Procrastination can be a writer's worst enemy. But here, Jenna Blum rethinks her approach to self-distraction and shares seven creative ways writers can productively procrastinate.
By Jenna Blum
Procrastination: as endemic to and dreaded by writers as writers’ block. Before writing this piece, for instance, I did laundry, took out the recycling, refilled the dog’s water dish, and made a cappuccino with perfect foam.
This ain’t my first procrastination rodeo.
Over my three decades’ procrastination, I’ve probably wasted more time lambasting myself for procrastinating than I do procrastinating. With my latest novel, The Lost Family, when I caught myself lamenting the familiar holding pattern of doing anything but writing, I thought: Wait. Since I’ve been doing this my whole authorial life, why not embrace it? Why not accept that for every hour of writing I do, there’s a preceding hour of productive procrastination? Why not schedule it and make it work for me?
Because sometimes it already does.
Here are seven forms of procrastactivities that kept me plugged into the fictional dream even when I wasn’t in The Chair.
Productive Procrastination: 7 Creative Activities to Distract Yourself from Writing While Staying in the Fictional Dream
Henry James said, “When you can’t create, you can work,” and research is legit work. You can do it in person: for my first book I went to Germany three times; for my second, tornado-chasing with a professional storm tour company. You can read. Watch movies. Learn your characters’ languages. Venture online. Many writers express fear of the Internet rabbit hole, that they might, for instance, key in “women’s dresses in 1940s” and emerge three days later with a whole new wardrobe from ModCloth. (No, this isn’t autobiographical, why do you ask?) The infinite capillaries of online research can be seductive. But since you are world-building, it’s a valuable way to spend your writerly time. (Just make sure you know when to stop: research will help you create virtual reality for your reader, but your knowledge will never be perfect.)
When I’m working on a novel, I never disclose what I’m reading, because it’s a reveal: it’s always related to my NIP. With my latest novel, The Lost Family, I read dozens of chef memoirs that taught me about my protagonist’s profession; Fear of Flying and Diary of a Mad Housewife for his conflicted feminist wife; all my favorite novels from I was 14 (hello again, Tiger Eyes) so I could remember, when writing the teen daughter, what being that age felt like. I stay in constant contact with my characters by reading about their worlds and the books they themselves would have read.
William Styron has a great essay called “Walking With Aquinnah,” in which he extols the virtues of a stroll with the dog for freeing the mind. When I was writing my first novel, Those Who Save Us, I used to trot along Boston’s Charles River with my black Lab, Woodrow, first indulging in thumb-sucking writer comfort fantasies, like who would play what character when my NIP was made into a movie, which scene would be shown at Oscars, what I would wear… and, eventually, I’d reach a higher elevation of thought that had me envisioning actual scenes.
4. Do something physical related to your novel.
While I was writing The Lost Family, because my protagonist is a chef/restaurateur, my fiancé said, “Wouldn’t it be great if you had menus for the book?” He probably asked rhetorically, but what a wonderful procrastination opportunity! I read 1965-era cookbooks, invented recipes, tested them on my fiancé and black Lab, and used the successful ones on The Lost Family’s menus—which I created on menu-formatting software and hung on my wall. This process was not without dangers: explosions from hurling ice cubes into the oven to create crispy baguettes; torching cherries flambé atop a chocolate torte—explosions with fruit and liquor. But we survived mostly unscathed, ate well (more walking); and I had excellent knowledge of what it was like to work in my character’s kitchen. Your book might not inspire culinary detonations, but performing some physical task your characters do will ground you in their world.
5. Create and listen your book’s soundtrack.
While walking (No. 3), I listen to my NIP’s soundtrack to stay in the zone. My books’ playlists are songs that remind me of the novel and that my characters would have listened to (more research: looking up Casey Kasum’s Top 40 for various years!). The Lost Family is set in 1965, 1975, and 1985, so I had three different playlists, which I’d listen to based on which character I was writing. This helped keep me within the auditory environment for my novel, and bonus, I got to relive the 80s (George Michael, rad!).
6. Create image boards.
If non-writers (and probably some writers) had seen me doing this, they would have said, “Are you insane?” For each character I wrote, I papered my study with images from that character’s life. With The Lost Family, I spent several delightful days downloading and printing photos from 1965, from the famous New York City blackout to highballs and miniskirted supermodels, and taping them on my walls. (I also included Jon Hamm, since I hope he’ll play the protagonist in the movie version—plus, Jon Hamm.) When I wrote 1975 and 1985–when people’s hair and shoulder pads consumed the room—I swapped out the images. Surrounded by photos of cars, ads, food, people who resembled the characters, I had no trouble visualizing the scenes.
7. State your intent.
I never had accountabilibuddies before, but for The Lost Family, I had two, K and W. Each day before writing, we’d email what we intended to work on; when done, we’d email, “Done.” We could also write how we felt about the day’s task, say, “Nailed it!”, or curse how wretchedly it had gone. It was fascinating to glimpse the clockwork of my writer friends’ novels-in-progress and comforting to know they were laboring simultaneously in the trenches. But what helped most, surprisingly, was the statement of intent. I’d sit at my desk thinking, I don’t feel like writing-writing, so I’ll send K&W the daily to-do, then go bake a bread. What happened was, I discovered I knew more than I’d thought about the formerly nebulous-feeling scene. Once I had that map of the day’s work, I’d write it.
I hope these procrastactivities are helpful—and that you find more ways that work for you. Make a list of activities that keep YOU tethered to your creative world and put it where you can see it every day—like right in the center of your image board. And let’s begin.
Jenna Blum is the New York Times and # 1 international bestselling author of novels Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers and the novella “The Lucky One” in Grand Central. Jenna has taught novel workshops for 20 years at Grub Street Writers in Boston, where she earned her M.A. at Boston University. In addition to interviewing Holocaust survivors for the Shoah Foundation, Jenna is a public speaker and avid cook: she creates and tests all the recipes in her novels. Please visit Jenna on her website, www.jennablum.com, and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (@Jenna_Blum).
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