. Like, when you're vacuuming. Or reading CNN. Or doing whatever it is you do when you procrastinate.
3. Quit worrying about it. Remind yourself that peaks and valleys are part of the creative process.
4. Don't think about it. I know, contradictory to #2, but that's how creativity works. Put it out of your mind and do something else. Sometimes this is what's needed for an idea to bubble up.
5. Decide you're going to give up writing forever. Kidding! Sort of. Because, in truth, sometimes these sorts of dramatic vows are what it takes to lift yourself up out of the procrastination morass. Because you realize that you really do want to be a writer and since that is the case, you better get to it.
When Procrastination is a Bad Thing.
While we all want to put a good face on the way we run our lives, sometimes procrastination is just that: procrastination. And more likely than not, it is fear-based. Fear of failure, fear of success, fear of putting yourself out in the world, fear that you don't know what to write.
I'm here to tell you that the best and only way to deal with fear is to walk through it. And the best way to walk through it is to throw words at the page. Bad words, crappy sentences, ridiculous paragraphs. Or, if you can muster it, fantastic combinations of words. But don't worry about that. Just write. Anything. Trust me. The act of writing itself will lead you back to where you need to go–which is where you are at the moment:
We All Suffer From It.
Well, maybe you don't. But I do. And most other writers do, too, if they will admit to it. (Procrastination is sort of like drinking too much or reading trashy novels in that nobody wants to claim it as a habit.)
But, if you find yourself procrastinating, just remember to use it to your writing advantage. And then you call it something else that sounds much more industrious.
(Almost all my metaphors have to do with the garden or food. I think its time for me to get planting and cooking. Nah, never mind. I've got too much writing to do.)
Here are some other posts I've written about procrastination:
The subject line on the email read: Lead by example and not theory!
That's easy, I thought smugly. I set a good example by getting up at 5 or 5:30 every day to write. Why, I was up early at that very moment reading the email.
Yeah, reading the email. Not writing. Reading.
Caught in the act.
I was procrastinating, no two ways about it.
I stopped and asked myself why? The answer–because I didn't know where to go next. I'm working on a new novel, and I wasn't sure where to take my heroine in the next scene. I like to know where I'm going in a scene. It prevents me from drifting. (When I drift, I can get way off course.)
But sometimes I know more than I think I do, and if I just quit resisting and start writing, my hands tell me where to go.
And so I did. And once I was in the middle of it, I remembered: this. This is what I love doing. This is what I want to do all day. This.
This always happens. Once I'm in the middle of my writing, I remember how much I love doing it. So why is it sometimes so damned hard to get to the writing in the first place? These are some of the reasons I came up with:
Overwhelm. At times your brain is just too full up to think anymore.
Fear you're not good enough, or more to the point, your writing isn't.
Anxiety. External worries about money, career, or relationship can be awful distractions.
Not knowing what to write, as mentioned above.
And I would be remiss if I didn't offer antidotes, now wouldn't I? Try these:
1. Do a brain dump. Earlier this week, I realized my mind was going in a million different directions with projects I wanted to start, and ideas for works in progess. I had slips of paper all over my desk with notes, ideas and reminders on them. Worse, I couldn't seem to focus on anything for longer than a minute or two. Then Milli Thornton told me about Todoist, which is a simple website on which to create to-do lists. And I used this to do a brain dump of everything I wanted to work on. Once everything was on the page, I could think again. Note: this also works for when you're struggling with anxiety.
2. Massage the inner critic. The fear pops up when your Inner Critic rages. At the Karen Drucker women's retreat a few weeks ago, she shared what she says to her Inner Critic: I know you're there, I acknowledge you, but that's not what I choose to believe today.
3. Know where you're going. Do your best to always have a place to go in your writing. Ernest Hemingway famously quit a writing session in the middle of a sentence. You might not want to do that, but it can help to rewrite your notes before you go to bed the night before, or review in your mind what you're going to do next. This is probably the most useful tip against procrastination that I can give you.
What are your favorite procrastination busters? Please leave a comment.
And by the way–stay tuned, because I'm cooking up a Christmas give-away for next week!
I'm all over Steve Chandler these days. I have no idea where I first heard of him, but I've been reading his book on time management, Time Warrior, and I've learned a lot. Since I subscribed to his newsletter, I also got a free PDF (which I sent to my Ipad to be read on the Kindle app) of his book Wealth Warrior. Chandler talks a lot about mind set–but I guarantee you his stuff his different from the same-old, same-old you're used to reading.
Usually I dislike male business types making pronouncements about how I should do things, because they are just so, well, male, in their orientation. (No offense to my beloved male readers, it's just that I prefer a more holistic female approach to self management, which is less rule-oriented and more dispersed.) But Chandler's approach really resonates with me.
He talks a lot about action (and let me also make clear that he follows his own advice, having written 30 books). What I really like about his advice is twofold:
1. He emphasizes the benefit of taking the emotion out of your choices. How many times have you whined about a task (writing, even), "I just don't feel like doing it." Chandler says that "warriors" don't wait until they feel like doing something, they just freaking do it.
2. He talks a lot about the present moment, and taking the future out of your day. In other words, we spend half our time thinking about how awful its going to be when we're engaged in whatever chore we don't want to do. Thus, we're focused on the future, not the present moment. But if I you just quit projecting yourself into the future and do the chore without emotion, you'll accomplish a lot.
And here's the tip mentioned in the headline:
Whatever it is you gotta do, commit to doing it for three minutes. Three measly minutes. This will accomplish one of two things:
–You'll at least have connected with the project for a bit. Don't downplay the importance of this, because it creates momentum, and momentum is what gets books written.
–You'll most likely get wrapped up in what you're doing and work far longer than three minutes. But, by telling yourself that you only have to work for three minutes, you've enticed yourself to the page.
I've used a variant of this, telling myself I only have to work 15 minutes, for years. But I like the three minute idea even better. Because, really, anyone can commit three minutes to something–even you. Right?
I encouraged a friend who was struggling with a paper for a class to commit to three minutes on it and she texted me an hour later saying the paper was done and sent in. This little trick of the mind works, people. I now use it on myself all the time.
Do you procrastinate? How do you get yourself out of it?