In the previous post today, Susan Cooper touched lightly on the thorny subject of procrastination...and I'm going to go out on a limb here to suggest procrastination is not always bad.
The form of procrastination that Copper describes can, unless it gets out of hand, be a useful part of the working process, a circling of the water before one plunges in. To push the water metaphor a little further, some of us are divers and some of us inch into a cold pool of water bit by bit -- not because we don't intend to swim, but because that's how we're psychologically built to best handle transitions. The initial shock of a cold plunge invigorates some swimmers, but is uncomfortable, almost painful, to others; and we learn by trial and error which approach works best for us, physically and temperamentally.
For me, the slow circling of my writing desk in the morning isn't one of avoidance (though it can be, on a bad day, if I'm not careful), it's simply part of my transition from the everyday world into the cold, clear pool of my imagination. Here's how the work day starts for me, after an early walk up Nattadon Hill with Tilly:
I do a quick tidy of the studio (I like a calm, ordered environment), put music on the stereo (something without words: classical, medieval, music for the Celtic harp or Native American flute), settle Tilly on the sofa with her morning treat (a piece of carrot), pluck a book from the shelves and read a few pages (essays, folklore, poetry), pour a cup of coffee from my thermos (if I haven't already finished it off outdoors), write this blog (as a writing warm-up), turn my connection to the Internet off, and then finally get down to work: generally, like Susan Cooper, by reading over previous pages and notes from the day before, and trying my damnedest to resist editing those pages instead of pushing on into new material. All through this process, I must be wary of the other kind of procrastination, the kind that really is avoidance or distraction: getting overly absorbed in the reading, for example, or hooked by the lures of Internet. That's where discipline comes in: the commitment and professionalism required to keep my transition-into-work process on track.
I could, of course, simply come into the studio, sit myself down and get right to it -- but I've learned, over all these years, that this is just not the best method for me; I write better, and faster, if I honor the process of transition that suits my creative temperament. My family knows not to disturb me during this process -- even though, to the outside eye, I might not appear to be actually working yet. While I'm not such a fragile flower that I can't get back into my work if an interruption does occur, and of course life is unpredictable, as a general rule I try to sweep unnecessary obstacles from my working day by making my schedule and habits as conducive to the work as possible. Ideally, I want to be challenged by the writing itself, not by the journey it takes to get down to it.
I'm not advocating this working method for everyone, of course; I'm advocating that we all find out our own best way of working, and implement it to whatever extent our lives make possible. I'm an inch-into-the-water kind of girl; you might be a diver, or something else altogether. But take heart fellow-inchers: ours, too, is a perfectly valid approach, provided we are clear about the good and bad -- or perhaps, I should say "useful" and "not useful" -- forms of procrastination. For me, for example, reading a book or journal is useful because the quiet intimacy of this kind of reading serves me in my state of transition, easing me into the quiet Lake of Words I seek to enter -- whereas reading on the Internet, with its mass choir of voices and its speedy, amped-up rhythms, spins me away from my inner Lake of Words and off into other directions. The myriad attractions on-line are tempting -- oh, so tempting! -- but I've learned to limit my time here, especially in the morning during the "ritual of approach" into my writing day.
The useful notion of a "ritual of approach" is borrowed from the Irish poet/philosopher John O'Donohue, who discusses the mythic roots of the term in his wise book Beauty: The Invisible Embrace. "Many of the ancient cultures practiced careful rituals of approach," he notes. "An encounter of depth and spirit was preceded by careful preparation. When we approach with reverence, great things decide to approach us. Our real life comes to the surface and its light awakens the concealed beauty in things. When we walk on the earth with reverence, beauty will decide to trust us. The rushed heart and arrogant mind lack the gentleness and patience to enter that embrace."
This is not to imply that the "divers" among us are "rushed and arrogant"; if they are working well, then their rituals of approach are swift, rather than rushed, and they are blessed to have a creative rhythm in tune with our fast-moving times. Inchers often (not always) move at a slower pace, and while that can be at odds with our production-focused world, neither method is inherently "better" than the other. Divers and inchers, we seek the same goal: immersion into the Lake of Story, whose cold, sweet waters sustain us all.
