It’s common to hear writing advice that says you should write every day, no matter what, but I’ve found that procrastination is an essential part of the writing process, and any reasonable timetable for completion of a long work will account for it. I’m in a procrastination period now, but that’s not a bad thing: the impulse to procrastinate is a phenomenon best defeated by embracing it. And procrastination has its uses.

A secret to effective procrastination is to use the time to accomplish mildly unpleasant tasks that you’ve been otherwise avoiding. Video games, for example, don’t work, and will merely prolong the time you spend procrastinating; surfing the Internet doesn’t work, either. Cleaning one’s desk in preparation to write does work (and I spent two evenings last week doing that, even though a desk stacked full of papers has somehow never stopped me from writing before). As a sign of how cluttered my desk was, I should point out that buried beneath a pile of papers I found a whole entire laptop, an old Titanium Powerbook G4 (that I used to write most of the second draft of The Dream of Perpetual Motion. And getting that computer up and running again–it needed a new battery–was another avenue for effective avoidance of writing. Looking through its folders reminded me that it’s the only Mac I have in the house that can run Combat Mission: Barbarossa to Berlin, a game that I’d like to go back to spending time with, but again: video games don’t actually bring a period of procrastination to an end.

The other trick to successful procrastination involves completing tasks that aren’t mentally demanding. Part of the reason words aren’t showing up on paper right now is that I’m in a problem-solving phase of the composition process–prior experience has taught me that the more time I spend thinking about possible problems that could crop up during the writing of a long work, the less time I’ll have to spend with rewrites and edits on the back end. So while I’m emptying drawers full of old papers, and vacuuming the floor, and deciding whether or not to alter the system I have for shelving books (for instance: should Presidential biographies and autobiographies get their own separate shelf, organized chronologically by the time their subjects served?), I’m actually thinking about how to solve narrative problems, composing bits of dialogue in my head, and other things like that. So work’s getting done.

Eventually, when I’ve done enough thinking (or, more accurately, when I admit to myself that I’ve done enough thinking), I’ll put pen to paper again. Which reminds me that I should probably run out to the store today to buy a new ballpoint pen–I have a pile of perfectly functional pens here, but I’m pretty sure I don’t have the right one.

2 Responses to Procrastination

  1. dwkuan says:

    I am happy to hear you say this. The writing everyday model has always seemed a bit draconian and misguided to me, as thinking and wandering around observing and thinking some more, helps work out structure in ways that writing on the page may actually obstruct. It seems a quantity over quality philosophy at best, and also unrealistic for most of us. Lastly, you write with a pen?

    • dexterpalmer says:

      Yes–I use a plain old Parker ballpoint. (Though I use Moleskine notebooks, in a concession to luxury and acid-freeness and such.)

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