Saturday, February 28, 2009

Procrastination: A Writer's Nightmare

(Award-winning author, Charlotte Hughes, began her writing career publishing newspaper and magazine articles before becoming a New York Times best-selling author. Charlotte makes her home in Beaufort, S.C. Best known for her Full series with Janet Evanovich, she has written over 40 books, ranging from the 3 mysteries she wrote for Avon to Mira's Hot Shot. Her newest release, Nutcase, centers on Atlanta psychologist, Kate Holly, and the humourous antics of her friends, family and patients. In the process she's learned that the life of a psychologist is enough to drive anyone nuts. Readers are invited to visit Charlotte online at where she also blogs regularly. To celebrate the publication of Nutcase, Charlotte is doing a blog tour, Virtually Nuts, and we're happy to welcome her today.)

Someone recently asked me, “What is the thing you most hate about writing a book?”
My answer was, “Um, writing the book.”
That gave me pause. Gee, what a thing to say!
I thought of my friend, a successful author, who once said she loved being a writer but hated writing. I remembered another writer friend who seldom found time to go to her computer because she was forever volunteering, holding dinner parties, creating new gourmet recipes which she hoped to put in a book one day. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the book she had been commissioned to write. She never got around to writing the book and had to pay back her advance.
Pretty scary.
So I got to thinking. . . I knew I loved writing – it’s what I’ve done for more than twenty years – so why was it still so difficult to write the damn book? Even more disconcerting is my present unfinished manuscript that was due two weeks ago. Another missed deadline!
It sort of feels like I missed my mortgage payment, only worse. I wouldn’t miss a mortgage payment so why would I not make a book deadline?
It’s a clear case of procrastination, and it has been a part of my life since forever. I remember putting off book reports in grade school, cramming for exams in college. I even procrastinated when it came to bearing my two sons. On both occasions, my contractions stopped the minute I reached the hospital, and my labor had to be induced.
One problem, I think, is how I look at my deadlines. They feel kind of vague and so far off in the future that I don’t actually see them until their staring me in the face. Like Christmas. You know it’s coming – I mean they put up the decorations right after Halloween – but somehow it always slips up on you, and you almost kill yourself trying to buy and wrap the gifts in time.
I think for me I lack focus and direction. I am so easily distracted that I found it tortuous to sit through the movies “Australia” and “Benjamin Button.” Give me a ninety minute movie, and I’m good to go, but I don’t want to sit through some two and a half hour epic. I don’t like having to go to the concession stand twice for popcorn.
I always tell people I don’t believe in writer’s block because if I believe in it I’ll get it. But I’ve been blocked, and it is sheer misery. It’s like the creative well has run dry, and you are using a divining rod to find water in the middle of a desert. My head feels like it is stuffed with cotton, and there’s not an idea to be found. Only a sense of dread and despair. (This might be the reason so many writers drink!) I’ve had two husbands – at different times, of course – tell me I always go through an agonizing process before the story takes root or clicks in my brain. Even then, I have to force myself to go to the computer and face that blank page. Wouldn’t it be easier to face a firing squad?
Why do I/we have to go through this torture? Finally, we start the book and fill up that first page, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy going from that point on. There are dry spells, stops and starts, days when you want to toss your computer out the window and get a job flipping burgers. When the words won’t come, the most difficult thing is slogging to that computer day in and day out. I find as many reasons as I can to avoid it. Sometimes I pretend I’m attending to something more important than my writing, but I know I’m just putting it off.
It’s also during this time that I find myself caught up in little dramas. I don’t know if these situations come about as a result of the stress I’m under or if I’m subconsciously seeking out distractions or both. During this time I find I absolutely must have something repaired in my house, usually to the tune of a lot of money, and suddenly I’ve got contractors coming in and out. One of my sons will do something dumb, and I’ll go off the deep end, or my mom will have a health issue, and I’ll spend sleepless nights pacing the floor because I just know it’s up to me to solve all these problems.
By this time my life is in chaos, I’m a total wreck, as are most of the people close to me. Only my case is worse because I’ve got a book to write. I have to earn a living. But how can I possibly write my book in the midst of all of these problems, I cry to the heavens. And, OMG, what if I never write again!
Panic sets in. I start ordering all these books that promise to cure procrastination. I listen to my paraliminal tape, “Get Around to It,” from Learning Strategies. I tell myself I’m going to GET CONTROL of the situation. I get out my egg timer, set it on sixty minutes, during which time I WILL NOT leave my desk no matter what. NO MATTER WHAT. But not even ten minutes passes before I have to pee so I decide while I’m up I can grab a cup of coffee, and I run like hell because I know I’m sort of cheating. And as long as I’m at it I’ll go ahead and let my dogs out. I arrive back at my computer, out of breath and find more time has passed than I thought.
Before I can gather my thoughts, the dogs are barking to get back in, big eye roll, I jump up and run to the door to let them in, only to have one of them hurl something green at my foot.
