Anne Tyler might just have a point. Take this post, for instance: I’ve been thinking about writing about procrastination for a while. And what’s the best way to do this? Well, to procrastinate, of course. (I find it’s often helpful to write about things that I’ve experienced first-hand.) Granted, I did have other topics to cover first, which I did. Then I even sat down and wrote a few paragraphs. Which I let sit for five days. Then I came back and erased them all.
Sometimes I don’t write because I have other things to do. I am a very structured person, and as such, I cannot allow myself to write a blog post or edit my novel or read for pleasure when I need to pack my son’s lunch or send an important e-mail or wash a load of laundry. But sometimes I don’t write because… well, maybe I’m just wasting time on Facebook. Granted, I don’t do that too often – and I even got rid of all the games on my phone to eliminate those distractions – but there are still plenty of times when I should be writing, but I do things that could easily wait until later instead.
If such a self-disciplined person as me has a hard time staying on task, what hope is there for writers who aren’t nearly as structured to ever start the writing process?
I have a two-part answer, and the first part is that I think it’s a me thing, separate from being self-disciplined.
This isn’t something that’s just happened to me since having kids. It’s something that’s gone on as long as I’ve written. I remember spending afternoons at my parents’ business, pacing through the same four rooms, building scenes in my mind, sometimes even muttering the lines. I would hash over those same scenes ad infinitum. I still do this, although nowadays, I’m not a teenager with a bunch of free time but a mom who squeezes all of her creative thinking into stolen moments in the shower or car or while folding laundry.
The second part of my answer is that thinking is a part of the writing process – or any creative process. Now, the problem is that if you don’t ever move beyond thinking – to the actual doing part – you are not a writer or a painter or an inventor (or whatever) but merely someone who aspires to be one of those things.
Thank you for making my point, Mr. Pullman. And my problem is that I don’t always take my ideas to my “desk.”
Sometimes I’ll think over a scene so much that I just assume I’ve written it. And then, as often happens, I’ll move onto something else. Months or even years later, I may look for that scene, only to discover that it was only ever in my head. Other times, I do sit down to write, but the words that were perfected in my mind have all but evaporated. Or they just don’t ring true anymore. Something has changed between the initial thinking and the writing.
Well said, Ms. L’Engle – and the same thing can apply to blogs. But I don’t think it’s a totally bad thing. I think internalizing a scene or some dialogue or just an idea is all a part of the writing process. As long as I do eventually sit down and write (like I’m doing right now), it adds up to the creative whole.
Earlier this week, I discovered an incongruity in my novel. A scene hinged on my protagonist having an opinion based on a conversation she overheard. Unfortunately, I realized this conversation happened when she was three or four and would have been way over her head at the time (if she’d even been paying attention). I had to re-work the scene, keeping the content but changing how it happened. I couldn’t move on until I’d fixed the scene, and I had to think it through first. For several days.
I’ll admit, I was a little intimidated by it. When you realize that you’ve created a problem that you have to write your way out of, sometimes the easy way out is just to give up – set the manuscript aside. And I’ve done that before, but I can’t with this one because I’m shopping literary agents. I had to tackle that scene, and after letting it simmer and then reading a few scenes around it, I figured out a solution.
Yet again, I feel like Madeleine L’Engle is talking to me. I am that woman with children and another job – a woman who wants to write, who needs to. After all, I can only procrastinate so long before the creative dam breaks. I have legitimate distractions, but I also have stories to tell. So I will continue to fight myself but understand that sometimes it’s okay to just think – as long as I do carve out that time to take my ideas to my desk-slash-laptop.
Speaking of which, I think it’s about time to wrap this up so I can get back to it.