22 Jun 2016
Procrastination is something almost every writer deals with. We make ourselves feel worse when we compare ourselves to hard-working writers who publish four books a year or more. When you look at their habits, however, a pattern becomes clear.
* Stephen King, who writes every day, grew up in a poor family that was abandoned by his father. He married, had children, and worked menial jobs while tapping out short stories for skin magazines on a broken school desk in his trailer’s furnace room. Money was so tight that they couldn’t buy antibiotics for his sick son. It wasn’t until the success of “Carrie” that they could forget their money worries.
* Anthony Trollope, the son of impoverished landed gentry, was driven by bullies at boarding schools to imagine elaborate fantasy worlds. Working as a postal clerk, he willed himself into becoming a prolific novelist. He set a goal of writing so many words a day, and if he finished a book ahead it would immediately start a new one.
* Agatha Christie was a builder of imaginary worlds like Trollope whose middle-class upbringing crashed when her father died and his investments failed. She turned to writing, and at 25 published her debut mystery, “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” featuring Hercule Poirot. She wrote novels, stories and plays at a steady clip, sometimes four or five books a year, for the rest of her life.
* Isaac Asimov was forced to work long hours in his father’s candy shop, where he read every magazine he could find. Drawn to the science-fiction pulps, he began to write stories at age 11 and was selling them by 19. He spent long hours at the typewriter, finishing more than 500 books and numerous short stories and essays.
* Joyce Carol Oates, as a child in rural New York, was twice sexually molested. She isolated herself and became a loner. Through her grandmother’s gift of a typewriter, she found a home in literature. At Syracuse University, she wrote stories filled with extreme violence that unnerved her professors. She admitted that she was “addicted like an alcoholic” to writing and would probably go crazy if she couldn’t.
* Nora Roberts, who credits the discipline from the nuns at her Catholic school (“Guilt and discipline — combine those and you’ll be pretty productive”) for her prodigious output. Writing eight hours a day, even during vacations, she has written more than 200 books, more than Anthony Trollope and Joyce Carol Oates combined, and even James Patterson and Danielle Steel combined.
What can we learn from their example? Not that we should expose ourselves to childhood trauma or poverty to be productive, but to understand that the key to solving procrastination begins inside yourself. Your brain, your body, your life decisions play a role in how much you delay, prevaricate, avoid, resist … and procrastinate.
So if procrastination is a habit but you want to get yourself in gear, what can you do about it? Perhaps the answer lies in the cause.
Symptoms: Poor health, migraines, eye problems, lower-back pain.
Prescription: The low-hanging fruit here is anything that can be treated. Also, be aware that the cause of your pain can have other sources. Look especially at poor posture, a chair that doesn’t provide support, or wrist pain from using your mouse too much.
When I was editing books about Victorian murderer William Palmer, I spent hours cleaning up woodcuts in Photoshop. The constant click-click-click on the mouse as I erased imperfections caused painful inflammation in my arm. Aspirin and ibuprofen helped, but it took weeks of resting that hand before I recovered.
Symptoms: Drugs, alcohol, the Internet, excessive snacking, even smartphone games can cause problems with your concentration and your waistline.
Prescription: Serious addiction problems cannot be solved without professional help. In the case of food and drink, try switching to non-sugary snacks. Replace the M&Ms with plain popcorn or rice cakes. It’ll still give you that feeling of eating something without piling on the calories.
Studies have shown that candy dishes and other snacks left out on the counter are eaten faster than when they’re tucked away. If every time you pass through the kitchen you’re tempted to snack, put them away. Even better, don’t let them in the house in the first place. I’ve found that after a few days of not eating sugar, I don’t have as big a craving for it.
Symptoms: Inability to focus, easily distracted.
Prescription: I think some people’s flow smoother than others’. I’ve written stories as if they were dictated, while others have to be pieced together like a puzzle. I see this in my wife, who can imagine characters holding long conversations, while I hear only a few words, or maybe a sentence. I think big picture and can fill in the blanks on the page, but inside my head, my thoughts feel like static interrupted by words.
If your head is like mine, work with it instead of beating yourself up. Record those fragments. If your mind jumps to another part of the story, write that down. If your concentration is being derailed by that critical voice in your head, drown it out with music. I have two playlists on my computer. There’s one for everyday work that contains classical music, electronica, and earth noises such waves crashing on the beach at Malibu and rain forests sounds. When I need to bear down, it’s time to bust out the Futurama list. A mix of the animated show’s theme, plus fan-created remixes creates a clanging, repetitive beat that suppresses negative thoughts and stimulates production.
Symptoms: Anything outside you that interferes with your process: a spouse asking a question, children seeking attention, a nosy cat who insists on inspecting your chin with his tongue, even an uncomfortable writing environment.
Prescription: It’s especially tricky when dealing with people you love, or when you feel your work comes first. Which is more valuable: your writing time or your family? William Faulkner said, “The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. … If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ is worth any number of old ladies.”
With respect to old Bill, that’s bunk. The culture is stuffed with deathless works. One more or less “Ode on a Grecian Urn” isn’t going to make a damn bit of difference. But you only have one mother, one spouse (if you’re lucky) and whatever children and pets you have hanging around. They count.
That’s not to say family should always come first. But if you spend three hours writing, you can spend an hour relearning your children’s names. Too many artists treat Faulkner’s attitude as permission to indulge themselves.
Bad Work Habits
Symptoms: Unable to begin work, easily distracted sidetracked by new, fresh projects.
Prescription: When I was working for a newspaper, my bad work habits were easy to manage. If I didn’t come to work on time, I was fired. That provided an enormous motivation.
But when you own your business and you have no employees under you, the responsibility doesn’t seem quite so pressing. I’ve joked that I’m a terrible employee, but I’m a worse boss, because I’m unable to kick my butt to get back to work. There is always some reason for not moving forward.
Since I’m not poor enough to motivate myself that way, and I’m in a reasonably good mental state, I have had to deal with my procrastination habit all my life.
What I find helps is to design and maintain good work habits. Several parts of this book deal with that problem, especially “Caring for the Writer.”
Symptoms: Inability to push forward on a writing project.
Prescription: This may not be a work problem but something deeper. A reluctance to move forward may disguise an inability to solve a writing problem. It could be a plot problem, a lack of confidence or inability to proceed to the next step such as revision or editing, or even a lack of confidence in yourself or your project.
The answer may be to take a step back and focus on another project, or to talk it over with another writer you trust. Sometimes, even taking a long walk and talking to the wind might reveal an aspect of the problem you haven’t considered. If it’s a skill problem, check the reading list at the back of the book for works that I’ve found useful.