Years ago, I learned about procrastination as a young freelancer writing a profile of mystery author Jerry Oster for the Hoboken Reporter. He had a nice place, a first floor apartment painted white that gave it a country cottage-ish atmosphere. But he couldn’t write there. Every morning, he walked to the PATH station with the hordes of commuters and rode into Greenwich Village, where he put in his regular hours at a warren of cubicles called the Writers Room off Sheridan Square. To some people—hell, to most people—working at home would be a dream, part of the romance everyone but writers has of the writing life. And Jerry Oster hadn’t given up easily himself. But the day he found himself painting his bicycle was the day he decided he had to get out of there to get his books written.
I remember this story, I suppose, out of vanity. I have yet to paint my bicycle to avoid writing. But, truth be told, I’d be lucky if procrastination was as a simple as painting a bicycle, or the bathroom sink cabinet, as my friend Alison has done, or countless other worthy but unnecessary chores. But procrastination is a shape-shifting demon that will lure you away however it can. Pick a good cause, such as serving on the local library board or volunteering to do mapping for your local land conservancy. I’ve quit them all in hopes that finally I’ll concentrate fully on writing. Now I’m down to a pretty minimal life. Writing vs. Procrastinating. With a thirty minute break at the end of the day to walk up the road to check out the birds at the pond, lately the egrets white as angels standing up to their ankles in the green mat of pond plants. The stand motionless with such elegant purpose. We humans weren’t built to do that. We’re meant to be churning.
Some of it is fun. Every morning after I’ve dithered and dathered and started my second cup of coffee and finally gotten up to my desk to turn on the computer, I suddenly notice the fine mesh of cobweb newly woven into the windowsill corner. Back downstairs, I grab my dust buster, my favorite toy, which I wield like Clint Eastwood does his oversized pistol in Dirty Harry. Nothing feels as quite as satisfying as knocking down cobwebs instead of sitting down to those first minutes of writing which can feel as laborious as pushing an old wooden row boat off the mud flats into the water to see if it still floats. The nice thing about the dust buster, too, is that it dies after a few minutes and needs to be returned to its recharger. It’s the perfect implement of distraction, short and sweet. Plus, visitors invariably compliment the cleanliness of my cottage. That’s the thing about procrastination. No one will blame you for it. Washing the dishes? Dusting the plants? Alphabetizing the bookcases? Especially if you’re married, your spouse will love you for it.
But chores are obvious. Much more insidious is reading. “For most blocked creatives, reading is an addiction,” warns Julia Cameron in The Artists Way. “We gobble the words of others rather than digest our own thoughts and feelings, rather than cook up something of our own.” She really believes this. “For most artists, words are like tiny tranquilizers. We have a daily quota of media chat that we swallow up. Like greasy food, it clogs our system. Too much of it and we feel, yes, fried.” Reading bad? Following the news wrong? No one had ever told me that before. And I prided myself on being well read. Ten books a month as my New Year’s resolution. Yet from the fear I felt at the start of her Artists Way-commanded reading deprivation week I knew I was going cold turkey on something. She was right. All those “moments” of checking NYTimes.com that turned into twenty minutes when I’d meant to hurry back up to writing. All the times I’d picked up a book to soak up the agitated energies that could have gone into something creative. After a few days I found I was almost flying.
But the most insidious form of procrastination is writing itself. Invariably, my most brilliant new ideas strike while I’m stuck on a piece. This new idea seems so much more promising, so much easier to complete. Worst of all, sometimes it is! But I’ve spent years spinning off from one unfinished draft to another. Ages ago, I had upwards of eighty roughed-out poems all but abandoned on my computer. Yes, I finally changed course, finished them, and published two poetry books, but not without boldly renouncing my bad habits. (I adopted a lesson from my late mother in law who’d said, “Every time I feel the urge to exercise, I lay down until it passes.” Every time I felt on fire with a new poem, I didn’t write it down.) But now I have half-a-dozen novels or novellas on the computer, including one that stymied me through the first half of the summer. So what am I doing? Blogging. I hope you’re enjoying it as much as I am.