Well, hell, now I’ll have to bring out the mop, and that reminds me I haven’t mopped, MUCH LESS vacuumed my floors IN DAYS, so with a huge sigh I clean up the hurl with a paper towel and run for the laundry room and my vacuum cleaner. If I’m fast, I can get back to my desk and still beat the egg timer. But hellfire and damnation, I can barely get to the vacuum cleaner for the pile of laundry so I pause to put on a load of clothes.
Back at my computer I see a large chunk of time has passed, and I decide I’m going to make up for the lost time by not answering the phone or checking my e-mail, but, I have to check it because I’m expecting to hear back from my agent on a particular question I asked so I’d better check before I get back to work. Nope, nothing from the agent, but OMG, Pottery Barn is having their 75% clearance, and that is my favorite store in the entire world!
The egg timer goes off. Crap! I decide not to restart it until AFTER I’ve looked at the online sale at PB. My shopping trip steals more time than I’d planned, and I’m so tired because I got up at an ungodly hour so I could get started on my book early, which explains why I’m still in my pajamas. My mother would find that appalling because she believes in having her face and hair done by 6 AM. She’s also the only woman I know who starches and creases her jeans.
Okay, I’ve got a plan now. I’ll grab lunch, lie down for thirty minutes and devote the rest of the day to writing. But back at my computer, I need to see if my agent has responded to my e-mail.
The best and the worst thing that happened to writers is the Internet. It’s too easy to touch base with friends and other writers. (Of course before that we stayed on the phone with each other!) It is too easy to lose yourself on the Internet. It’s like trying to eat ‘just a little bit’ of butter pecan ice cream out of a half gallon carton. It can’t be done. Before you know it, half the ice cream is gone. You can blow half a day online. Then you have to feel guilty and even more stressed about not getting much done on the book.
It would be so much easier if I just wrote the damn book.
In “The Procrastinator’s Handbook,” (yes, I bought the book), author Rita Emmett writes: “Because much of procrastination is a game—a mind game—you can use your mind to change the game. Instead of focusing on how you’ll feel doing the work, focus on how you’ll feel when it’s finished. Think about the payoff. Visualize the relief and sense of accomplishment you will feel once it is done.” In the very next paragraph she advises us to, “Harness your mind and imagination to change the procrastination game.”
Well, okay, I tell myself, but harnessing my mind sounds pretty hard because it’s traveling in a million different directions.
Something Rita Emmett said in her book, about making excuses, really bothered me. “Every time you voice excuses, you are trying to convince someone (most often yourself) that it’s OK that you did or didn’t do something. You may have noticed that excuses undermine other people’s confidence in you, but are you aware that excuses harm your self-esteem.”
Reading that was an ‘ah-ha’ moment. I don’t know about other writers, but I have days when my self-esteem is lower than a gopher hole. I don’t want or need a another reason to feel bad about myself.
Then there’s the part about others losing their confidence in me. I am, for the most part, a good person who obeys the laws and tries to follow the Golden Rule. I send money to several charities. If somebody needs me, I try to be there for them. I check my FICO scores once a month. I would simply die if I did not have a high FICO score or wasn’t a good friend to someone who needed me! That would make me feel as though I couldn’t be counted on.
So how is it that I’m able to change the rules where my book is concerned? The very sobering answer to that is I have no right.
All the little rituals and negative self-talk and the drama that I put myself through have no place in the professional world. We’ve all heard stories about the famous authors who came before us and lived hellish lives in the name of creative genius – Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Cheever, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath – the list is far too long and their stories way too sad. Suffice it to say that many authors have fought demons; as a result, drank and drugged their way through life.
I’m not so sure all that drama works in today’s publishing world. My editor might feel like my best friend, but I don’t think she’s going to be around for long if I drag her through every minor tragedy that befalls me because, let’s face it, writers seem to have a lot of tragedies that just might be called “life.”
So here I am with an unfinished manuscript that’s late, and a book tour that starts in one week, and I don’t even know if I can fit into half the clothes in my closet. And here’s the really bad part: I knew this was going to happen. For weeks I’ve been dreading it, DREADING IT! Why? Because, as much as I hate to admit it, this has happened before.
I’ve spent so much time dreading it that it’s all I could think about. I read somewhere recently that the more we think about something the bigger it gets. That makes perfect sense, and when something gets really big it just sucks the life right out of you. It OWNS you. Think of all the time and creative energy it takes to give life to all those fears and insecurities and God only knows what else we put ourselves through!
And then there are all the interruptions.
My smoke detectors have been beeping for a week, and I am JUST ABOUT TO LOSE MY MIND because it sounds like I’m surrounded by newborn chicks, cheep, cheep, cheep! Holy hell, of all times for this to happen! Now I have to go find the damn ladder. But first I have to find the new key to my outside storage room because I lost the old key and had to get someone to replace the entire doorknob, and Lord only knows how long that is going to take.
When I get back I’m going to set that egg timer, and I am NOT getting up, NOT ONCE, not even to pee, until I get some work done on my book.
Oh, hell, my dog just hurled again. I’ll have to call the vet. This has been the worst day! Maybe I’ll have time to work on my book tomorrow.
(So what's your favorite excuse--I mean valid and important reason--for putting things off?)


