Saturday, April 2, 2011

How to Stop Procrastinating: Trust the Writing Process

ProcrastinationImage by Jennerally via Flickr

It’s an old cliché. In order to write, you have to apply butt to chair, pound the keys, and actually write. There’s no getting around it. There’s no getting away from it.Yes, you have laundry to do. Yes, you want to spend quality time with family. Yes, you want to go to sleep.

Let’s face it: You want to do anything but write.

Even worse is when you don’t know what to write.

Procrastination lulls you into thinking you have nothing to say, or that you don’t know quite how to say it yet. If you ruminate over it for another day or two, maybe the words will come out.

We all know that’s a lie. Nevertheless, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing it.
One of the most important weapons in the war on procrastination, I’ve discovered, is trust. Trust yourself. Trust the writing process.

Here’s how it works:

I’m at a point in my novel in which my 11-year-old hero, Damon, has just been elected leader of a club of super-powered kids. Sounds cool, except I hadn’t expected this to happen. Yes, I’m in charge of my novel, at least nominally, but sometimes characters do take on a life of their own. Sometimes novels write themselves as we work through the messy cellars of our subconscious to figure out what we’re trying to say.

But that development left me in a quandary. How does Damon – who, like me at that age, was never the captain of a sports team or president of a glee club – become a leader?

In the past, such a quandary might have brought the story to a complete standstill. I would have wasted hours searching for the right path to take, agonizing over how Damon would behave as a leader and how he would get other kids to do his bidding. Questions such as these often provide writers with fodder for research, which is good, but research cannot take the place of writing. So, I forged ahead.

Relying upon Anne Lamott’s advice that “good writing is about telling the truth”[i], I wrote into the story an incident that happened to me when I was a few years younger than Damon. I received a brand-spanking new General Custer action figure (although we called them “dolls” in those days) for my birthday. Anxious to play with it, I pulled out some older toys for the other kids who came to my party. However, one boy flatly refused to play with a broken action figure that had been bandaged around the middle. “He looks like he’s had an operation!” the boy said.

So I dutifully gave my General Custer to him while I played with the broken action figure.

For years after, I wondered if I had done the right thing. In the long-term scheme of things, it doesn’t matter, but to an 11-year-old, questions of self-worth are everything. Was I acting mature by valuing my friend over my new toy? Or did the other kids think I was a “weenie” for caving in?

Damon will face similar choices in his new role. His choices will lead him to confront his own insecurities, to learn that he can't please everyone, and to discover that leaders must make sacrifices. At least, I hope he does. Like every leader, he will make mistakes and, I hope, grow from them.

Most importantly, in trusting the writing process, I met my writing goal for the evening and learned something new about my character.

How do you wage war on procrastination?

[i] Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. New York: Pantheon, 1995. Pg. 3.
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SmearySoapboxPress said...

Great job with not procrastinating on your weekly schedule!

Procrastination is more my problem than last week's "sharks", and one that I regularly struggle with. While I'm often surprised at how much I can accomplish in an hour or two, it often takes me a long time to change my mindset from workday to creative mode...

- dale.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

Thanks for posting, Dale.

I know what you mean. After hours of grading papers, the last thing I want to do is write. But them pages has got to be done!

Kristi's Book Nook said...

This is great advice for any writer. I know what you mean when you sit down to write and the characters come to life and start writing themselves. I actually love it. It simply means that you the writer is on a roll.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

Thanks for posting, Kristi.

I agree: When the characters come to life, it is exciting, but also scary. The Internal Critic wants to make sure I don't roll off a cliff!

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