Sunday, October 20, 2013

Procrastination and Perspective

After three weeks on the road—my wife and I went on a driving excursion through thirteen states, from Florida to Michigan and back—I sat down at my desk after breakfast last Monday morning to begin writing again.

But instead of diving into projects that I’d left behind almost a month ago, I turned on my computer and spent the time checking Facebook and Twitter, then scrolled through email accounts, and finally—after a few hours of getting settled in—managed to screw up the courage to open up the file of one of my older projects and begin reading what I’d written weeks ago.

It’s funny, really, how this habit of delaying work resembles the way that I get into the water. With the greatest resistance I step into the pool, taking each step very slowly, carefully dipping one toe into the water, then quickly withdrawing the toe before submerging it to test the water’s temperature again. I need to get used to the chill of the water, an inch at a time, before stepping in further.

What happened this past week was very much a reflection of my preference for going slow. Instead of diving into the writing projects right away, I spent a good bit of time measuring coffee into the filter and pouring water into the pot and selecting just the “right” coffee mug. Only then did I sit down with my coffee to turn on my computer and open a file.

But, as I say, I go into the water v-e-r-y slowly. So, before the Word document could even open, I switched to a different screen to check email, then switched again to review the latest status updates on Facebook and the most recent tweets on Twitter.

It took an hour, maybe more, to immerse myself in the water before I felt ready to look at the revisions waiting in the file that I’d opened earlier.

Clearly, I am not someone who plunges into the water but, rather, inches his way into words and the rhythm of sentences and paragraphs.

But here’s what I discovered on our three-week road trip: delays and distractions are part of the journey. Often, we’d set a goal for ourselves for the day, only to discover that an unexpected sign might delay or sidetrack us.

As we were leaving Oxford, MS, where we spent an afternoon visiting William Faulkner’s home, for instance, we headed east through Tupelo, MS. When we saw a sign for the birthplace of Elvis Presley, we decided to detour off our route to follow the arrow and discovered a place that we hadn’t expected to find.

Sometimes taking such a detour may seem like an act of procrastination, an unnecessary delay in the journey. But such a delay can often open your eyes to a new route or even a new way of conceiving the journey itself.

Likewise, sometimes the time that you spend away from your project may hold the key to a problem, a kernel of something that you might not have seen before or expected. It’s almost as if the delay, the act of procrastination, gives your eyes (and brain) a chance to relax so that you can see more clearly where your work is going.

And when you return to work, you may be able to see things differently in your story—where the plot falters, where a character might need more motivation, where a paragraph appears superfluous—and make the changes that you weren’t able to see before you took a break.

Distance from your work—whether it’s in the form of a driving expedition through thirteen states or a thirteen minute “procrastination” break—can help you see your work in a new, clearer light.

For more information on gaining perspective on your writing, visit:


Pat McDermott said...

Good observations, Bruce. I prefer "percolating" to "procrastinating." By any name, a break from writing gives the muddied waters of a story-in-process a chance to clear. And your travels and their accompanying detours will surely inspire you. Best to you and your writing.

Bruce Black said...

Thanks, Pat, for suggesting "percolating" as an alternative to "procrastinating." It's a fine line, I think, deciding when a break from writing is useful rather than simply an excuse for laziness or for giving in to fear. Either way, though, detours, as you say, can be inspiring!

Dianne Ochiltree said...

Hi Bruce,

A lot of us seem to dip our toes into the water, then sink in slowly. It's not procrastination perhaps...maybe it's just process.
Maybe our unconscious minds need to work on ideas without our input before we dive into the actual writing itself. So we can have our detours and sightseeing tours occupy our conscious mind without guilt, knowing our inner voice is busy at work all the while.


Bruce Black said...

Thanks, Dianne, for making the distinction between procrastination (which has a tinge of guilt) and process (which is non-judgmental). The distinction is key, I think, in allowing one's inner voice the time it needs to get into the water.