Friday, January 8, 2010

Are you a pro-crastinator, or are you an amateur?

It's the topic I get the most questions about. The one that I come back to repeatedly. But that's OK, it's an important one: Are you a pro or an amateur? Not at writing but at finding ways not to write? Back in the days when I kept an art studio, there was a yellowed and dogeared piece of paper taped somewhere on the wall. Perfectly centered, in twelve point type (so you had to walk up to it to read it) it said:
"An artist doesn't get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working." - Stephen De Staebler*
For the record, I didn't post that so I'd have a ready-made excuse when my wife walked in and caught me goofing off. I posted it to remind me what's going to pounce on me if I let my guard down. Whether it's fear or some kind of latent masochism or the lie that we "work better under deadline", the urge to find reasons not to do the work that scratches the creative itch seems endemic to the artistic animal. Not that we're the only ones, it's just that (as the sign says) it just seems like it sometimes. As the chores and the distractions pile up, it's easy to find yourself stopping to wash just one dish, or fix one more ice cream sundae, or just one more television program/website/article/book... With the possible example of the ice cream, all of these distractions are easily made to seem beneficial, even saintly. After all, the housework's getting done! Every book says I have to have a website! I have to create a website! I have to do 'research' some time, don't I? This website/TV program/novel is research! This Twitter post or website is marketing! The excuses are all the more insidious because they are mostly true. The only way I've ever found to head off this well-meaning procrastination was to set aside specific times to do them. Research is both a positive influence on your work and a distraction from it. So set aside an hour (or more) for research each day or even one entire day each week to spend interviewing subjects, exploring landscapes, and combing the library or the internet or PBS. Set aside time for the TV and the housework (and the Ice Cream too while you're at it) and remember that writing is a job and you have to treat it like one or you'll never get anywhere with it. I've said before that the allure of working in my pajamas leaves me too relaxed and more prone to distractions. I have to get dressed and sit down at the desk and focus on The Job or I very likely won't get a darn thing done that day.
  1. Make a list.
  2. Prioritize the list.
  3. Erase half the list and prioritize again.
  4. Turn the list into a schedule.
  5. Stick to it!
It works for me, anyway because when it comes to crastination, I'm a pro. And a pro knows it's always there, lurking by the television set, on the internet, under a bookshelf... waiting to pounce. You have to have the weapons to fend it off or you're doomed. And a pro also knows that you can always eat that sundae at your desk. Just try not to get any hot fudge on the keyboard.
Scott Walker Perkins writes literary thrillers and blogs on the interface between technology and literary culture. His current novel is The Palimpsest and he is working on another tentatively titled 42 Lines.
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--- * EDIT: I managed to source the quote to American sculptor Stephen De Staebler from my home state, no less. Ironically, on reflection I think I probably originally found the quote in a great book called "Art & Fear" which I really should review here. -Scott

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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).