Sunday, October 5, 2014

How Procrastinating Helps You Write More

Procrastination is critical for a writer. Sometimes we get trapped in our writing schedule and our deadlines and our goals and our word counts. That can mean death to a novel. 

We get hung up on “Writers write”. Gawd, how many times has someone said (or written) that snarkily in response to someone discussing writing?

Really, it pisses me off.

You want to know when I've done the most and best writing? Those periods in life when I walk a lot, when I read a lot, when I get the chance to talk about writing.

Want to know when I don't write pages and pages or particularly well? When I'm working all the time, have my writing scheduled, and I'm insisting to the people around me, and to myself, that I need to sit down and write because I need to get it done.
Image: Nick Kenrick on Flickr (text added)
Procrastination isn't really procrastination for a writer—unless she is procrastinating to do something else, like work or deal with family drama or do errands. Work and family drama certainly offer seeds and compost for writingerrands, not so muchbut most of us need to take some time to empty our minds and some more time to fill it with thoughts of writing.

I'm thinking of this because I got my copy of the Writer's Chronicle today and I get excited when it shows up in my mail. I get to read fun stuff for literary writers and find out what my former classmates are up to. So I wanted to snuggle up and just read it at my leisure, to soak up the writing-provoking articles. 

What happened? I wrote a lesson plan. I needed to. I started work on a business plan. I admonished myself for not getting the text into the website for the non-profit I'm working on. Then I started this post.

In the back of my mind, I was thinking of a post by Moran Chaim that I read the other day. Not because he's a much better blogger than I am. (He is.) I was thinking of his post because his description of treating writing like a factory during the Industrial Revolution resonated in me, and I missed loving the process of writing. I'm in work mode and I'm simply fitting the writing in.

Maybe that's why I'm currently putting my entire novel into a spreadsheet.

I can practically guarantee that I would have started a new scene in my novel had I been reading about the world of the story. But when I procrastinate by working, I don't. Why?

Because only true procrastination serves writing.

Get serious. Focus on “True Procrastination”.

I'm talking about dawdling, lollygagging, daydreaming.

There are several approaches to true procrastination.

Raymond Chandler's approach: 

In a 1949 letter, he explained that he set aside four hours every day to write with two rules:

A. You don't have to write.
B. You can't do anything else.

Either write or nothing,” he wrote. The writer can “stand on his head or writhe on the floor, but he is not to do any other positive thing, not read, write letters, glance at magazines, or write checks.” Don't write if you're not feeling it—but stick to that time block and do nothing at all. I bet you'll eventually start writing.

But that's not for everyone. Or for every situation.

Here are some other options to try out and see what works for you.

Take a walk. In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, 48 volunteers were asked to come up with creative ideas for the use of specific objects. They did this while sitting at a desk and while walking. While walking, 81% improved their creativity in numbers of ideas and in density of creative ideas.

Furthermore, if Moran Chaim's questioning of our 19th century factory approach to writing stands out for you like it does for me, then maybe we should pay some attention to business innovators of now and start taking walking meetings with ourselves. 

The action of walking itself is more conducive than sitting and staring at a wall. You are facing forward, delving into an idea, walking through the ideas, letting them flow through you. In contrast, facing a blank page that glares back at you seems almost confrontational. 

Plus, you get out into the world and move at a human pace through it, giving you the change to observe and interact with the people and things around you. Leave your cell phone behind and make notes on a small notepad. (I carry one of those composition books.) Writing long-hand is a different experience in writing that can open up new ideas and perspectives. 

So many advantages!

Read more. Creativity is sparked by learning and by the inspiration of witnessing great works. You want to do the same thing. When you read something that captures your imagination and takes you to another place, it's a gift. When you get that gift, you want to pass it on. You want to give it to someone else, too.

While you're at it, limit watching TV. That's right; watching TV is not true procrastination.

Here's the thing about TV: it's a totally passive and uncreative action. The TV writers, actors, and directors do all the work of imagining for you. Watching TV is not daydreaming. Watching a lot of TV can act as a replacement for imagination. 

Think of it as Newton's first law of imagination: an imagination in motion tends to stay in motion.

Put yourself in the presence of other writers and creative people. A critique group is not the kind of exposure we are talking about here. Being critical can be a detriment to creativity. That's why there are no bad ideas in brainstorming. Creativity allows you to have stupid ideas because other things can come out of them. 

Being critical is an entirely different kind of energy than setting a time to sit with other writers and write, or share some food, or have a drink and talk about writing and creativity. You get energy from other people, and as you talk through ideas and problems, the creative juices flow and other minds might say just the thing to bring something new to your work.

Sleep. Meditate. Relax. Stop thinking about your story. Stop thinking about work. Stop thinking. Let your subconscious do the work. Dream. Then sit yourself back down to write at your regular time and tell yourself you don't have to write, but you can't do anything else.

Totally avoid “productive procrastination” and ignore all the lifehacking crap that is so popular. This is goldbricking and is in absolute opposition to Raymond Chandler's true procrastination.

Do not goldbrick. Goldbricking requires you to look like your working. Lifehacking means you are getting your errands done. Writers don't get errands done. Do not write your blog posts. Do not even remotely try to look like you are doing something valuable. Screw what people think. 

Loiter in the park. Let your mind wander. Be inspired by great writing. Lay in the grass and stare at the sky and consider the writing process. Imagine your story without worrying about writing it down. No one needs to know that what you are doing really is a vital part of your (real) work. You're a writer.

Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to pick up my copy of John Gardner's The Art of Fictionthe one with the broken binding and the pages falling outand I'm going to read and dream about fiction. 

Like a writer is supposed to do.

Then I'll write.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Brittney. Any additions for True Procrastination?

  2. I've started to notice that when someone says something like, in this case, "writers write," it's quite possible it's the writer, telling themselves outloud to get to it. I know that if I'm not writing something, I feel guilty and when I say that "writers write," I'm 'secretly' trying to motivate myself. The other thing however is that there's this romantic idea everyone has around a person's role as a writer. I write a lot everyday, but I still feel sometimes that I haven't earned the title, but sometimes have to force myself to go with it and use the phrase "writers write" do defend what I do.

    1. Ah, but you are saying it to yourself--sans snark. I think you do have a good point and it definitely a great think to say to yourself when it's time to get moving! I also thoroughly agree that being a writer is not so much a romantic role--a romantic endeavor, on some level, maybe. In fact, I have a list I've been building about the all the things writing is--number one is that it is NOT romantic. Thanks for commenting, Jon!

  3. Rarely do advice lists include those all-consuming, thrilling moods (or whatever they are) that sometimes provoke you to write without distraction. Writing so exhilarating it keeps you working until 3 a.m. and propels you back at it before 8 a.m. for months, even years. But upon completion the writing proves not to be a novel so spellbinding it cannot be ignored. Instead, you find antic, tangled episodes about characters you love. Years later, if the story still means everything to you and you can find a smarter, cleaner approach, you rewrite it, carefully, more slowly, weighing every sound and pause, every action and thought. Rewrite, put it away, rewrite it again. (I've got several of these in rotation.) Finally, you might have something close what you imagined. Two happy minutes then when it stirs a silent ripple somewhere in a distant universe.

    1. So true, Kathleen! I find it so tiring to hear about writing as being this organized process. Maybe a "How To" book happens in an orderly process, but novels don't. I think that novelists who say as such are playing psychological tricks on themselves... or something... But I love your description!