Lately, I have had a gnawing feeling. It is in my throat and sometimes it moves to my stomach. It seems to start as soon as I think about what I have to do. It really begins to pulse when I think about what I haven’t done. I am suffering from…procrastination: the scourge of writers, the plague of completion, the seed of doubt.
Please, is there a cure?
As far as I know there isn’t one. If there are sports psychologists that spend hours with professional athletes coaching them through their doubt with guided imagery, talk therapy, hypnosis, maybe even past-life regression, there have to be writers’ psychologists, right?
Here’s how I imagine a session would go:
“Doctor. I can’t seem to write anything. And when I do, it’s no good.”
“Well, have you written anything at all? And how do you know it’s not good?”
“I just know.”
“Has anyone besides yourself read it?”
“Then how do you know?”
If a writer’s therapist were to ask me if I have written anything in the past week, I would probably say no. nothing.
But, if I were to actually print out what I have written, the pages here and there, the one-liners, pages from my notebook, I actually have written quite a bit. The two-thousand-words-a-day practice, which I adopted from reading Stephen King’s On Writing—the only book he wrote that didn’t leave me permanently terrified of swimming in the middle of a lake, or walking past sewers—is something I have tried seriously to do for years.
Somehow, even while battling procrastination, I can just about reach my quota of words throughout the day. Call it muscle memory. The words are not always connected, and not written at the same time. I think my writers’ therapist would say that’s a good place to start and, “Now, let’s try and structure your time better.”
Right now, I don’t have the distraction that so many people do: a full-time job. I need one, though, and I am looking. I am preparing myself to lose the large chunks of time that I am so spoiled by, and I know I am going to have to use super powers to focus in order to finish my book, or any articles, or whatever project I am working on.
What about the millions of parents, single and paired, who write and publish and work? They are doing it. It’s harder than it looks, but maybe it’s also easier than I think. Mia Couto, the Mozambican writer currently nominated for the Man Booker International Prize, is a full-time biologist. Atul Gawande is a practicing surgeon and public health researcher, a regular contributor to the New Yorker and has written three best sellers.
I have decided to approach procrastination as a constructive challenge while I am working towards finding a job. What do my favorite writers do? Well, Virginia Woolf had a writing shed. Having the space to write was so important to her that she wrote an entire book about the political and social significance of personal creative space in A Room of One’s Own. She recommended writing for several solid hours at a time and had tea brought to her by servants. Okay. Maybe I shouldn’t look to an early 20th century writer for complete guidance. How about Haruki Marukami, the author of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or 1Q84? He gets up early and writes for three or four hours, sometimes more, and then runs or swims. Every day. Susan Sontag would get up every morning at eight and write for as long as she could. She wouldn’t answer the phone, or open her mail, and she never went out. Occasionally, she would meet one friend for lunch, but never more than twice a month. In the evening, after five, she would allow herself time to read. My favorite is Roald Dahl—he had a writing hut too. In it, he surrounded himself with things that made him happy (chocolate? peaches?). He sat in a big chair and wrote with a notebook in his lap for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. Even if he didn’t have an idea (which was seldom), he would sit in the chair and just think.
There’s a pattern developing. Boundaries and time. Recently, I changed my writing quota from two thousands words a day to writing at least two hours every day in the morning and two more in the afternoon. What a gift! Writing in blocks of time instead of a word count feels less forced. I end up having more time to write better. I don’t feel as scattered and I know I have accomplished something. Still, I sometimes find myself checking email in case something exciting is happening somewhere where I am not, glancing at Amazon to see if there might be any Italian shoes with red buckles on sale, or eh, eh, cough, getting a drink of water. I have to make my time allotment worth it, so now I have started setting my alarm. Depending on my state of agitation, I set the alarm for between thirty and fifty minutes. It seems to work. The alarm allows me to know that a break is coming at some point, I can get up for five minutes, and then get back to work.
What I really want to say is, I love to write, and sometimes it’s hard. But I am finding if I take my half-hour block and write, and stop thinking about my future best-seller, and just stay in the moment, it’s not as daunting. Sometimes I love what I write and then hate it two days later, what was I thinking? What writer doesn’t experience that? I think it’s impossible to look at one’s material and not have judgment. We all do it. What I have learned, and have to keep re-learning nearly every day is, it takes time, it takes discipline, and I need to trust myself. I think my writers’ therapist would agree.