Why do I waste my life? You never do that, do you? You have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m sure. I’m writing about procrastination, because I’m blocked. Writer’s block.
I’m poised on the verge of fulfilling my dreams, if only I can spontaneously blurt out another hundred, or maybe two hundred more pages or so, and I’ll be done. But I don’t know what words go on the first of those pages.
I can see diverging paths leading into a beautiful green forest of possible choices. So many ideas fill the forest. Something stops me from stepping onto any of those paths.
It’s like there’s a wall of glass between me and the forest paths. I’m squinting, trying to make out what’s lurking there, deep in the forest that I haven’t set foot in, that as-yet unknown territory. And I stand with my nose smushed up against the glass, my breath fogging the surface. I step back and pace. I run my hands over the glass, seeking an opening. I pound in desperation, but then I think someone might hear me getting wild. That wouldn’t do. I scan the expanse of glass. It goes on forever, in all directions. What to do?
I don’t like that I’m up against the glass. It’s not hygienic. Plus, I feel incompetent, lazy, frustrated, angry, sad. A failure. Any of those just make me want to eat a pizza, followed by a pile of chocolate chip cookies. Maybe I should talk about it at my Weight Watchers’ meeting. But that’s another day.
Another day. Therein lies my solution. Procrastination. I did not say it is a good solution, or even a conscious one. I can step back from my view of the glass, with its smeary fingerprints, and the forest beyond. I eat a snack. I surf Facebook. Google celebrities I never heard of. Take a nap. Play Solitaire. Yes. I was tempted to delete that, before you saw it. I wanted you to think well of me.
Solitaire is as pure a procrastination as I know of, and I hate to own it. I don’t mean for you, of course—Solitaire, for you, is a few moments of gentle self-care, a little tender padding between the hard rails of those arduous demands of your fulfilling life. For me it’s just to go numb. To kill time.
Now, how abhorrent is that phrase? Killing time. I am given 86,400 seconds every day (thanks, Google!) I can spend them, invest them. Or I can kill them. Murder the little buggers. Play Solitaire, for example. Either way will get me to the end of the span of time, which I’ll never get back, for writing or anything else. Then another 86,400 seconds will be shelled out. There will come a day when the seconds allotted to me personally will run out, but that’s not for years yet. Maybe. Could be sooner, I guess.
I’m feeling a little hungry….
Okay, I’m back.
Writer’s block is when I’m moving through the middle of a project, and I stall out and roll to a dead stop. In the moment, I can’t see why I can’t get going again. Frustrated, I am prompted to engage in the separate action of procrastination (killing time.) Which , numbing me, helps me avoid engaging in the meaning of the writer’s block. Because the writer’s block is trying to tell me something, if only I’m listening. I haven’t listened.
“You’re going the wrong way!” It says to me. But I’m too busy admiring my own words, telling myself it’s fine.
The novel I’m writing now is actually a story I tried to tell, starting out twenty years ago. I fell in love with the characters, and the story that emerged spontaneously. My writer’s group then, like my new group now, loved my story. But finding what wasn’t working was tougher. Back then I stalled out, and rather that figuring out the problem with the writing, I set the story aside, and turned my attention elsewhere. I avoided facing down my writing dilemma for twenty years.
Coming back to the project now, I love it still. Writer’s block re-emerges yet again, to focus me on the old problem I never resolved, because maybe it’s the central problem. It’s the life problem, or my particular version of it. Writing this is trying to stay honest for today, engaging instead of avoiding, this time. I’m listening now.
My writer’s block problem was fear. Fear that my character, Katie, will be revealed as her own messy, flawed self, even though we meet her as a child. Fear of the exposure of my own unacceptable faults, which in some ways are represented by my fictional character, whose story is not my autobiography, but who has a lot of me at the heart. I was afraid of readers seeing me, through Katie, as untrustworthy, defective, and human. Because however empathetic I am to anyone else who naturally has human failings, I still carry around old shame for being just a human being after all . Oh, just that again. My same life dilemma keeps on recurring, presenting the same lesson until I’m ready to learn it. Just like everybody else.
Yechhhh. Being human prompts my old shame.
I react by I reverting to old strategies of self-protection. I want to stop trying. Stop risking, avoid exposing myself as less than perfect. My old baggage, lugged from early childhood on. I set myself the impossible task of perfection and then I get embarrassed that I can’t do the impossible.
Whoever taught us we were supposed to be superheroes? When reminded that I’m not a superhero, I withdraw in unacknowledged, unspoken defeat, demoralized and disappointed in myself.
Procrastination gives me an intermission, time-out. I use it unconsciously to delay, to transition to a new, transcendent mask of holiness.
Really? Who am I kidding? Like watching internet videos (a killing-time activity) where some guy falls down on camera, but leaps up in a split-second turning a splat into a swagger, suddenly Joe Cool, to say “What are you staring at?” I’m that guy onscreen. Trying to distract from shame about the “failure” by nonchalant denial, bluster, and pretense.
Like this: https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=cool+after+fail&&view=detail&mid=DB79A0DA6112104C9CF1DB79A0DA6112104C9CF1&&FORM=VDRVRV
I don’t expect to conquer this instantly.
Failure at being without flaw is really no failure at all, because flawless doesn’t exist, for any of us. It’s a myth, a fake-out. We aim at an inappropriate, unreal target of perfection, which is a setup for precisely the blunder we are so shocked has come to pass. “What are you staring at?” Myself. I’m staring at myself in a mirror, when I watch the clumsy guy try to be Joe Cool. The only way Joe Cool exists is as a fake to cover up the inner, frightened, little nerd.
So as long as I still clutch this old belief that I should be faultless, I will endlessly cycle through aiming for the impossible, failing to reach it, getting all humiliated that I am human, and trying to pretend it never happened, and it never mattered at all to me.
But I’m just who I am. A human being of human proportions, and hang-ups. I’m thoughtless and judgmental, and also forgiving and witty and kind, and angry and bitter. And compassionate and loving, and selfish and disorganized, brave and fearful, but hopelessly bad at the perfection I often demand of myself.
Hmm. When I succeed at not being stuck, at writing, at creating, what am I doing differently? Well, it isn’t that I’ve got it all seamlessly worked out ahead of time, in my head. What I have to do is start. With just an idea. And that will suggest another idea, and I follow that, and pretty soon I’m following a path that shows itself to me, one step at a time. And looking back, I notice that I didn’t pay any attention to that glass, which was illusion after all. I ignored whether it was the “right” idea. It’ll never be flawless. Once I started something, whatever I could do, then I developed momentum, and covered some ground, backtracked sometimes, but then saw how to move on. My readers, if I have any, may grumble about what ground I cover, but I’ll be moving. Or at least practicing discipline. Being imperfect, exposing the imperfections, because they’re honest, and real.
Oscar Wilde said, “You must write badly first. Mistakes lead to discovery. Letting yourself be bad is the best way to become good.” Anne Lamott is well known for encouraging writers to create “shitty first drafts.” Not to encourage bad writing, but to scratch and cudgel, wrestle and hoist a draft, any terrible draft, into actual existence. Make it the rough starting place of the eventual honest expression of who I am. Being real.
Maybe this practice isn’t only for writers. Maybe it’s for people who stop themselves from starting anything because they can’t be perfect from the very first step. Maybe we just have to start, and try. And be willing to do badly at it, in order to get good eventually.
I guess I’ll never know where those forest paths lead unless I ignore the smudgy glass, and the need for having the answers before I start. People will think of me as they decide, not what I convince them about who I am. I will set down one boot onto the grit and hear the sound of my step. Be where I am. Breathe. And then the next step.