Tag Archives: procrastination

At Your Own Risk

This post continues with Week 5 in a series of posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies (info on my own residency is in the sidebar to the right). I started at Week 1: Preparing, and am counting up. See also Week 2: Make Writing Exercises Work for You, Week 3: In Defense of Obstinacy, and Week 4: A good prompt is hard to find.

fenced in play area with sign Play At Your Own Risk

Procrastinators, beware! Writing exercises are risky business. CC image “Play at Your Own Risk” via Stephen Gadsby on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

In science, you never ever call an experiment before all the results are in: not before you’ve concluded all the tests, counted and analyzed all the samples, and run the numbers through statistical software, after first reviewing any shortcomings in your method.

Likewise, you don’t “call” the end of a sports match before it’s over. We know too many stories of last-minute comebacks, of end-of-game collapses, to truly know what the results will be until after the clock has run down to zero.

However, I feel reasonably confident in making a few comments about the past four weeks of my experiment with writing exercises, although technically speaking, as I’m writing this, I am still in the midst of my fourth week. If I was a scientist, perhaps I would call these preliminary results, but I’m not a scientist. I’m a touchy-feely liberal artist, and the trend seems clear.

Writing exercises are sneaky bastards, and you should use them at your own risk.

Sneaky bastards

In ways both good and bad, writing exercises are deceitful little creatures, posing as one thing, though often showing up as another. For one, they are deceptively difficult to practice. Exercises are intentionally short and focused: write for five minutes. Write three paragraphs about your favorite breakfast cereal. In my case, write no more than 500 words, keeping your novel in mind. However, despite their brevity, I found myself often ducking the exercise, postponing when in the day I would write, and sometimes forgetting to write altogether.

My average was three exercises a week out of a five-day “work week” of Mondays through Fridays. Most of the time, I sat down to my legal notepad (I avoided working on the computer, because of fear of distraction) with a mental groan. Except in Week 4, where I am just shy of perfect and have experienced much less reluctance to take on the exercise, all week.

For another, writing exercises also pretend that they are simple creatures, with low standards for happiness and without ambition. Be warned, this is a lie. Like David up against Goliath, they pack a lot of punch and savvy for their small size. I found myself, in the latter half of the experiment, running up against my time and word constraint and ending the exercise before I ended the scene.

Despite all my best intentions to keep them hypothetical, they kept advancing my plot. Nasty, double-talking exercises!

Procrastinators, beware

Somewhere at the start of the third week, I had to concede that my writing exercises weren’t exercises anymore. They were still experimental, but they had shape-shifted, and now were scenes and fragments of scenes, important linkages in narrative, subtle lights on the motivations of a few key characters. I tried to call them exercises through Week 3, but I finally had to give up. I was writing. I was writing my novel.

Be warned: if you want to procrastinate, writing exercises are NOT for you.

If you don’t feel like working on your story project, writing exercises are NOT for you.

If you prefer to not learn something new (not always pleasant) about yourself or your characters or your writing habits, WRITING EXERCISES ARE NOT FOR YOU.

In conclusion

In conclusion, writing exercises can lead to writing.

I started the exercises four weeks ago as a way to stay in touch with my writing muscle while I did research for my writer’s residency. I projected that I’d be spending so much time looking up information, I would be in danger of losing touch with my story and my characters. In this sense, the experiment has been a success, because my characters and I are now VERY close.

In terms of providing a writing stopgap until proper writing could take place, this writing exercise experiment has been a FAILURE.

I have a writing habit now, and a minimalist but persistent word count I want to meet. My writing exercises ended up developing my story. I’ve done more writing on my novel since starting the exercises as a way to postpone working on my novel, than I had in the months before I started exercises. Stopgap, my foot.

Disclaimers: Due to the small sample size (N=1) and the abbreviated duration of this experiment, results cannot be definitively extrapolated to other members of the writing population. The prospective nature of this study makes statistical analysis tricky. However, my results show that writing exercises may in fact lead to a writing habit, and have demonstrated amplifying effects on story ideas in certain cases. Proceed at your own risk.

Confessions of a serial new-story writer

Why we like to start new projects, and never finish them

carved sad jack-o-lantern pumpkins

I have too many stories — I can’t take it anymore! — Cropped CC image “sad pumpkins” courtesy of Sharyn Morrow on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I ran into a friend of mine from a class at my writer’s workshop this past week. We asked each other how the writing was going. I told him I seemed to be suffering from serial project monogamy. I hop from one prose piece to the next, sampling each one’s atmosphere, its personality, intelligence, and sense of humor. I’m on the lookout for The One. I will find it one day soon, and all my woes will evaporate. She will be like Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen, and I will be set for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, I’m not quite sure this is The One…

I never quite finish a project; instead, I jump from beginning one to beginning another to beginning another.

