Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Procrastination and grabbing the great big fish

I was really looking for a fish photo, but this one of my daughter, having walked 7km to a lighthouse, kind of captured what I was looking for - a sort of "seize the day" feel. They just all looked a bit horrified in the fish photos.

How do you get motivated to write? I’ve seen all sorts of ideas floating around on the internet. Some are good, but some, when you really get down to brass tacks, are a waste of time (pun intended) – at least for me.

An idea that pops up often involves using peer pressure, that is, if you tell your friends and family about your writing goals, you’ll be forced to see it through. A more sophisticated idea along the same theme involves having a writing partner, that you might perhaps swap chapters with, so that you can keep each other “on task”.

Personally, I'm not a fan. Sometimes, I find telling people about my plans puts pressure on that I shy away from - I dissipate my forward energy. The thing might never happen and I’ve set myself up for embarrassment. I like to present things when I've published them - the "Ta-dah!" moment is great. They don’t even have to read said works if they don’t want to – I don’t need the validation and I don’t think it’s fair to force loved ones to read stuff they have no interest in.

I found early on in my career, that sometimes telling people your writing ambitions can expose a fragile plan to cold water. This can be especially crippling if the person is someone you share baggage with – like a parent. They mean well, but, frankly, they probably have no idea about your industry, so why are you even discussing it with them (unless, of course, they are loving and supportive)?

Another idea to overcome procrastination is to create a “happy place” to work in. One needs to create a loving and nurturing work environment, perhaps with a bit of whale song in the background and some scented candles. It sounds amazing and I’d love to get me one of those, but it’s another idea that doesn’t work for me – frankly, if I’m mucking around tidying my desk it’s usually another form of procrastination. It’s a way of feeling busy without actually getting anything done. These days I only tidy my desk when things have reached critical mass, I can’t find stuff, and I find myself getting sucked inward from the gravitational pull. Having said that, it might be time again; my husband came in with a cup of tea this morning and told me my office was like a scene from Britain's Biggest Hoarders and he was thinking of staging an intervention shortly.

Also, if you are serious about writing, you pretty much have to be able to do it anywhere. Some of my best stuff happens with a notebook perched on a car steering wheel waiting outside schools, sports training, etc. Don’t waste your wait time.

People talk about setting deadlines. I find this works where the publisher and/or editor have set a deadline – after all, you have to deliver or you wouldn’t be in business long. But, when the goals are more personal, like drafting that first novel, to paraphrase Douglas Adams, deadlines just tend to make a whooshing sound as they whizz by. Sometimes, small self-imposed deadliness can work okay for me, like working without getting a cup of tea for half an hour, or writing 500 words.

Over the years I’ve suffered from the whole spectrum of procrastination, ranging from the being mildly distracted and deciding mid-sentence to clean the grout in the shower, to the crippling kind, where I felt nothing but fear and self-loathing.

To get me out of a funk and moving again, I’ve come up with a few things that work for me, they might work for you too.

1. Switch projects. Take a break, work on something else – even if it isn’t paying work (what do you think this blog is). Just get the words flowing again.

2. Turn off your email – if it’s really important they’ll ring. Turn it on again in the evening when you’re ready for a break.

3. Turn off your phone. Your mother can leave a message – call her back in the evening, don’t let other people eat into your work time.

4. Start anywhere. I don’t know how people got on pre-computer days, endless longhand drafts I guess. These days you can start anywhere, even the end. If you have a chapter, scene, or even a line you want to use – start with that bit in the corner, then work backwards, sideways, forwards. It will all come together eventually.

5. Have a notebook – always. I’ve lost count of the pearls of wisdom I’ve forgotten before they were committed to paper. The only thing I remember is telling myself, “I won’t forget that one, that’s a good one.”

6. Lie to yourself. I should have put this one first. This is the all-time best strategy for me. Tell yourself, “It’s alright, there’s no pressure, just sit down and write for ten minutes – then you can go do some thing else.”

Don’t look at the big picture – some magazine editor waiting for 3000 words, or some book you’re writing that you’ve only managed to pull 5000 words together on in two months. If you sit down to write for ten minutes, you’ll get into the swing and wind up doing more than you planned. You’ll also feel pleased with yourself, which is an added bonus.

7. Give up on perfectionism for the sake of progress. If you’re having trouble even getting started, you’re probably over thinking it. You can always edit later (Yay – computers!). As Ray Bradbury famously said, “Don’t think. Don’t try. Just do”, a quote which reminds me of Yoda who said, “Do, or do not. There is no try.” – of course, he was talking about levitating stuff with your Jedi mind, but the philosophy is applicable.

8. Think about the future: Who do you want to be? I’ve got a cousin who had a terrible life as a teenager; he got addicted to drugs and spent time in prison – with all the horror and violence you can imagine associated with that. But you wouldn’t recognize him now; he’s completely turned his life around. He started studying in prison and finished his PhD when he got out. He runs his own company now and has a family he is proud of. He’s not a writer for a living, but he wrote something recently that a writer could sure use when thinking about their own motivations. I’m editing it (cos that’s what I do), but he said as he achieved small goals, an idea of who he aspired to be emerged – he saw himself as his future self. When he was confronted with temptations or in bad situations that might result in poor choices by his old self, he asked himself what would his aspirational self do in this situation.

Maybe as writers our temptations aren’t as extreme – unless you’re Lewis Carol or Stephen King – but, who do you want to be? If the answer is “a writer”, and you’re absolutely convinced of this, words are your passion, etc., etc., you aren’t going to get there unless you actually sit down and write. It can be a hard lonely road.

9. Give yourself a break. Be kind to yourself. If you’re tired or you have a sore bum, take a walk. You’ll write better when you get back.

10. Find inspiration. I never used to be a fan of putting inspirational quotes on walls, I always thought it was flaky New Age mumbo jumbo, but lately they’ve been creeping onto post-its and sticking themselves where I can see them. Admittedly, my teenage daughter stuck the Yoda one up after she saw the Ray Bradbury quote, but I left it because I liked it. Another one that I’ve just come across is the very last line of Terry Pratchett’s book Monstrous Regiment. I nearly cried when I read it – it just spoke to something deep in my soul:

"And the new day was a great big fish."