But let's speak of the bad side of procrastination for a moment -- for the very same tasks that can be used to inch our way into our work (clearing the desk, clearing the decks, reading, blogging, etc.) can also be used to avoid our work, blocking the "ritual of approach" altogether; and it takes self-knowledge and rigorous self-honesty to know the difference.
If procrastination of the bad sort has become a problem for you...well, you're not alone. Many writers I've worked with over the years, including highly successful ones, have struggled with this; and some are struggling still. The most useful text I know on the subject is Hillary Rettig's very practical book The Seven Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writers' Block. Rettig takes readers step by step through the kinds of fears and toxic belief systems that usually lie at the heart of chronic procrastination, especially targeting the "perfectionist thinking" that seems to derail so many creative folks.
"Perfectionism," write Rettig, "is a toxic brew of anti-productive habits, attitudes and ideas. It is not the same as having high standards, and there is no such thing as 'good perfectionism.' "
These habits, as Rettig defines them, include: "Defining success narrowly and unrealistically; punishing oneself harshly for perceived failures. Grandiosity; or the deluded idea that things that are difficult for other people should be easy for you. Shortsightedness, as manifested in a 'now or never' or 'do or die' attitude. Over-identification with the work. Overemphasis on product (vs. process), and on external rewards."
"Grandiosity," says Rettig, "is a problem for writers because our media and culture are permeated with grandiose myths and misconceptions about writing, which writers who are under-mentored or isolated fall prey to. Red Smith’s famous bon mot about how, to write, you need only 'sit down at a typewriter and open a vein,' and Gene Fowler’s similarly sanguinary advice to 'sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead,' are nothing but macho grandiose posturing, as is William Faulkner’s overwrought encomium to monomaniacal selfishness, from his Paris Review interview:
'The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much that he can’t get rid of it. He has no pece until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written. If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate; the “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is worth any number of old ladies.'
"Many of the famous quotes about writing are grandiose," Rettig continues. "I’m not saying that all of these writers were posturing -- perhaps that’s how they truly perceived themselves and their creativity. What I do know is that, for most writers, a strategy based on pain and deprivation is not a route to productivity. In fact, it is more likely a route to a block. I actually find quotes about how awful writing and the writing life are to be not just perfectionist, but self-indulgent. No one’s forcing these writers to write, after all; and there are obviously far worse ways to spend one’s time, not to mention earn one’s living. All worthwhile endeavors require hard, and occasionally tedious, work; and, if anything, we writers have it easy, with unparalleled freedom to work where and how we wish -- in contrast to, say, potters who need a wheel and kiln, or Shakespearean actors who need a stage and ensemble. Non-perfectionist and non-grandiose writers recognize all this. Flaubert famously said 'Writing is a dog’s life, but the only life worth living,' and special kudos go to Jane Yolen for her book Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft, which begins with a celebration of the inherent joyfulness of writing. She also responds to Smith’s and Fowler’s sanguinary comments with the good-natured ridicule they deserve: 'By God, that’s a messy way of working.' "
I'll let Jane have the final words today, for she is certainly one of the most prolific writers I know, as well as a Master in the fine and worthy art of living a creative life. In this quote, she offers writing advice that is as practical and down-to-earth as it is wise:
"Exercise the writing muscle every day, even if it is only a letter, notes, a title list, a character sketch, a journal entry. Writers are like dancers, like athletes. Without that exercise, the muscles seize up."
Succinct and true. And now it's time for me to head on out into the Lake of Story myself....
Pictures: Nattadon Hill at dawn. Illustration by Anne Anderson (1874-1930). Words: The passages above are quoted from The Seven Secrets of the Prolific by Hillary Rettig (Infinite Art, 2011); Beauty by John O'Donohue (Harper Perennial, 2005), and Take Joy by Jane Yolen (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). All rights reserved by the authors. A related post: On fear of judgement (and pernicious perfectionism).