By nature, most writers are procrastinators. This has a lot to do with fear: What if today’s the day we stare at the screen and nothing happens? Best to do one more on-line jigsaw puzzle and avoid the moment of truth.
This month’s theme—Mayday! Mayday!—is about obstacles and unseen dangers. There is no more potent one than fear masquerading as procrastination.
When I quit my day job to write novels, I was lucky enough to have a shining example and shaming device close at hand. His name is Rob Shillady and he’s a painter. Over the past 33 years, I’ve watched him treat his studio like a bank office. He cranks up the wood stove around 7 a.m., and is hard at work by 7:30. He goes out for coffee and to collect the mail at 10. At 1:30, he comes up for lunch and to walk the dog. Then he’s back at it until 4 or 5, depending on his energy level.
His larger paintings are painstakingly detailed, and take forever to do. Some days he paints the same thing over and over again before he gets it right. The next day, he’s quite likely to paint that same thing all over again. We once lived through four months when he couldn’t achieve the exact cloud color that says “the first winter storm is coming.” He was frustrated and anxious every single day. And yet he kept applying butt to chair.
The key for him, and for me, is the schedule: Regardless of dread and self-hatred, his feet take him to his studio because that’s where they go at 7 a.m.
I love first chapters, last chapters, and revision. Unfortunately there are a good 20 chapters in between first and last, and drafting them can become a torment and a terror if I let it happen. So I try to follow Rob’s example, more or less. My feet find their way to my office at 9 a.m. every day. I’m not allowed to eat lunch until I have a thousand words, and then I’m allowed to do something else (teaching, research, reading, appointments, sometimes kayaking or skiing) in the afternoon.
I keep Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird on my desk, and periodically re-read the chapter that begins: “Perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” I remind myself that nobody has to see this draft except me, and my thousand words don’t have to be good ones. They just have to exist so I can rework them later, singing happy revision songs to myself.
So what do you do to keep procrastination at bay? Does chocolate actually work?