Fridays + Dr. S O'D = Writer's Therapy
I sometimes give workshops and seminars in my Brooklyn Heights office on topics of interest to writers. If you would like to be notified about upcoming events, email me at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.
Dear Dr O'D.,
Why do I procrastinate? Why do I agree to assignments, only to let deadlines get closer and closer until I am in a huge panic and have to write insanely in order not to let my editors down or risk appearing quite unprofessional? Do I need to work insanely, is that the only way I know how to write? If so, why is that, and why can't I do my work in a more systematic (and sane) way?
Been Meaning to Write This Letter for Months
You may decide to redirect your question when I tell you that M.J. Rose and I have been planning to collaborate on a book about procrastination…since 2003. (But there are extenuating circumstances. Really. We even have a proposal if anyone is interested.)
As M.J. has pointed out, what we call procrastination is often simply an early stage in the creative process. Writing is more like agriculture than factory work—we need to tend and cultivate the field and, on occasion, let it lie fallow, in order to reap the sweetest, juiciest fruit. If we push ourselves to churn out prose according to a rigid, rushed schedule, we are more likely to end up with mass-produced widgets. A certain amount of contemplation, dreaming, and even mindless TV watching is necessary for most writers to shape the work in the unconscious before it’s ready to be transcribed to the page or screen.
I would question, first, whether you are truly sabotaging your work by inventing reasons to put off engaging with the material, or merely overscheduled and working on too-tight deadlines. If you’re not allowing yourself any dream-time between projects, or if your day job, children, or other commitments are running you ragged, it may be that your unconscious is forcing you to take unplanned breaks to avoid burnout. If this is the case, you may need to re-evaluate your priorities, accepting only those assignments that are most interesting to you or that are most likely to advance your career or fatten your bank account. Some pruning of your extra-writing life might be in order as well.
If you do find yourself eating six meals a day because, after all, you can’t be expected to write while you’re eating; watching Buffy reruns for the third time; or stripping and varnishing the interiors of your closets, you probably really are getting in your own way.
Sometimes, procrastination masks an underlying low-level depression. It may be hard to find the motivation to work, especially on projects that entail organized or complex thinking or that have ambiguous guidelines. Deadline panic provides the needed adrenaline boost to attack a difficult assignment. If you suspect this is your issue, consult with a professional. Depending on your medical condition, you may also want to incorporate regular aerobic exercise into your schedule, to get your heart pumping in a healthier and more productive way.
Most often, though, in my experience, true procrastination is related to perfectionism. We delay starting a project because we’re afraid we won’t be able to come up with something marvelous and astonishing. We dread not living up to our own standards, or letting down an editor who counts on us. As long as the project is an idea that exists solely in our minds, we can nourish the illusion that writing it will be an exercise in effortless brilliance. Once we begin choosing the actual words, it becomes clear that we have hard, scary work ahead of us, and that, as always, we run the risk of writing something banal or even ridiculous. It’s much more soothing and reassuring to make a bowl of popcorn and flip on the TV. Then, when we’re forced to come up with the goods at the last minute, we can tell ourselves that no one can turn out perfect prose under these conditions—that if we had only taken the time to do it properly, we could have written a masterpiece, and that any flaws in what we do write are attributable solely to time pressure.
One way to avoid the perfectionism trap is to start writing as soon as you accept the assignment. This sounds counterintuitive, but it works. Tell yourself that you are getting such an early start that you don’t need to worry yet about quality—you’re just taking notes, writing such a rough draft that it doesn’t “count.” There will be plenty of time to revise. Then write whatever comes into your head on the topic, without regard to quality or appropriateness of the ideas. Just spill. If you need to do research for the piece, start it right away. If it entails writing to others for information, do that too. Get the preliminary work out of the way. Write a letter or email to a friend describing the project in as much detail as you can. You don’t have to send the message, but if you do, it might lead to a fruitful dialogue on the topic—and you will have a paper trail to refer to later.
When you have written as much as you can, file the paper or save the document, and go on with your other tasks. Take it out again the next day, look it over, make whatever changes you like, and start writing once more—again, with no pressure; it’s still very early in the game. Do this each day, for half an hour to an hour, and chances are the piece will begin “writing itself.” Even if that doesn’t happen, you will create the building blocks for your piece, and that in itself should ease the pressure enough to allow you to write at a more measured pace.
For a more in-depth discussion, look for our book—the expected publication date is 2027.
Susan O’Doherty, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist with a New York City-based practice. A fiction writer herself, she specializes in issues affecting writers. Send your questions to her at Dr.Sue at mindspring dot com.