In Praise of Procrastination

In a recent article for The American Scholar magazine, the very fine novelist David Guterson recalled his first college creative writing class.  His teacher, Jack Brenner, gave the class a piece of advice that has stuck with Guterson during his distinguished career: JUST PLUNGE IN.  Don’t worry about whether you’re prepared for whatever writing project is on your front burner.  Don’t be afraid of writing badly, of failure.  Just plunge in.

I agree, and share that advice often with people who tell me they have a great idea for a book, a story, a movie, whatever.  Apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair and do the work.  Talkers talk, writers write.  My own college writing teacher had a similar piece of advice.  His term was, “Just blast it.”  Put something down, no matter how much you cringe when you read what you’ve written, and then go back and make it better.

However, there is also something to be said for procrastination, which flies in the face of what we’ve been told from infancy about getting along in life.  “Don’t put off ‘til tomorrow what you can do today,” our parents admonished.  In school, in work, in life, we face deadlines.  Sporting events have rigid time constraints.  The shot clock is ticking.  Golfers are penalized for slow play.  Pit stops are timed down to the last chaotic millisecond.  We are all in a race, and those who slow down are doomed.

But wait.  How about the story of the tortoise and the hare?  Who won that one?  The slow and steady guy, who just kept plodding along at his own sweet pace, smelling the roses and enjoying the scenery.  I like to think he paused periodically to just contemplate the journey.  He not only finished first, he no doubt lived a lot longer than the hare and enjoyed it more.

For me, writing is like that.  I work at the business, putting in my daily time, aiming for a reasonable output of words.  I admire those folks who can spend eight hours a day at their writing, but I’m not one of them.  When I’ve met my daily goal, I need to get up and go do something else, something unconnected with the work.  But if I’ve got a good yarn going, the characters and their story are always with me.  When I’m away from the actual writing, the story is marinating.  And often, at odd moments, something from the story speaks to me in a serendipitous way, something I can use the next time I sit down at the computer.  I call it creative procrastination.

Maybe the best piece of advice came from Fred Rodgers.  When our daughter Lee was small, she watched Mister Rodgers’ TV show every day.  One day when we were getting ready to go somewhere, we told Lee to hurry up.  She put her hands on her hips and said, “Mister Rodgers told me to take my time.”  I try to remember that.

We probably all need to rush less and marinate more.  No telling what we might discover along the way that we would have otherwise missed.  Like the tortoise.

The Seat Of The Pants

A nice visit today with Nicole Allshouse, host of “Talk of Alabama” on ABC 33/40 television in Birmingham.  She was kind enough to invite me on her show to talk about my new novel, The Governor’s Lady, and my signing at Alabama Booksmith.

Nicole was telling me that she is working on a book, but she finds it mighty difficult to find quality work time to make progress on her manuscript.  I could commiserate, because it’s a problem that afflicts every writer.  Unless we’re blessed with a patron saint who pays the bills and takes care of the mundane details of life, we are busy, distracted people.  Jobs and families take priority, there’s always more to do than there’s time to do it, and the days roll by without getting many words on paper.  Too often, we’re tempted to just put the project aside, vowing to get back to it in retirement.

I shared with Nicole the advice I got from the late Barry Hannah, who was my fiction teacher in graduate school.  “The way you write,” Barry said, “is to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”  Easy to say, hard to do.  But Barry was right, and I’ve found in my own experience that when I follow his advice, I get my work done.  What I told Nicole is that you have to carve out a time in the day – an hour, more if you can afford it -- that’s just yours, and warn the rest of the world to stay away.

The formula here is time + momentum.  And one is directly related to the other.  When I get a piece of writing going – characters in place, a dilemma for them to chew on – it’s important for me to visit them every day I possibly can.  The story builds up momentum, sort of like a football team scoring just before halftime, and at some point it reaches a critical mass.  After that, it has a life of its own, and it begins to tell itself.  The key thing then is to keep the momentum going.  And that takes the commitment of time.

Momentum is time’s best friend.  When a story has gotten up a head of steam, you’re eager to get to the work each day, and you don’t waste time getting up to speed.  That hour a day becomes a quality hour.  Good things happen.  Pages build up.  The locomotive is barreling down the track, and the writer’s holding on for dear life.  I know.  It happens to me over and over.

Writing is not easy.  Even when I have everything going for me, the words never go down right the first time.  I read and cringe and then rewrite.  If I expected the first effort to be perfect, I’d be easily discouraged and probably quit.  So it takes some stubborn persistence, too.

There are plenty of folks with the ability to write and a good story to tell – fiction, nonfiction, poetry, memoir, whatever.  Only a few actually do, and those are the ones who are willing to be fierce about some time of their own.