I may be mediocre at many things, but one thing I am brilliant at is procrastination. I seem to make a lot of well-intentioned plans and set myself what I think are realistic writing goals, and I still find myself wandering round the house picking up and putting down ornaments when I should be working on my novel, or knitting macrame chair leg covers when I should be getting started on a short story.
But you know what? Sometimes just the thought of everything I “should” be achieving exhausts me. Even reading blog posts and articles about procrastination (You know the type: Ten Tips to Beat Procrastination, or Don’t let Procrastination Beat You, or Procrastination—How to Get Round to Beating it Eventually) is enough to make me seize up. It’s like being constipated. You put off and put off going to the little room because you’re scared it’ll be too hard (literally) and a pain in the ass (ditto). Meanwhile smug self-help book authors and earnest life coaches are telling you to Just poo it. (There’s a million-dollar marketing slogan in there somewhere.)
I’d like to suggest a new way we writers can approach the issue of procrastination.
Let’s go a bit deeper. Rather than always trying to beat a “I can’t be arsed writing and I’ll do anything to avoid it today” mindset, and feeling guilty when we fail, let’s sit with it and explore why we might feel like that. Maybe we’ll gain some valuable insight that will ultimately be more helpful.
Note: most of these points are more relevant for people who write for the love it—not those who rely on it for an income. But hopefully there is something useful here for everyone.
Fear of Failure
Yup. Know this one. It holds me back quite regularly. I want to be a fantastic writer, and I am afraid of being a mediocre one. The safest thing to do is not even try. But here’s something I’ve learnt: if the trying is itself a wonderful journey, then the outcome becomes less and less important. If that sounds too waffly and new-agey, consider this: the more you do something, the better you get. It’s almost inevitable. The more I write, the better I will become. I may not ever be brilliant, but I’ll be quite good, thank you very much. And one more thing: I don’t want to reach the end of my life and look back with regret at all the things I didn’t do because I was afraid of failure. I’ve already got a few of those, and I don’t want any more.
Fear of Success
This one is more insidious. In a quote that is often mistakenly attributed to Nelson Mandela, Marianne Williamson wrote:
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people will not feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It is not just in some of us; it is in everyone and as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.
Finding out that you’re actually pretty good at something can be scary. It opens doors. It leads you down unexpected paths. It can challenge deeply held beliefs about yourself. It can also challenge you to try harder, go further. The more we have the more is expected of us, and all that. Are you ready?
Oh boy, this is a killer. It’s another of my areas of expertise. I want every sentence to flow onto my page perfectly. I want to be brilliant, yesterday. Note to self: Ain’t gonna happen. So enjoy the messiness and the imperfections. They are what make us human. Perfectionism is the killer of creativity. (Of course, when it comes to editing and proofreading, an anally retentive perfectionist grammar nerd can be helpful. I’m happy to be of service: please visit my business page, www.bellbirdwords.com. 😊)
It’s not really where your heart is
Now this one may require a bit of soul searching. Do you really want to write? Does it make your heart sing? Because, folks, life’s too short to force yourself to do stuff that—most of the time—you just don’t want to do. OK, if you’re supporting a family and writing is your way of earning a crust, you may not have much of a choice right now. Finding a new job may take time. But I would urge you to start looking.
You’re good at it but you don’t love it
Other people have told you that you should write because you’re good at it. Maybe you are. But you know what? I’m really good at fundraising (I specialise in grant application writing for not-for-profits), but I’d rather have electrodes attached to my genitals while being flogged senseless with a knotted rope than join the school/community group/theatre fundraising committee. So…I haven’t, despite numerous “hints” (i.e. attempted arm twisting).
If you don’t love it, don’t do it. Even if your Mum says you’re brilliant at it.
Other things are more important right now
Three years ago, my partner and I decided to separate. Due to the heartbreak that followed, l didn’t write for many months. I was just too sad, and too busy with establishing a new life for myself. The day I opened my book manuscript and started working on it again, with a new level of determination and additional rich emotional experiences to draw from, I knew I was starting to heal.
Take your time if you need it. If your desire to write is genuine, it will lie dormant until you are ready to gently wake it up again. The page will call when you are ready.
You just don’t feel like it today. And that’s OK.
We don’t always have to be lean mean writing machines. We live in such a success-orientated world, sometimes NOT trying to achieve anything is good for us. Of course, if you did that all day, life would probably feel empty and unfulfilling (and disturbingly devoid of income). But giving yourself permission to achieve absolutely zilch for an hour or a day or a week can be refreshingly liberating. It’s OK to just be. We don’t always have to do to prove our worth.
Procrastination is not a dirty word. It’s a word. As writers, we can reduce it to one of those Naughty Things Writers Shouldn’t Do, or we can choose to explore its meaning and implications for our lives. I think that’s kinder, and more useful.