Nagesh Belludi said...

One of the easiest ways to tackle our why-do now-what-I-can-do-later habit is to make a beginning. One practice I have adopted is to commit to work for just 10 minutes on a task I have been procrastinating on or an article/essay I have been putting-off. I realize that beginning a task can build momentum; there is a good chance I get absorbed in the tasks. Quite often, seemingly difficult tasks get easier once I get working on them.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I would be working on my WIP right now, except that as one of Poe's Deadly Daughters I HAVE to support my sisters by reading the guest blog and writing a comment....

Lori said...

My delay the writing activity is making coffee. I have to chose the type for the day, grind the beans. boil the water, decide between cream or milk...well you get the picture.

Joyce said...

All I can say is that my house gets really clean when I have any kind of deadline.

Katie Hines said...

OMG! I could totally relate. I have a hundred different absolutely-must-dos before I get to my computer to work on my book.

Usually, by the time I finish all those things, I don't want to look at my computer again, never mind work on my new book.

Thanks for the humorous--and truthful--look at procrastination.

Anonymous said...

Reading other writers' blogs really isn't procrastination, is it?

Sandra Parshall said...

Anonymous said...
>Reading other writers' blogs really isn't procrastination, is it?<

Reading OTHER blogs is. Reading Poe's Deadly Daughters isn't. :-)

I wish I engaged in the kind of procrastination that leads to a clean house. Unfortunately, nothing gets any cleaner or neater when I put off writing. I'm more likely to be standing at a window with binoculars, watching birds at my feeders, or sitting here at the computer, watching the National Zoo's panda cams.

Charlotte Hughes said...

I will get back to all of you with some comments, but I am procrastinating...

Lonnie Cruse said...

I'm with Sandy, procrastination does NOT lead to a cleaner house here. But email gets read several times. Sigh. Laundry, maybe, because it's clost to my coffee maker.

Pageturners said...

What a great blog piece. Funny, true - and reading it used up 30 precious minutes when I coule have been writing ;)

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