Fear and Loathing at the Keyboard

writers blockBy 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?

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About Ellen Booraem

Ellen Booraem’s TEXTING THE UNDERWORLD, a middle-grade fantasy about a scaredy-cat boy and a determined young banshee, comes out August 15, 2013 (Penguin/Dial Books for Young Readers). Her earlier middle-grade fantasies are SMALL PERSONS WITH WINGS (Penguin/Dial BYR, 2011) and THE UNNAMEABLES (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008). She lives in coastal Maine with an artist, a dog, and a cat, one of whom is a practicing curmudgeon. She's online at www.ellenbooraem.com.

12 thoughts on “Fear and Loathing at the Keyboard

  1. You might find it useful to read Dean Wesley Smith’s and Kristine Katherine Rusch’s blogs. Dean just finished writing a novel in ten days, and Kristine has talked about perfectionism before. They both have incredible work ethics when it comes to writing, but they’ve both been writing as their day jobs for a long time.

  2. Anyway, to answer your question, yes, I do fiddle around a bit before getting started, but energy levels and time factor make a difference. I’m more efficient on my lunch hour than at night, especially since I write just before bed and feel less pressured to knock off 500 words in a half hour.

  3. Wow–I admire both of you! I’m so sporadic about my writing habits and this year has probably been my least productive since I started writing. My problem is focus and that monstrous to-do list. Yeah, I know–excuses, excuses..under it all is the same thing. Fear. I just have more convenient distractions to blame my pitiful output on.

  4. Procrastinations, a writer’s best friend. It’s the voice that tells me to check Facebook just one more time or play one more game of that addictive tile game, MahJong. I’d love to say, “Yes! Chocolate definitely works!” because I love chocolate, but all it does is move the arrow up the scale. 🙂

    I find that if I follow a set pattern before I sit down to write, I do much better getting to business without playing around. I get up, shower, get the kids off to school, answer emails, eat breakfast, take the dog outside for a bit, and then sit down to write. It seems if I stick close to that schedule, I do much better when it comes time to get down to business.

    I have heard so many good things about “Bird by Bird,” but have yet to read it. I think I really need to pick up a copy.

    Michelle 🙂
    Author, PODs available June 4th
    Milayna available March 11, 2014
    The Infected, a PODs novel available November 2014
    Visit me and learn how to win a signed copy of PODs!

  5. I’m a very scheduled person. So much so that my family makes fun of me for it. I work from 8:50 (when I get home from dropping my daughter off at school) until 2:45 (when I have to pick her up at school). I even eat at my laptop because I work right through lunch. I save procrastination for unenjoyable things like paying bills. 😉

  6. Since writing is not yet my day job, I get up at 5am and write for a solid hour before my kids wake up. Sometimes I get an hour in the evening, but my motivation and my muse seem not to be nocturnal. Because it’s such a short window, I have to know exactly what I’m going to be working on when I sit down. Since I’m half awake, I’m not too tempted to do other things. I make coffee, sit down and start. Sometimes I read it later and cringe, but oftentimes I find that what I write at that hour is much better than things I work on later. My inner critic doesn’t seem to be an early riser.

  7. I put myself on a schedule too … but I work a full-time job in addition to writing. For now anyway. 😉 When I do make writing my full-time job, I plan to make a schedule I can stick to. I just hope that day is not too far away. So I guess the only thing I’m procrastinating at right now is quitting my job. 😉

  8. I tend to write around my other schedules…LOL. Dropping kids to school, gym, kids’ after shcool activities. Can’t wait until my youngest can drive herself to plces

  9. Yep, I usually sit down at 8:15 when my kids get on the bus and do a 30 min sprint session. Getting it done first thing ensures I get at least 1000 words in before life breaks in to interrupt 🙂 Then I do breakfast and try to do another sprint or two before I do other things. Depending on my word count necessities I’ll work more after lunch or tend to the chore list before getting the kids.

    With editing though, I eat right after the kids leave and work straight through the day. This is when I usually live off of granola bars and goldfish crackers 🙂 I find my procrastination tendencies get worse the more burned out I try not to let that happen. 🙂

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