I’d started writing this piece just before reading Bryan’s blog about finding your optimum creative routine, and they seem to segue rather neatly into each other. The start of a new year usually gets me thinking about my writing habits and why I don’t get as much done as I plan to. I also recently filled out an online questionnaire for a writing magazine which stopped me in my tracks.
Try it yourself: ‘What stops you from achieving what you want in your chosen artistic field?’ Many people would say lack of time. Now ask yourself: ‘When you have time, do you prioritise your art?’ My honest answer was that, more often than not, I don’t. When faced with this simple fact, I was surprised and a bit embarrassed. Yes, there are always other things to be done – but surely I value my writing highly enough to put it ahead of washing the kitchen floor, checking emails, going for a run, etc. most of the time?
There may be many reasons for procrastination, but the one I read cited most often is fear of failure, and this doesn’t just apply to new writers. Even if you’ve had ten successful novels published (I wish!), who’s to say you can produce number eleven? Writing is always about venturing into new territory; there are no guarantees. Sometimes students ask me for help in dealing with procrastination. One of my suggestions is to write as soon as they wake; this way the inner critic hasn’t had time to put the frighteners on them yet.
Another tactic is to break off your writing mid-sentence, so you can pick up the thread immediately. This might make it easier to return to a piece, but it doesn’t work for me – the thought of breaking off mid-sentence is too unnerving. What if I forget the second half I’d had in mind?
A further tactic to reduce the fear of failure is free-writing, where you put pen to paper and don’t stop for a set amount of time (e.g. ten minutes) even if you’re writing drivel. I found this really helpful when I first started writing, but I tend to have enough projects in mind that this isn’t so useful anymore. Either that or the piles of drivel mounting up were depressing me.
But I want to suggest that procrastination isn’t always a bad thing: sometimes it might look like you’re avoiding writing, but actually you’re mulling over ideas before committing them to paper. The poet Fiona Sampson has a wonderful phrase for when it looks like she’s not doing anything much, but is mentally gathering her thoughts in preparation for writing: ‘wool-gathering’. I’m definitely a wool-gatherer. When I’m getting into the zone I tend to potter about the house, leaping up from my seat every ten minutes to do small unimportant tasks like folding laundry or clearing out my purse. This is definitely part of the process of writing, however much it might look like avoidance. Eventually I settle and an hour or two can pass without my noticing: that’s me finally in the zone.
In my heart I know when I’m wool-gathering and when I’m procrastinating. This week, when I’ve found myself on the verge of procrastinating, I’ve asked myself the question ‘Do you prioritise your art?’ I really don’t want to have to say ‘No’, and this has helped me get on with it.
Do you have any advice for beating the procrastination habit? Or is it a necessary stage in the creative process (in which case it’s not procrastination at all – just tell people you’re wool-gathering!)
Image Credit: Wiki Commons. Image credit:Yair Haklai – The Thinker by Auguste Rodin at Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen.