The Heart of The Delay: Harnessing the Wisdom of Procrastination, AKA Writer's Block
I am sure that at in some era, at some desk, with some kind of paper (and perhaps some very special ink), some writer has breezed through a lengthy and challenging project from beginning to end with no delays. No one in her household has suffered, she's felt pleased at each step of the process, and her shoulders have never cried out for massage. I'm sure of this.
I am equally certain that for most people, writing projects have at least some period of delay. Sometimes, it takes the form of distraction, and a bit of discipline works just fine to bring us back. Other times, our life's work or inspiration of the moment sits there, waiting for us to get back to it, and every incomplete we've ever taken in school, every shaming message we've ever heard, or self-doubt we've ever felt encrusts the project like so many barnacles.
Worse still, "procrastination" and "writer's block" pop up in writer's tracts like names of diseases that need "cures," the right sledgehammer, or perhaps simply to be ignored. While some writers may find it helpful to have a name for what gets in the way of what they're trying to achieve, "writer's block" or "procrastination" can falsely universalize very different phenomena. My obstacles, yours, and hers may be different animals, different species or even perhaps silicon-based non-organic entities. Framing them as negative blocks the opportunity to learn something about ourselves or our writing.
For example, my reluctance to finish my novel may reflect a correct hunch about a major flaw in the story structure I'm loathe to face, while yours may stem from guilt about being the first in your family to succeed at an intellectual task. Each of us has an opportunity to notice and deal directly with the heart of the delay, rather than its limbs which trip us. Dealing with the heart of the delay could lead us down a more effective and sustainable path than the one we'd forge by simply steamrolling over the delay, or walking around it. I might need to bring in a book doctor to raise the quality of my work, while you might need to have a heart-to-heart with a family member, neutral third party, or both about what it means for you to succeed as a writer.
I humbly suggest the following: When next you find your mind meandering anywhere but to your work, don't beat yourself up. Instead, give a listen to what's guiding you astray. The answer may surprise you—and give you some clues about how to proceed with your project on the clearest path possible. Here are some questions to help you determine what's tripping you up, as well as some responses to each.
1) Do you have in mind an ideal way of doing things, and then get paralyzed when you start to do things in your own natural quirky way?
Here's permission, then. Write out of order.
If ideas for the middle or end of your book come before the beginning, go with it. You can always move things later.
Multitask—use one project to procrastinate from doing another.
If you've done your emotional homework and find that you still procrastinate (and many great writers do), have other projects in the pipeline so that when you find yourself drifting from the one big project, you've got others to work on to fill your time until you can get back to that one. If you're stopped in your tracks because you think you have to work in a certain way, get back to the drawing board! Work on the pieces that compel you when you feel like working on them.
2) Is it possible that you lose the big picture of what you're doing in the daily details?
Connect your deepest desires and visions to each moment of your work.
Distill your longings into a sentence or paragraph such as "I am a published writer who gets great reviews and makes my entire living through my writing," and post this in a visible place. Say it out loud to your mirror each time you begin your work. It might seem hokey, but many writers find that it actually helps to keep the big picture in mind.
3) Do you have a realistic image of the quality of your work?
Find out what if any kind of help you need, then get it.
A society of journalists was asked how many writers were in the room. Nearly all the hands went up. Then the speaker asked how many of the writers considered themselves "good writers." Nearly half the hands went down.
While even the best writers doubt their skill, others suffer from overconfidence. Well, maybe overconfident writers don't experience suffering themselves, but their careers (and perhaps their peers) can suffer for their lack of help getting their writing to a publishable place. If you find yourself putting off work because you don't know if it's any good, find out. Get a professional in the field with obvious credentials to help you make that determination, or do it yourself.
If you find out your work stands up content-wise, you may still need an outside eye to tell you whether your writing is okay on its own, or you need professional assistance to make it publishable. An editor experienced in your type of manuscript will be able to help you polish your prose to a high sheen.
Another option is ghostwriting, or hiring a professional writer to pen some or all of your manuscript. Many of the most famous authors hire ghostwriters to help them get their message across. Sometimes they're credited on the cover with an "and" or "with," but often they're silent partners, hence the term "ghost."