I feel as though I’m avoiding something. I’ve had a lot of good ideas, I told my writing friend, but I hadn’t actually finished any writing (other than blog posts) in months.

He made a wry face when I mentioned my predicament, which leads me to believe that I’m not the only one who’s faced this situation.

Why do we serially start new stories that we don’t finish?

Why do we do this? A Google search under “writing problems beginning new projects never finishing” led me to over 366 million results. UNC Chapel Hill even has a webpage “handout” breaking down this “common writer’s ailment.” What drives us to pick up one new piece of writing after another, starting something new, instead of finishing what we’ve already begun?

If your answer is, “I’m procrastinating,” you’re right and you still haven’t gotten to the bottom of the matter.

I think our reasons for procrastinating boil own into two basic categories. One side is ruled by Fear. The other side is the Kid’s Mind, always wanting new toys.

Fear

We think the new writing is better than the old writing. Occasionally, we might be right about this one. However, we use this justification much more often than is strictly accurate. “New is better” smells like fear about the old being crap.

The piece can never be BAD if it’s not finished, right? We only judge the complete. The finished work. We don’t do judgments on drafts, because we know they’re just that: drafts. Works-in-progress. A possibility of what might become. Fear of failure or fear of success—whichever is true, these can only occur when the piece is finished, which we are trying at all costs to avoid.

Perfectionism. We fear our work is never good enough (and “editing” has a horribly amorphous quality to it; in theory, editing can go on forever).

We don’t want to deal with the work. New writing is easier because we know so little about the piece yet. We can dive in anytime and pick any spot in the story to address. Whether we’ve looked at any notes or not for the past three weeks doesn’t matter. By contrast, if I let the older stuff sit for a while and then want to work on it, I have to reacquaint myself with the material before progressing. Not only the facts — the who, what, where, and why — also the voice I was using at the time I put down the pen or tucked away my computer file. In effect, starting a new piece is our reward for being lazy!

Playtime!

Let’s face it, the new and shiny is always more interesting than the toy that we’ve had for a while. We know all the rough corners on that old toy, and what it will and won’t do. The new toy is filled with possibility. We haven’t exhausted our imaginations in play.

New projects are fresh. They have no history, and we don’t have any relationship baggage. We’re not carrying around pre-conceived notions, or memories of arguments past. Our interaction is uncomplicated. We are strangers saying hello at the train station, smiling at each other for the first time. Every aspect of the process is fun!

We are literary tourists. We have itchy, wandering feet, we are the proverbial rolling stone, and we like new vistas.

The illusion of productivity. Starting new writing makes us feel like we are doing something. Hey, I’ve started something new! Rather than plodding through the same old, well-visited terrain, we’ve begun a new itinerary, a new list. Leaving for a vacation is much more fun than coming home. On the way home, we are thinking about what we need to do when we arrive: open the windows, water the plants, unpack the suitcases. On the way out, we are leaving our responsibilities behind.

… and then what?

In the end, the reason underlying all reasons is our resistance to what happens next.

We don’t know what that is, and human beings generally dislike uncertainty. When we finish, then what? Does it suck? Do I have to send it somewhere now? Will it get published? Will anyone care?

Possibly not. So why do I do it? I look no further than my copy of Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg. My piece may not have a Harry Potter or Katniss Everdeen, but, as Natalie says,

“If you are a writer, write.”

== == ==

Are you a serial project monogamist? What is the most wild way you have ever tried to break the cycle?

You Must Submit! (to doing your art)

Yes, we’ve got a theme here

lego figure under a glass

Trapped by art! CC image Help! courtesy of fisserman on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

For those of you who saw my last post about submitting (sending out our work to be judged… I mean, for consideration to be published or made public), the topic clearly has more to offer. For one, we didn’t talk about actually making the art.

(Yes, I do things backwards sometimes.)

We think about our art in relation to other people. We want to share our work (at some point). We want to know what other people think (nice things). We think about it being finished.

Every time I think about submitting my work, I feel a mental nod coming on. Yes, that’s a good idea. I should. I want to.

After all, that’s how people are going to read it, right?

Right.

Followed by more irrefutable logic: I will never be published [by anyone other than myself] if I don’t ever submit my work.

Once I sit down to actually, physically take on the task of submission, a lot changes.

I’m not nodding anymore. I’m fighting.

