I found common ground in James Surowiecki’s piece in last week’s New Yorker (October 11, 2010) on procrastination, given that I may hold the world’s record for inventing excuses for not finishing a job — and I speak here mostly of hitting deadlines. Admittedly, when I miss either a Tuesday or Friday on this small site — or both — it most likely is no more dramatic than the draw of the couch or the lure of Vin Scully’s voice that has won out once again. Plus, in my defense, I like to say that for writers it seems to come with the territory.
In truth, I’ve never suffered from the oft claimed writer’s block; those who have known me over the years are aware that I always have words that will not wait. Such is the case whenever I approach the keypad.
But getting there, that’s the thing. Surowiecki lays the problem at the feet of any number psychological or emotional factors; I’ve always thought it’s simply a matter of wanting to do it, no more, no less.
Writing, of course, is a craft: you learn how to do it by actually doing it, over and over and over. I once asked a colleague who was a former reporter for a Kansas City newspaper what he thought it took. He said you had to write about a half-million words before you could consider yourself ready to go pro. I tend to agree, which puts you at considerable distance from an eighth grade English class.
Shrinking the distance to the keypad can require a trick or two, the most frequent being the reward you grant yourself by finishing the piece, and it is a good one: there is a genuine satisfaction in pushing the “Publish” button. For better or worse, it is complete. So that’s the mantra; well, that’s my mantra. But it does take some exercising.
One of the writers who apparently had the discipline thing down was John Updike who found that the reason for his success over some 50 years was persistency. Given that he is credited with eight collections of poems, 23 books, 17 collections of short stories, nine collections of essays and criticism, a play, five children’s books and a memoir, he may have had something there. Inspiration for us all.
As jobs go, it’s pretty hard to beat sitting in a home office in southern California, with no dress code required. All the concerns about solitude fade in the face of that, and the heaviest lifting involved is moving the mouse around. Shoot, I don’t even have to feed paper into the machine. You set a totally arbitrary goal for the day, usually in terms of word count, and off you go.
And it’s just as easy to not do it. Why do today what I can put off to tomorrow?
There is no real answer to procrastination, of course. Just as Surowiecki concludes without anything approaching a sure-fire solution, so say I, whether you’re writing the Great American novel or wrestling with the responsibility to paint the backyard fence. If you can avoid it without incurring the wrath of a Boss from Hell, you’ll just as likely give it another day. Tomorrow, you promise yourself, I’ll get at it at the very crack of dawn, and you reach for the television remote.