Productive Procrastination for Writers

Procrastination is a plague for every writer ... but can you make it work for you? Here, New York Times and international bestselling author Lisa Unger explains.

My closet needs organizing. It really does. My inbox. Everyone knows that “inbox zero” is a thing, a truly aspirational thing. Some of the spices in my pantry have definitely expired. I need to root those out. Right now. My daughter’s not-for-profit sailing center needs a new water bottle filling station. SOMEONE must fundraise for that — because the environment, stupid. It should be me. It will be me!

(10 Habits of Highly Effective Writers)

Yes, of course, all these things are very important. They should be done. They will feel like work. When they are accomplished, if you’re a crazed overachiever like “my friend” about whom I’m writing this essay, then when you have conquered these important tasks, you will receive the much-coveted dopamine hit you get when something is Done or Finished. Congratulations, my friend. You have Accomplished Something. You may have a cookie.

There is just one thing. That novel.

And honestly, this makes no sense. Because my friend is a lifelong writer, a natural. She’s been writing since childhood and there is literally no other place she would rather be than on the page, creating. She loves to lose herself in story and character, to world building, and imagining, and questioning, digging deep into people and what makes them who they are. She LOVES doing this. In fact, it might even be said (or whispered, because she is a woman and she must love nothing more than her caretaking duties!) that she occasionally loves her fictional worlds more than she does the “real" one.

And yet, sometimes, just sometimes, there’s a resistance, a push away from the creative space. Why? As you might guess, I have a few theories.

Productive Procrastination for Writers

Productive Procrastination for Writers

Unpredictable. No shopping.

I don’t fear the blank page; in fact, I live for it. It is endless possibilities, the portal into eternity, the space where every great idea has been born. It's truly magnificent. And there are days where the pages flow, and the magic is there, and it’s perfect. But sometimes the day is not magical. 

Sometimes it’s actual work, craft and time, and sheer tenacity. And those hard hours or days must be faced alone, with little or no reward. The funny thing is that you never know whether it’s going to be a magic day or a work day. Closet organizing, on the other hand, is very predictable. And it almost always leads to shopping—which is an easy dopamine hit.

A little lonely.

I don’t mean this the way it sounds. It’s not like I'm lying around weeping for companionship. It’s just that unlike in, say, home renovation, there’s no one to call to help you out of the mess you’ve made. The words on the page are yours and yours alone. The story comes from somewhere deep inside you. The characters, even though it doesn’t always seem like it, are manifestations of your subconscious, slivers of your own psyche. 

When you’re stuck, or something is not working, or you just can't see your way out of the morass you’ve created—no one can help you, not really. Not your husband or your editor, not your author pals, or even your mom. They can nudge; they can encourage. They might share how they got themselves out of their own messes. They might helpfully remind you about your deadline. But ultimately, it’s all up to you.

Confessions on the 7:45 by Lisa Unger

Confessions on the 7:45 by Lisa Unger

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Sore butt.

Butt in seat. That’s it. Or standing desk or couch or bed or whatever. Your commitment to your novel is months or years. (Don’t say weeks. Don’t tell me you wrote your novel in three weeks because I won’t read it. I won’t. It’s not good — I promise you.) And there’s no way from “Chapter One” to “The End” but through those 100,000 plus words. 

And there’s no way to write those words without a serious commitment of time and the sheer force of your iron will. No matter how much love and passion we have for the craft, the process, it’s still a huge commitment and a long road. Sometimes just putting your butt in the chair is the first, hardest obstacle.

No guarantees.

Pretty much anything else to which you commit so much time, energy, talent, and love has a relatively predictable payoff. If you slog away at building a house, at the end there’s a house you can live in. If you study, work hard, go to class, have a fair amount of intelligence, at the end of your efforts there’s a degree that will hopefully help you find a job. 

But at the end of months or maybe years of effort you may have a book that no one wants. And this never stops being true—even as a published writer. It’s less likely to be true when you’ve honed your craft, established your fan base, have a trusted editor, and a book contract. But it still happens. Even if the book makes it onto the shelves, people may not buy it; there might be bad reviews. 

(10 Ways to Harness Fear and Fuel Your Writing)

Knowing all of this is a kind of weight that writers carry. But no one is going to show up to critique your work on that spice rack. No one’s going to say, good job but—it just doesn’t work. And if they do, so what? At least you know where to find the cumin.

So—why then?

Okay, wow, you’re convinced, right? Your takeaway from this might be that writing is a joyless drudgery that may or may not result in a novel that people may or may not ever read or love. You might think that the road from idea to finished manuscript is lonely, hard, and fraught with peril. And when the pipes burst, you can’t call the plumber. You might wonder why people do it at all? 

Here's why.

Many people who are writing and doing it well, who went to school for it and are making a career out of it, have never been or wanted to be anything else but a writer. That’s certainly true of my procrastinating friend; she has never thought of herself as anything else, never loved anything so much as story, as character, as the page. Because story is life, and when it’s working it’s pure magic. Because when you create, you started with a blank page and ended up with a whole universe that came from your own brain, heart, and imagination. You went somewhere that no one else can go until you open the door for them. If you’re a real writer, you know all this. And you know, no matter what, no one could keep you from writing if they tried. You live for it. And you’ll get back to it … eventually.

So clutter clear your tee shirt drawer if you must. Go to town on that unruly bookshelf. You might even write a brief essay to try to understand why the hell you aren't working on your manuscript. Sometimes the act of doing something else breaks through the narrative wall, or helps you hear your character's voice more clearly, or allows you to see the next scene. And as soon as you do, you’ll be back at the page, loving every minute of it, remembering what brought you there in the first place, what keeps you there.

Until the phone rings.

What? Of course, you can bake brownies for the bake sale! 

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