Resistance, in fact, sweeps over me like a hurricane. The winds lash me, the rains drench me, I’m afraid I’m about to be swept away. The best I can do is hunker down and wait for the storm to subside. Then I walk around gingerly, on tip toe, for a while. I don’t want to rouse the demons yet again.

Sound familiar?

Submitting and writing are not the same thing

Art first needs to be made. This submission concept is really frou-frou, like frosting on brownies. Before the frosting can go anywhere, we need to bake brownies. Then we can agonize about what flavor frosting we want.

The act of making the piece, or even editing the piece, is separate from the submission storm, although the storm does bring up writing debris.

The making brings up its own resistance.

Say I am not even thinking about making a submission. I am working on a first draft. Better yet, I’ve just had an idea, and am running down the track after my idea, trying to determine what species it is, what habitat it likes, whether the idea wants the shade or a river, what it likes to eat, and if it prefers the pen or the computer. Even here, I have to deal with a storm of resistance. And dealing with resistance here is much more of a dicey proposition than at the submission stage. If I wrestle too much at the source, I’ll be distracted with my struggle while the idea gets away.

Hop-hop-hop. Nothing doing. Do you know this dance?

Resistance is everywhere

The siren voices of resistance at the writing stage are the usual menagerie of rabid self-judgments. A selection: This is awful. Where is this going? You can’t say that… So-and-so [famous, published and wealthy] would never say that. So-and-so is better than you.  That’s why So-and-so is published, and you’re not.

Sometimes the eye-rolling pedant in me gets a word in edgewise. Example: I also won’t get published if I never WRITE anything until the end…

Storm voice: Maybe that’s the way it should be. No one wants to read drivel.

Then there is the distraction ploy. For example: I’m hungry. My ankle itches. Listen, I haven’t done laundry in a week and I’m running out of socks.

Finally, lest we forget, there is resistance posing as the voice of logic. Actually, this isn’t the best time to be doing this (writing). You should prep for that meeting. Or wash your hair. This isn’t a quiet spot. You’re going to be interrupted. What a waste of your flow! You’ll get started and then disturbed right at the crucial moment. What about going somewhere else? You should choose a quieter time of day. You should choose a more secluded location. You should sit in a chair that doesn’t turn you into the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Dear Reader, do you recognize this mess? Do you feel familiar with the scenarios I have just sketched for you? Fear not — I have a diagnosis.  The sickness is this:

You aren’t submitting (to your art).
I am not submitting (to my art).

And we must, or we’re never going to be happy. Screw fame, publication, and wealth. Let’s back up to the first step. We’re never going to get out of this loony bin the way we’re going. We are bouncing off the walls: look at us!

This is important— no matter what else we do, we must always, always, always submit to our art.

== == ==

What happens when you don’t submit?

Reboot

fine art abstract drawing black and white

Sometimes chaos is better… CC image Order from Chaos by lokate366. Some rights reserved.

I’ve been struggling with this blog since the turn of the year. Which is why I haven’t been able to post anything here, until today.

Of course the end-of-year holidays provided their own source of distraction and time commitment. On top of that, however, a much bigger concern has been looming over my head with regard to what I’m writing and sending out into the world via this wee forum.

For the first time ever, I think, I took the changing of the year as a springboard to look over my work and creative crises. What I saw did not fill me with glee — but then, I’m not known for being particularly kind to myself. Recognizing this, I decided to take the opportunity to re-set in the new year with a fresh outlook and retooled goals.

The fresh outlook and goals covers every category of my life, including this blog. I had an idea of what I wanted to say when I launched it, and this past year I’ve felt more and more confused about my message. What story was I telling, after all?

Like a lot of people who start blogs and then go freelance, I had grandiose ideas at first. Alas, the ideas were a hodgepodge of themes, and so I found myself facing the same questions over and over each time I went to post content, only they got louder and in a bigger typeface each time:

  • Does this fit with my overall theme?
  • Wait — what IS the overall theme? There are at least two.
  • No, three.
  • If so, it’ll definitely fit. Because it hits at least one of the themes. Right?
  • …Won’t this just look like a bigger mess as I go along?

The crux of the matter was my obstinate attempt to be practical and useful with my blog. To be Above it All, and Wise. Except whenever I sat down to write, I found myself sinuously winding along a whimsical, playful, sometimes painful personal creative vein.

I didn’t share all of that. Because it didn’t fit.  And partly because sharing is hard (with deference to Havi here).

And my inner self wasn’t letting me get away with it. My inner self threw creative tantrums.

More and more, I wanted to talk about thoughts and ideas and inspirational nuggets and dream-babies of mine that had NO OBVIOUS PRACTICAL PURPOSE.

