I have recently been procrastinating on my own work – putting it off, putting it aside, putting it last – and it hasn’t felt good. I have been feeling guilty about not writing, embarrassed about the proclamations I made about finishing and jealous of other writers’ successes, and so I did the thing that I often advise my clients to do: I gave myself permission to quit.
I always say that if you have the choice to stop writing, you should stop. If you can walk away, you absolutely should. It probably means that the project wasn’t right or the timing wasn’t right or maybe you are called to do something else that is more important with your time and your energy and your money.
But if you can’t walk away, if the story is haunting you like a ghost in the attic, and you realize that you have no choice other than to write it, then you have to find a way to break through the procrastination, which means you have to look at it – hard – for what it really is.
I have found that procrastination can be broken into two main components:
1. Perfectionism. Perfectionism is, of course, not just one thing, but many things, including the following:
· The mistaken notion that there is one right way to present a story or an argument. There is not. This is not math. This is art. It demands that the artist have a vision, not that they reach some pre-defined point that is the correct place to arrive.
· The mistaken belief that the only way to be good enough is to be perfect. That anything less than perfect is a failure. This belief may come from childhood or the culture at large or from your work life, but it doesn’t fit the act of writing. There IS no perfect in writing. The goal here is to connect with readers. Connecting with just one reader in a real and authentic way can indeed be “good enough.” Connecting with 1,000 readers that way can be the fulfillment of a lifetime dream.
· Straight up fear of showing your work to the world. If you have to be perfect, you never have to finish. It’s a handy way of not having to actually DO it, which means not having to be judged. Showing your work to the world involves being judged. It’s a terrifying thing, and it never gets easier. Perfectionism is a clever defense.
2. Fear. Terror lurks underneath procrastination, just out of view, and it, too, comes in many guises:
· Fear of the work itself – it makes you feel vulnerable and raw and it’s hard to be IN it long enough to do the work that needs to be done.
· Fear of not writing something as glorious as the thing in your head. Have you seen what Ira Glass says about this in his series on creativity? It’s been around awhile, gets pulled out a lot when talking about these topics because it’s so insightful. I think I recently quoted it on this blog but it’s worth quoting again:
“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
· Fear of succeeding. If you do well, people will listen to you. They will challenge you. They will see you. As much as writers crave this recognition, they also fear it. Procrastination means you never have to worry about success.
· Fear of finishing. Many writers feel bereft when they get to “the end.” Their story has been their daily companion and now they have to find a way to live without it.
My procrastination is a mash-up of all the things on this list – nothing too surprising, nothing that everyone else doesn’t face. I named my fears and talked it out with some trusted advisors. I set up a new accountability and support system to help me stay on track, identified a potent motivation to spur me in times of doubt, and I am now back in the saddle, so to speak.
Moving past procrastination is as easy and as profound as that.