Janet E Cameron’s Notes From The Procrastination Swamp
Hey! Why aren’t you writing?
The most common response to this question seems to be ‘I have no time.’ And often we don’t. But suppose you do manage get hold of some free hours. You’ve cleared away the day-job obligations, said no to friends, cut yourself off from the chaos of home life, and now you’ve got your morning, your evening, your afternoon. It’s blank and beautiful, and it belongs only to you. You might be visualising whole chapters taking shape under your hands, a major plotline cleared up, some badly-needed edits set in place. This is going to be fantastic.
Then four hours pass in a haze. What happened, exactly?
A load of laundry. A phone call. A snack. Cat videos. The second half of a TV show. Christopher Walken dancing. An article about why people watch cat videos. A Facebook chat with a friend who’s also not writing. And as for those finished chapters, well…
We tend to laugh off this kind of behaviour, but it can be deeply frustrating. No matter how harmless and daft the distractions, all that arsing around comes to this: You wanted to do something. For one reason or another, you couldn’t. And there’s only one person to blame.
I don’t enjoy anything when I’m procrastinating. Life seems to thump by in some guilt-ridden, purgatorial half-existence. I watch helplessly as my behaviour gets more and more bizarre, and my justifications for it become increasingly desperate – this insane inner monologue may be the most alarming aspect of life in the Procrastination Hell Swamp. I’ll tell myself I’m taking a break, even if I haven’t started working. Or I’ll wait for the next round number to roll around on the clock. (Who starts anything at 8:37? Honestly.) I’ll often make a deal with myself that if I finish this one little task – the dishes, the laundry, organising my socks by colour, weight and age – I’ll have the peace of mind I need to be able to make a proper start. Usually it ends with me giving up for the night and setting my alarm for some hellish hour of pre-dawn, almost as a punishment. Then when that 6 a.m. bell rings out, I’ll bash it into submission and go back to sleep, guaranteeing that I’ve started the day by letting myself down again.
I’ve been at this procrastination game since before the internet. It really isn’t much fun. And sadly, it’s also too dumb to let you work up a decent head of self-pity. Substance abusers and high stakes gamblers have a certain negative glamour. But who’s going to make a tragic bio-pic about someone whose dreams go down the toilet while they sit around playing Burger Time*?
Solving this problem probably starts with understanding why it happens. I think a major part of it comes down to fear. For my part, I might be afraid of disappointing people, nervous because I’ve hit a big emotional moment in the plot, afraid of making a giant idiot of myself. There are also times when I’m actually intimidated by the act of writing itself.
Each writing session is a something of a gamble. Some days you’ll be flying from inspiration to inspiration and you couldn’t hit a wrong note if you tried. The next day you might be pushing phrases around like bricks, with the story going lifeless and the words draining away in front of you. There is no rational explanation for the change, and it can often feel like the good times are never coming back. I can see the appeal of hiding in the next room with a blanket over one’s head rather than facing this uncertainty. At times like this, there is nothing more painful than writing. Except not writing.
But there are steps you can take to work through it all. I’ve tried some of them, and at least one must have worked. (It seems strange to think of, but I do have nearly four hundred published pages around here somewhere.)
Get off the net. Have you ever walked into a room looking for something, then wandered about distracted because you’d forgotten what it was or even how you got there? Hours might pass before you remember. Well, the internet is that room. Stay out of it.
Do something to take the pressure off. I didn’t feel much anxiety when I was writing my first book, largely because I never thought it would be a book – it began as a short story that kept growing. Try starting small and see what happens. Or you could work on two different projects at the same time. You may not finish both, but it means you won’t be making one of them into the sole repository for all your hopes and dreams. Poor book. It’s tough being an only child.
Quit (for the day) while you’re ahead. If you stop the writing ‘shift’ with some idea of where you’re going afterwards, the next session will be easier to begin. I’ve left off in mid-sentence sometimes. It helps.
And finally…just sit your arse down and get on with it. When you’re deeply involved in your project, the story will usually take hold and override all that anxiety, or at least that’s been my experience. Eventually you might hit a state that feels like the opposite of procrastination. Midway through the first draft of Cinnamon Toast I realised my birthday was coming up. ‘Crud,’ I thought. ‘I’ll miss a whole night’s work.’ I’m not sure I’m going to reach that level of nutso dedication again, but I know it’s possible to brush those distractions away, if you really believe that the story is more important.
Getting to that point is difficult, but not impossible. And I intend to give it my best shot.
* An early 1980s arcade game where you’re a chef being chased around by evil eggs, pickles, and hotdog wieners. Yes, I have it installed on my computer.
(c) Janet E Cameron
A Canadian writer and teacher, Janet E. Cameron has been living in Ireland since 2005, where she teaches ESL at Dublin Business School. She has also lived, worked, and taught in Halifax, Toronto, Montreal, and Tokyo. Last year she graduated from Trinity with an MPhil in Creative Writing, and her first novel, Cinnamon Toast and the End of the World, was published by Hachette in March of 2013. Cinnamon Toast was also one of the winners of the Irish Writers’ Centre’s inaugural Novel Fair contest. For more information or to contact, go to www.asimplejan.com