Posts Tagged Procrastination

Writing Like Lisa

I waited until today to talk about last week’s Simpsons because Hulu waited until today to put it online.  Here you go (also at the bottom of this post).  It’s required viewing.  It’s the first episode in perhaps a decade I can call “classic” and features a guest spot by Neil Gaiman that goes down as one of the best uses of a guest star the show has had.  It’s also one of the better presentations I’ve seen of the trials and tribulations of becoming a writer.

I just hope we put in enough Steampunk.  Whatever that is.

Not the story line about Homer putting together a dark cabal to write a young adult fantasy novel.  Instead, it’s the plot line of Lisa deciding she’s going to start writing, but not quite knowing how to start writing.  She sorts her music collection to find the right writing songs, she plays “just two more” games of online Boggle, she heads out to a coffee shop (gotta set up the Wifi, just in case you need to research!), she stacks pencils, she watches cat videos, and she even gets into window washing.  All of this is flirting with Procrastination, which can be especially enticing to the new writer, someone like Lisa who just can’t get down to putting that first word on the page.  Those first few words are the hardest.

Can you believe that publishers would lie to their readers just to make an easy million bucks?

I’m part of a group of writers call the Cat Vacuuming Society.  The name comes from the very art of procrastination itself, the moment where you realize that you wouldn’t have to pick up so much cat hair off the furniture if you just cut out the middle man and started vacuuming the cats.  They’re those little tasks that we invent when we want to write, but we don’t want to write.  And they can be fantastically productive tasks.  Doing the dishes.  Cleaning the house.  Everything becomes a fun activity if the alternative is to sit down and actually work on the story.

Cheeseburgers.  French fries.  I’m all over that, pal!

If you don’t want to do something badly enough, there will always be an excuse to not do it.  Honestly, my first piece of advice to a budding writer who is experiencing crippling fits of procrastination is to ask: are you sure you actually want to be a writer?  Because this initial hurdle may go away, but it doesn’t really get easier.  Once you get over the blank page problem, new challenges start.  Researching.  Outlining.  Finishing.  Editing.  Cat vacuuming rears its ugly head with all of them, but they’re all necessary steps along the line.  Then there’s submission.  Rejection.  Heartbreak.  What makes it all worth it?  Acceptance.  It does exist, it is out there, and it’s the end goal of most writers.

Augh!  Writing is the hardest thing ever!

So you still want to be a writer, but you’re still looking at the blank page.  You’ve got fresh coffee out of the pot you just washed and the beans that you finally tracked down after going to three stores, two bodegas, and Colombia because everything had to be just right.  So how to actually start?  I’d heard rumors when I was first starting of people who had wonderfully fleshed out ideas before they ever sat down to write.  Beginnings, middles, and endings all flowed through their heads, sorted themselves nicely, and the book nearly wrote itself.  There may be a few of these novelist savants out there, but most people aren’t.  Oh, you might have a rough idea for a start, a rough idea for a stop and no idea how to get from point A to point B, but when you’re staring down your first piece of written fiction, the best advice I can give is to just start writing.

You can’t write if you don’t know what the competition’s up to.

What?  What kind of crappy-ass advice is that?  The way to stop procrastinating and start writing is to…start writing?  It is, it really is.  There’s no magic trick, none that I’ve discovered on my own, none that I’ve found online, for getting that story started other than starting it.  What you really need in the end is to grant yourself the permission to not be perfect.  I don’t even tend to consider my first pass through a novel or a story as the first draft.  It’s the rough draft.  And I call it that for a very clear reason: it’s rough.  It’s going to change.  A lot!  Chapters might drop out, the story might start in a completely different place.  My own blank page fear came out of a notion that the opening line had to be perfect, but it doesn’t.  Not at first.  That will come later.  You have permission to mess up, to not start in the right place, to be a hack, to suck.  Why?  Because those are things that can be fixed.  Not having written, however, that can’t be fixed without writing.  I know at least one fellow writer who doesn’t even get to the starting place of her novel until she’s written for 10,000 words.  That’s extreme, but that’s her process.  It works for her.  It focuses her thought, lets her fiddle around with world building, and when she finally does hit that starting point she’s off to the races.

Your name could be on a book in 10 minutes.
Do I have to do any writing?