Having marketable ideas is one thing—finding the language to best articulate them is another entirely. Don't kill yourself trying to develop a skill that takes years to hone when you've got other more compelling plans, and when there are plenty of people already prepped for that task. We live in a specialized society expressly for not having to kill ourselves trying to deliver garbage, make contact lenses, paint all the artwork on our walls, and yes, craft and polish all our own prose.
4) Who is in your immediate environment?
Take a look, give a listen. Is what you observe conducive to writing?
On one end of the solitude-contact continuum is the person who works best alone. On the other end is someone who needs a partner to check in and collaborate with at each stage of the process. What are your needs around other people's involvement in your work? For the solitary type, the solution could be finding a "room of one's own," or at least a borrowed space with peace and quiet enough to think and write.
At the other end it could be finding a buddy, coach or collaborator to check in with regularly. In the middle, where lots of people find themselves, are authors who attend local writers groups or participate in online communities. Take the time to notice and get to know your own needs, and to create the space and/or support you need to move forward.
5) Is some healing in order?
At the deepest level of your awareness, what do you feel and believe about yourself and your writing?
On another plane entirely from practical concerns are wounds of the soul that need healing. It's difficult to allow our excellence to shine when we truly believe we're not worthy, or that to succeed would betray some unspoken agreement about staying small.
If everything within you wants to move forward into the world with your writing, and something inside you is holding you back, realize that only you can make the decision to find the therapist, spiritual counselor, coach or practice to move you through that place. Procrastination could be a signal to finally heal an old wound.
6) Is this project the best expression of what you love and want to put out into the world right now?
Ascertain or revisit what made you put your energy behind this project.
Whether it's money, prestige, self-expression, career advancement or something else, ask yourself if your original reasons are congruent with your current needs. If not, give yourself permission to do something else.
7) Are you afraid of the impact you'll make on the world, whether positive or negative?
You should be—if you've never been published before, you're about to lose your anonymity.
Consider using a pen name, at least for the time you're writing. You can always change it back later. I did this for the very first essay I ever published, because at the time, I felt shy about writing about sex, and also wanted to protect those whom I discussed in the essay.
guerilla tip: Most writers will not become all that famous, and the feedback most of us receive is damned scant. So—consider using your real name before going to press. If you go on to build your career around related material, you'll be grateful you did.
8) Do You Need to Reassess your Pace?
Maybe the goals you've set aren't realistic for you.
Procrastination can be an utterly human attempt to create a sustainable work pace. If you expect eight hours of writing a day from yourself six days a week, no wonder your body's rebelling. If your goals more clearly meet your known capabilities, and you're still having difficulty meeting them, ask yourself honestly whether your timetable makes sense for you today.
Your life may have changed since you last set the pace of your writing treadmill. If so, change your expectations to ones you're more likely to achieve—then reward yourself when you do. If you still have trouble, consider structural supports, like a writing buddy, group, or some form of coaching.
9) Do you think your first drafts have to be perfect?
Come on. You're slinging mud on a wall. Or, if you prefer, as one of my clients put it, "I just put one word in front of the other."
You're going to go through so many revisions from the time you put those first few words down to the time you're polished, that you might as well bulk up the page now. There will be plenty of time for trimming later.
10) Do you hate the idea of rewriting yet one more time?
Of course you do. People in other fields get to be finished with their tasks when they stop working, and enjoy the fruits of their labors. But nooooo, not writers! There's always another draft in the wings.
Face it—endless rewriting sucks. You know and I know it needs doing, but isn't there a better way? The bad news is, the only way around is through. The good news is, you can reward yourself for each phase, and I encourage you to do so.
11) When was the last time you saw the sky?
Get outside, for crying out loud. Humans were never meant to spend all day immersed in words.
Some days, your procrastination may be telling you to Get A Life. If so, listen. Enjoy yourself. However talented you are and however important your work, you aren't your writing. At least not entirely. Breaking up your day with physical activities, or anything very different from writing will give you a fresh perspective on your text. Plus, when this project is all over, you'll want to have had a bit of sunshine from time to time, maybe a friendship or two.
Remember, not all bouts of delay are alike. Yours might carry a message. Take the time to listen, heed and respond to that message. Your writing—and your life—will be better for it.
About The Author
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Author Jill Nagle is founder and principal of GetPublished, which provides coaching, consulting, ghostwriting, classes and do-it-yourself products to emerging and published authors. Her most recent book is How to Find An Agent Who Can Sell Your Book for Top Dollar FindTheRightAgent.