It’s a well known fact that writers procrastinate. Like, a lot. It comes with the territory. But recently I’ve been wondering why I, specifically, procrastinate. Is it the fear of a blank page? Difficulty settling into a groove in which to write my magnificent prose? Or something else entirely?
In a recent article for The Atlantic, Megan McArdle writes:
As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good. Before you take to the keys, you are Proust and Oscar Wilde and George Orwell all rolled up into one delicious package. By the time you’re finished, you’re more like one of those 1940’s pulp hacks who strung hundred-page paragraphs together with semicolons because it was too much effort to figure out where the sentence should end.
This is true, and the true writers among us (those who are successful, say) may be the type of people she describes in her article thusly:
… the people who dislike challenges think that talent is a fixed thing that you’re either born with or not. The people who relish them think that it’s something you can nourish by doing stuff you’re not good at… For growth people, challenges are an opportunity to deepen their talents, but for “fixed” people, they are just a dipstick that measures how high your ability level is. Finding out that you’re not as good as you thought is not an opportunity to improve; it’s a signal that you should maybe look into a less demanding career, like mopping floors.
She makes a lot of interesting points in her article, and goes on to discuss the culture the Millenial Generation has grown up in which takes her to the increasing difficulty with which we (Millenials) deal with failure. Those things are not what I want to talk about.
For me, I’m not sure it’s the fear of failure that makes me procrastinate. That fear is definitely there (as evidence by all the posts I title “Notes on Rejection”) but I don’t actively consider it when I’m writing. I expect what I write to be crap. That’s why revision is so important. Of course, I’m 27 years old and there was a point in time when I wondered why I had such a hard time writing as well as Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Bradbury, or McCarthy. It took me a long time to realize that A.) I shouldn’t try to write as well as them, I should only try to write as well as I could and B.) It takes a lot of effort to write well, and I wasn’t putting that in.
Yet, despite having these realizations, I still procrastinate. For example, I’m procrastinating right now. Why?
It’s easier. I know I just talked about putting in the effort, but this is a bit deeper. Writing is very much like juggling. Except instead of three balls – which is difficult enough – you’re juggling two flaming chainsaws and a puppy while herding cats. It can be a lot to keep track of, a big mess if you make too many mistakes, and the initial glance at the task can be overwhelming. You have to keep track of characters, plots and subplots, MacGuffins, styles and formats, all sorts of things that lead to a story. It’s not all immediately important, as there will always be revisions to play with it, but sometimes to sit down and immerse yourself in the chaos of the world you’re building is too intimidating to do. It’s easier to write a stream-of-consciousness blog post, or clean, or just watch/read a story that’s already completed.
That’s what scares me more than failure, more than not writing well enough, it’s putting so much time and effort into something I care deeply about only to mess it up and have to try to patch it together again. It’s related to fearing I’m not good enough, I suppose, but not in the sense that I’m comparing myself to those great writers of antiquity.
Simply put, writing is hard work that is very easy to mess up and create more work. And oh so tiring. What to do about that? I think the only thing any writer can do when faced with such a situation is the one thing all writers can do when faced with any situation – continue to write. Power through it. Try your best. Prepare accordingly. It will turn out alright in the end.
I guess I should take my own advice and get back to the story I’m writing. Where was I?