So there it is.  My big stupid secret for getting away from procrastination and starting the damn story.  It sounds simple, but it took me a hell of a long time to figure it out.  It’s also one of the reasons that I stand behind Nanowrimo as a powerful tool for a new writer, as it provides a support group and deadline, both of which can be damn powerful tools when it comes to getting over not just the initial hurdle of that first blank page, but any other hurdles that come along.  Yes yes, I just suggested Nanowrimo as a tool on the 28th of November, far too late to get into the game.  But you don’t have to wait until next year.  There’s always little competitions going on, flash fiction contests, alternate Nano months.  There’s no right or wrong time to start writing.

No.  There is a wrong time.  “Never.”  Never is the wrong time.

British Fonzie is right.

One or two actually observations on the episode itself.  I love when television talks about writing, because it falls into the “write what you know” category.  I talked about this when I posted Castle’s advice for overcoming failure a few months back.  Writers on shows have been there, they’ve dealt with starting, struggling, and breaking in.  So whenever a show talks about writing, gives advice about writing, it feels very much like a few tips being given from the writing staff to anyone out there still working at it.

Kansas City?  Kansas City.

At the beginning, Lisa is shocked to find out one of her favorite genre writers is actually a puppeteer, and expresses doubt that anyone could be both.  Oh, Lisa, Lisa, Lisa.

Oh, and Team Schmuul forever.

And the most brilliant part is…I don’t even know how to read!

Oh hey, Hulu allows for embedding.  Sorry if you’re reading this a month later:

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Writing as Procrastination

Every week in my writing group we’re encouraged to set a goal about what we want to accomplish by the next meeting.  Sometimes those goals are as broad as what we call “writerly behavior” and as specific as editing a given chapter of a work in progress.  A little less than two years ago I went into a meeting with an odd goal for the next week: not writing.  None at all.  At that point in time my wife and I were getting ready to move from our apartment into our first house, and I was using writing as an excuse not to pack.

So when I came across this article by Stanford philosophy professor John Perry on the Ig Nobel Prize website, the central thesis didn’t surprise me.

I have been intending to write this essay for months. Why am I finally doing it? Because I finally found some uncommitted time? Wrong. I have papers to grade, a grant proposal to review, drafts of dissertations to read.

I am working on this essay as a way of not doing all of those things. This is the essence of what I call structured procrastination, an amazing strategy I have discovered that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time.

There it is.  There’s what had me working on short stories instead of putting stuff into boxes.  When presented with a task that I wasn’t all that interested in doing, I was choosing not only to avoid it, but had even found a productive activity1 to use as procrastination.  I’d largely forgotten the episode until I came across Perry’s article and realized I’d done exactly what the author describes as “structured procrastination.”

The idea that writing as something we procrastinate with rather than procrastinate about is an odd realization to have.  Hell, my writers group is basically named after the procrastination process.  How can we make that transition?  How can we make procrastination work for us?  Again from the article:

To make structured procrastination work for you, begin by establishing a hierarchy of the tasks you have to do, in order of importance from the most urgent to the least important. Even though the most-important tasks are on top, you have worthwhile tasks to perform lower on the list. Doing those tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, you can become a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.

The challenge is setting up that list.  Determining what projects need to be at the top of the list, where to put writing, and how to effectively use structured procrastination in our writing.  Part of the problem is that the high list items should, per the author, “have clear deadlines (but really don’t), and they seem awfully important (but really aren’t).”  That really sounds a lot like writing for most pre-professional writers trying to break into the field.  Which means the writing ends up being the task we put off and put off.  There’s nothing holding our feet to the fire, there’s no reason not to put it off just a little more.

How do we find the right tasks to avoid with writing?  Well in my case, I can’t move every couple of months to get a short story done.  But I have been known to feel a lot less guilty about a pile of plates left in the sink if I got more than 1000 words written in a given night.  That’s not to say that writing should be used as an excuse to live in squalor, but perhaps the impression some have of writers as wearing unwashed clothes with rumpled hair comes from a fine history of structured procrastination.  Eventually the dishes will get done, but perhaps the next night something else waits just a little longer because I’ve got just a few more paragraphs left to edit.

The assignment: figure out your own structure, work out the things that you really should be doing, but could maybe wait just a little bit while you finish up that story draft.  The things that are important, but not so much so that you can’t finish up that outline.  Procrastination can be a dangerous vice for a writer, but as the article points out, it can also be a hell of a tool when used properly.

Now get out there and don’t do something!

1. As with beauty, productivity of an activity is in the eye of the beholder.  I’m sure my wife would not agree that writing instead of packing was “productive.”

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