Being a writer is like being asked to commit to saying “I do” every day. It requires a monumental leap of faith and a belief in yourself that, in the end, you will indeed prove worthy. It doesn’t matter whether you’re working on a freelance writing assignment or trying to finish up your new novel, each time you sit down to start a writing session there’s this dance with yourself that begins — and the music isn’t always inspiring.
It usually starts with a handful of questions that race across your brain: “Maybe I would be more productive if I waited until tomorrow morning and got started first thing while I’m fresh?” “Shouldn’t I put the chili on first and let it simmer all day?” “I wonder if a little nap would refresh me and leave me more open creatively?” And on and on it goes.
This is why many writers have pristine kitchens, well vacuumed carpets and meticulously organized closets. It is also why writers often excel at rationalization — we wrestle mentally with ourselves every day. But it is also why so many of us are crippled with self-doubt. After all, who are we to think that we have the magic to take a blank page and transform it into cohesive thoughts with the power to move strangers thousands of miles away? Who are we, indeed?
In a way, sitting down to write each day is a lot like foreplay – except the process lasts longer. There you are, approaching this pivotal moment, not knowing if it will be glorious or disappointing. So you get your head into the game and tell yourself that it’s all up to you. You can either make the effort and get something out of it, or half-ass it and waste your time. See? Foreplay!
I go through this psych-out every time I sit down to write. So far, I have won the battle. For 40 years, I have managed to produce an ungodly word count to foist on the world. How? Here are some of the things I do to get going. Think of it as the writer equivalent of pumping the gas pedal and turning the ignition key:
I start by revising something I wrote the day before, then pick up my speed as I near the end and pray my momentum will take me into fresh content. This almost always works. Although, just as often, I get bored revising and leap right into creating. Thank god for editors with longer attention spans than me.
I decide to fill in a few character details or deepen an outlined scene, then convince myself that I really need to create that character or scene while I have the details fresh in my head. This works, but not always — as is evident by the incredibly elaborate outlines and schematics I use to create my books.
I lie in bed, going over a scene, letting it take form in my brain until it becomes so real that I have to jump up and sit down in front of the computer and get it all down on paper before it disappears. Perhaps creativity cannot be rushed, but it can certainly be ripened, like expensive fruit you’re not sure you like. It just takes the will and time to daydream your vision to life.
I pretend I’m a dog and give myself treats to perform. Before I started paying attention to my blood sugar levels (something none of you want me to ignore, trust me on this), if I finished a page, I rewarded myself with chocolate and Little Black Dog would get a Beggin’ Strip just for sticking by me. But now, I go big or go home. If I meet my page deadline for the day by noon then, by god, I am sitting down with a grilled ribeye and salad for lunch. Just try to stop me. And there’s no scraps left for Little Black Dog, either.
I create artificial deadlines and heap enough urgency on those deadlines to scare the crap out of myself. This particular psych-out can be tricky, especially if certain unnamed persons in your writing circle regularly blow off even their publisher deadlines with little more than a shrug (you know who you are, people). But I seem to be imbued with more than my fair share of Catholic guilt. If I tell myself I must have a chapter finished by the end of the week, than that is enough to light my fire. I am pretty sure there is an obsessive-compulsive disorder lurking behind this technique, but like so many things, I choose to ignore it.
I use procrastination to fight procrastination. This is not as crazy as it sounds. It goes like this: I love writing, it’s just the getting started each day that makes me feel as if I’m staring into the abyss. On the other hand, I really hate filing taxes (a writer never quite knows what penalty the tax demon will bring). So starting every March, I begin my most productive writing time of year by using writing to put off filing my taxes. Sure, I could compile my receipts… but why not finish that chapter instead? It’s genius! By the time mid-April rolls around, I’ve banked a couple hundred pages and somehow managed to file another tax extension request. It worked again this year. I think. I’m still fanning the flames of my tax panic to keep going. These things cannot be rushed.
But what I really need are equally unpleasant tasks I can use throughout the year to make writing an attractive, viable alternative. Getting a colonoscopy? Having a root canal? Getting my eyebrows threaded? If I weren’t so darned healthy, and had not already tried threading — surely a technique created by a sadomasochist? — I am sure I could find something in that arena. Alas, I come from sturdy stock, and so I am still searching for another effective procrastination tool. The trick is to find something almost as urgent and important as writing, which is why I can’t use running as an excuse to put off writing or vice versa. You see, I don’t give a crap about running. And being an optimist, I too easily blow off walking as well, convinced as I am that another beautiful day will always come along. So I’m still searching for seasonal procrastination tools and your suggestions are certainly welcome.
In the meantime, good luck to my fellow writers as they face the day’s blank page. I’ll be thinking of you as my fingers approach the keyboard… and pause.
Now, if you will excuse me, I really must begin today’s writing session.