That’s right! About Art with a capital A!

Shocking. Downright provocative. I know — a blog about creativity and art that was — playing with creativity and art?

Say it ain’t so.

Truth: I need to find harmony with myself, and I need to find honesty with myself also. I’m simply not getting anywhere cutting out a part of myself and pretending it doesn’t exist. I signed up for a Voice & Speech class at the start of the year, which is known to be a place where people become blubbering emotive puddles, and I became a blubbering emotive puddle during THE FIRST CLASS, trying to say this out loud.

I can be practical. I can be. Just like I can be organized. Periodically. And I can be logical. In a crisis, when you need a cool head, that’s me.

The fact is, though, that my personality test results tell me I’m intuitive, feeling, and perceiving. Did I need a personality test for this? I am a stereotype. Everybody knows this about me. I am a sensory being, putting on intellectual armor over my creations before I sally forth.

I’m tired of trying to make this blog fit some preconceived mold. I’m not 100% sure what it’s going to look like, but I know what it’s NOT going to look like. It’s definitely NOT going to look like a thesis outline. More like a paint splatter. Because the point of creativity, writing and art is that they are FUN. And gosh darn it, I’m going to have fun talking about them here.*

Do you have fun stuff? Share in the comments!
== == ==

*Because I am nothing if not ambitious, I might be pursuing the more “serious” ideas in a more “serious” forum. No promises.

Sweating the small stuff:

how to get creative work done

golden retriever makes a snowman

But I like making stuff! — CC image “Chevy Worked Hard Building His Own Snowman” courtesy of Chevysmom on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Going to the library should not have been a big deal.

It’s pretty small stuff. Question: where will I do my writing today? Answer: the library.

Done.

It’s like the dilemma about changing the channel on the TV when you can’t find the remote. Truly, not worth thinking about for more than 2 seconds. Library: quiet, air conditioned, no distractions. [1] A good place to do thoughtful work.

Except I questioned that should take that step, and almost got zero writing done that day as a result.

The easy way out of creativity

Have you ever known you needed to do something, but were looking for the easy way out?

Like most creative people, I’m fairly bruised from falling off and jumping back on the wagon of disciplined work. On a recent foray into more structured creative behavior, I came across this article from the Huffington Post outlining five bad habits that freelancers fall into. Number 5: Working From Your Bedroom caught my eye particularly.

“Working in your bedroom is only one step away from doing the laundry, two steps away from taking a nap, and three steps away from cooking in the kitchen,” #5 says. “Studies also show that working from your bedroom can cause you to have problems sleeping and resting when you’re not working.”

Hmm.

I’ve written before about the benefits of literally taking a new perspective — sitting in a new seat in your room or office when you work, for example. So I responded to the common-sense nature of Voakes’ advice right away. Great, I thought. Today I’ll go to the library!

Then I thought, If only it wasn’t 90 degrees outside…

Artists’ no. 1 excuse: If only…

Beware this phrase. Have you ever caught yourself using it? “If only” is the number one way our Inner Procrastinator brainwashes us. “If only [XYZ condition were met], I’d have this all taken care of…”

Which really translates into, “I’m letting myself off the hook by choosing a precondition that I know won’t be met. Sorry, art!”

Who cares if it’s 90 degrees outside? The library is air conditioned! Staying at home, faffing on the computer, would have been just as absurd as refusing to change the TV channel because I don’t want to get up out of my chair and the batteries are dead in the remote.

I had a goal to do creative writing work. I had decided to take both my own good advice on changing my physical perspective, and the accepted wisdom of freelancers everywhere that sometimes, we really do need to get out of the house to get things done. Going to the library would accomplish both goals.

Except getting there meant walking for nearly half an hour in the heat, getting even more hot and sweaty than I already was.

Now, I ask you, is that really a bad thing?

Work should make you sweat

Michael Phelps didn’t become an Olympic swimmer by sitting on his hands. Charles Dickens didn’t publish more than 30 books (but who’s counting?) by fretting about the temperature. And neither will you or I ever get where we want to be, creatively, if we’re afraid of a little sweat.

Which is why I think sweating the small stuff is a great strategy for getting creative work done. Working at the library versus working at home? Not a big deal, really…

Getting zero words on paper versus three hours of focused, dedicated writing and nearly two completed drafts?

Definitely worth the sweat.

===

What did you sweat creatively this week?

1. Unless you count books, of course. Those distract me all the time, but ironically, the otherwise siren call of literature becomes a soothing hum when I’m doing my own work surrounded by hundreds of tomes.
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